The 16th century was the golden age of hand-crafted lacework. There is extensive, magnificent evidence of this in the numerous period paintings depicting exquisite, elegant lace decorating the garments of aristocrats.
One of the first examples of the custom of embellishing clothes with trimming and lace can be seen in a detail from a painting by Vittore Carpaccio (1465 ca. – 1525-1526), The return of the ambassadors to the Court of England: in the middle of the canvas is a kneeling man, whose socks are embroidered with pearls and adorned with gold trimming.
Several decades later, several works of extraordinary artistic and historical value were painted by the illustrious Dutch portraitist Antoon van Dyck (1599 - 1641), whose astonishing skill replicated on canvas the needle and bobbin lacework that by then had replaced the simpler techniques of filet crochet and embroidery.
The portrait of the Marquise Paolina Adorno Brignole Sale, which the Flemish master painted between 1622 and 1627, is remarkable for the elegant golden weave, very similar to lacework, which adorned the Marquise’s sumptuous dress and contrasted with its light colour. The weave, arranged in thirteen rows, elegantly set off the lower border of the dress, highlighting its sophistication in a way no jewel could have surpassed.
The Netherlands have given us another example of technical perfection in depicting the details adorning figures and their clothing: The Lacemaker by Jan Vermeer (1632 – 1675). In that painting, which has become an emblem of feminine virtue, the ultimate impact of the work lies in the contrast between light and shade: the white lace collar is extraordinarily luminous, and is set off against the girl’s simple yellow satin dress in an incomparably beautiful contrast.
With the advent of late Baroque, women’s clothes in particular were generously decorated with lacework and broderie. The work of Pietro Longhi (1701 – 1785), among others, is testament to this. In his painting The Venetian lady’s morning, elegant lacework adorns the woman’s neckline and cuffs as she holds up a mirror.
Lacework remained highly popular throughout the 18th century.
This is evidenced once again in the skilful depiction of the family of Philip of Bourbon painted by Giuseppe Baldrighi (1722 – 1803): in addition to the sophisticated embroidered veil draped around the vest of young Marie Louise, the daughter of the Duke and future Queen of Spain, note the depiction of the Duchess as she sits next to her husband, tatting lace, an ancient type of lacework that was particularly popular during the Victorian age.
Even when aristocrats chose to be depicted with a soldierly countenance, they still gave in to their affectation of using lace embellishments and necklines. One such example is the portrait of Charles Emmanuel III painted by Maria Giovanna Battista Clementi (1692 – 1761): the prince, who was evidently ready for battle, is nevertheless depicted with a sophisticated lace collar and candid lace cuffs.
In the second half of the 18th century, lacework was exalted in the beautiful painting by Joshua Reynolds (1723 – 1792), The Ladies Waldegrave, in which English royal opulence and delicate French elegance come together to create a rarefied atmosphere where the rapt gazes of the three ladies at work are a veritable hymn to the art of lace.
Art from the 19th century is rife with references to lacework. The portrait of Countess Maria Visconti Ciceri, painted by Giuseppe Sogni (1795 – 1874), depicts the romantic, feminine affectation to hold between one’s fingers ethereal lace handkerchiefs “ready to collect the tears shed so suavely”. In this painting, the handkerchief’s graceful borders are reflected in the dainty, equally romantic stitching on the neckline.
In Ritratto della gentildonna napoletana by Giovanni Girosi (1818 – 1891), the softly transparent lace borders to the neckline and sleeves of the dress helps play down the austerity of the dress. Towards the end of the century, formal evening wear was also adorned with reams of frilly lace. An excellent example of this is the painting Ritratto della nobile Giulia Lucini by Mosè Bianchi (1840 – 1904), where the natural elegance of the lace volant helps enhance the noblewoman’s natural grace, which speaks of aristocracy and worldliness.
During the 20th century, artists such as Leonardo Spreafico, Giuseppe Capogrossi, Romualdo Scarpa, and Serena Del Maschio, thanks in part to national competitions and biennial exhibitions, created models that were then masterfully interpreted and crafted by lace artisans combining originality and traditional techniques.