The Muff in Sixteenth Century Dress.

From Fleas to Fancy


Jewelled Marten's head 1550, possibly Venice,  Enamelled gold, ruby, garnets and pearls.  Walters Art Gallery Baltimore. Unadorned Marten head. C16  London Museum and Gallery

Marten Head, Carved Rock Crystal, Thyssen Collection Zuric.  Undeated

Frances Sidney, Countess of Sussex 1570 - 75 Oil on Panel, artist unknown.  Wearing a fur lined loose gown and holding a Flea Fur with an ornamental head simular to the one seen above. Detail showing the ornate head on the fur.


Flea furs, as they became known in the nineteenth century, had their beginnings in the sixteenth century, known as Zibellini, and were the predecessors of the muff.  The sisters d'Este, Isabella and Beatrice, are attributed with this fashion statement that continued throughout the sixteenth century.  This fashion began in the north of Italy in the beginning of the sixteenth century, and spread from there through Europe and England.  England seemed to be a little slow in taking up this fashion as it was not until 1584 that Elizabeth I came in possession of one as a New year's gift from the Earl of Leicester.

Zibellini was the entire pelt of an animal, usually marten or sable, but also ermine and lynx were used, and was carried in the hand, over the shoulder or around the neck, and was suspended from a gold chain attached to a girdle.  The head and feet of which were often bejewelled replacements for the animals original body parts.  There are accounts of clocks being set into the heads.  Gold and silver were the norm for the head and feet of the Zibellini, but crystal and jet were also used.  Zibellini were further embellished with diamonds, rubies, pearls and enamel work.

Zibellini were used as status symbols, and as symbols of fecundity.  Zibellini fetched an astounding price.  As previously mentioned they could be heavily embellished.  Martin and sable Zibellini were connected to fecundity and were popular wedding gifts, and featured in dowries.  Lynx Zibellini were associated with chastity.  Artist of the time used the symbolism of the Zibellini in their work for patrons to convey messages.

The term flea fur is some what of an anachronism as no self respecting flea would reside on a dead skin as they need a living host to feed off.  

Portrait of a Young Woman, Beccaruzzi, Accademia Carrar, Bergamo, Signed but undated  Accademia Carrara museo, oil on canvas 97.8 x 76.2 cm

Camilla Gonzaga with Her Three Sons Parmigianino: Museo del Prado Madrid, Spain. oil on canvas 128 x 97 cm 

Portrait Of A Lady, Moretto da Brescia: Circa 1535, present whereabouts unknown

Countess Livia da Porto Thiene with Her Daughter, Paolo Veronese 1551, Baltimore, The Walters Art Museum


This lavish beginnings was the predecessor of the muff.  They are however to the best of my knowledge a late sixteenth century accessory.  Like the Zibellini it was generally seen attached to the waist by a chain attached to a girdle.  There are no know extant muffs from this time, so it is to portraiture and manuscripts we must look for evidence.

The muff as we know it today with the fur on the outside would seem initially to not be part of the sixteenth century wardrobe.  There are however, written documentation of this style of muff in the accounts of the wardrobe of Elanore de Toledo.  Visual evidence I have witnessed thus far supports that the majority of muffs being of the fur on the inside with a brocade outer or cover.  Still with an opening at either end so that the hands could be warmed inside.

Visual evidence points to the muff being made as a flat piece that is then rolled and fastened with buttons or possibly hooks.

Lady Dressed in the French Fashion Album Amicorum of a German Soldier 1595 Los Angels county museum of art Elderly Venetian Lady Cesare Vecellio's Costume Plates 1595
1588 Woman with a muff dressed in the English fashion.   Winter costume of Venetian noblewomen and wealthy ladies Cesare Vecellio's Costume Plates 1595
French Lady Dressed in Mourning Album Amicorum of a German Soldier 1595 Los Angels County Museum of Art

Both images show a fur carried over the arm that is not a flea fur.  This could be an open muff.

No narrative given but appears to be very simular to the image on the left, dated 1588 . 

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All intellectual content, composition, layout, designs and photographs copyright 2007 to Deborah Lane , 2003 to Deborah Murray or Mistress Oonagh O'Neill . All Original renaissance art works and artefacts are not copyright to Deborah Lane, and are shown for educational use only.  If you see something you'd really like to use, please contact me!


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