Io parlo Italiano Yo hablo Espanol Je parle Francais Ich spreche ein bischen Deustch!
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The balzo is a rotund feminine headpiece that originated in Italy during the early 1400's. It was worn during the first half of the century in conjunction with the giornea and cioppa: women's overdresses that resembled a houppelande at this time, usually pictured with dagged sleeves and a train. The forehead was plucked at the time (as was done France and northern Europe), and when worn with the balzo provided an elongated, but rounded profile of the head. This is comparable to the hennin effect that was to develop in gothic Europe, but was not as severe. Good examples of the original balzo can be seen in Pisanello's costume studies and in Paradiso by Giovanni di Paolo.Later on in the century, around 1470, the balzo seems to have fallen into disuse, and the favored method of headdress is the reta (hairnet) or trinzale (small cap), or dressing the hair via pearls and braiding. This coincides with the more streamlined, though ornate, garments that are worn by women at this time. The gamurra, cioppa, and giornea are less flowing, and lack the voluminous sleeves and train that mark the earlier dress style. The focus is on ornament, rather than oversize, and the detail of this period can be seen well in the paintings of Ghirlandaio, specifically the depiction of Giovanna Tornabouni.But after the turn of the sixteenth century (approximately 1510), styles change once again, and the body profile becomes much more dramatic. The ideal woman is rounder and larger, as is the dress itself. The dress becomes much more rounded and layers are not evident, although probably there. The bodice is higher, the neckline low, with the chemise filling in the gap. Sleeves are huge, and frequently puffy. To counterbalance all this mass, the balzo makes a fashionable comeback, but is rounder and worn more towards the front of the head.It is interesting how one's first perception changes after research is done.My first encounter with the balzo in this period was the portrait of a woman by Parmigianino.  Boucher attaches the description "Turkish Slave Girl", and it seemed to make sense at the time: after all, isn't that some sort of turban on her head? And she did have a striped partlet, which seems vaguely oriental. The next time I saw the balzo it was in Zeffirelli's Taming of the Shrew. Elizabeth Taylor wears a gold wire example very similar to Parmigianino's portrait. We costume critics watching the movie recoiled in horror, and said, "what on earth is that? Now I know it is a balzo and apologize for assuming it to be artistic license!
Although the shape is generally the same, there seem to have been two or three terms used in period, which depended on materials used for construction, or may have been simply regional language differences. Here are my definitions gleaned from the sources I found:
- Balzo is a term found in both 15th and 16th century sources and can be applied somewhat generically to the shape current at the time. In it’s original 15th century form it is large and bulbous, not symmetrical, and back heavy. Height is an important feature as it competes in the fashion world with the hennin (or sella – “saddle” in contemporary Italy). In both centuries it is decorated extensively, ornamented with jewels or enameled pieces, and can also be me of wire (in the 16th century).
- Ghirlanda (garland) takes it name in both periods (15 and 16th century) from its original nature – a garland of flower or natural material simply worn on the head. This type of headpiece seems to be typically gothic, and good early examples can be seen in the Tres Riches Heures of the Duke of Berry. A ghirlanda can be a simple lightweight ornament (as in Botticelli’s Primavera), or enormous and elaborate offerings made of peacock feathers. The ghirlanda seems to mimic nature, and in the 1400s were also flatter than the balzo. Although the term ghirlanda can be found in both centuries, I am not aware of it being used in the 16th century to denote this type of structured headpiece. I assume the term reverted to its more natural and original form.
- Capigliara is mentioned in 16th century texts and seems to be of the ruffled, lacy or fluffy type with an outer covering of silk, and the balzo is a more general term for a headpiece of this nature, or one which has a smooth, though ornamented, covering. Again, I have made this distinction for my own convenience, based upon my own research: others should not take it as fact. Therefore I deem the headpiece that I have created for this project to be a capigliara, modeled after Bernardo Luini's Portrait of a Lady. Capigliare also seem to have been made of false hair and perhaps curled floss or wool.They have certainly given their creators a vent for imaginative efforts, and the balzi can be quite modest in size or absolutely enormous.
"On her head, and Italian woman might wear a ghirlanda (grillanda) or a balzo, both of which appear early in the century... A balzo is a bulbous headdress, consisting of a wire or possibly willow understructure, which was then covered by textile. Both ghirlanda and balzo were often covered with gems, usually pearls, and with velvet or often some more lavishly figured textile.  … Amadeo of Savoy also forbade women to wear tall hairstyles in horns, or rounded into some deformative shape.… As the whole shape of the both male and female costume added more width to its height, so the padded roll of the ghirlanda grew into the bulbous balzo. One of crimson, covered in pearls, was given by Francesco de’ Medici in 1432 to his betrothed, Costanza, and is probably one of the earliest references to this fashion. However, there are more documentary references to ghirlande than to balzi: although an earlier form of headdress, the garland did not go out of fashion."
"A large headdress, rising up in a rounded form from the forehead, completely hiding the female wearer’s hair (the hairline having been plucked back to create an artificially high forehead). The shape of the headdress is founded on an understructure, probably of willow, which is covered by a rich textile and alternatively by false hair of white or yellow silk, or by real hair (capelli morti) (“dead” hair). The balzo then may be decorated further with ribbon or braid. The fashion for balzi is peculiar to Italy, and to the first half of the Quattrocento"
"The delicate stance of the figure of Herodiade, almost completely in profile, dressed according to the purest style (taste) of the first half of the 1400s, permits one to better observe the balzo form that, being rounded, enlarges almost to the point of a reversed cone. The manner of wearing it to the back, leaving completely uncovered the artificially higher and plucked forehead, corresponds to the neckline that sinks below the nape."
"The balzo, the typically Italian hairstyle, with it’s round mass often adorned, like in this example, by jeweled stripes, underlines the bizarre and fantastic character of the gothic style of dress. The beautiful ling trained cotta, with sleeves of the same color as the balzo, harmonizes with the headdress."
"The ghirlanda in the 1400s have assumed a rotund shape that approaches the balzo, although they distinguish themselves because they are flatter. Under this name come, in fact, massive headdresses decorated with flowers and leaves of enameled gold, or also of peacock feathers, interspersed with precious ornaments. The elegant headdress harmonizes with the sumptuousness of the velvet giornea, pavonazzo(peacock style – dagged?), elegantly slit and trimmed with ermine. The other older woman figure has her face framed with a simple veil turned into the style of a hood and tones down the sumptuousness of the blue silk cioppa with pink roses and black mantel."
"The balzo is another gorgeous headdress, but typically Italian, elevated, of a rounded form, and made of precious fabrics wrapped in the style of a turban. In the 1500s Veccelio speaks of it like and ancient (old) fashion: in Italy the women “wear on their heads balzos of varied colors, and worked of cloth of gold and of silk with rose petals and other works.” In (his) engravings we often see clearly drawn this headdress, but the fantastic majesty of the balzo, that by contrast gives a wondrous grace to the face, resulting particularly in the frescoes of the Palazzo Borromeo and of the Casino di Caccia (Hunting Lodge?) of Oreno, as in the vivid painting of the wedding chests (cassoni). The ghirlanda of peacock feathers assume the same rounded and massive form, Matteo Parentis, as we know from the scrupulous notes of his housebook, bought “500 choice peacock feathers, 300 assorted peacock feathers”, besides eleven roses of peacock feathers and enameled flower, golden leaves and pearls for his wife’s (wedding gift), Caterina, daughter of Allessandra Macinghi Strozzi. One clearly imagines this headdress that appears in the note picture (tr.??) of the Adimari wedding: the beauty of the ghirlanda comes out more than of the line (?), although heavy for our taste, from the lustrous green and blue of the feathers, “all eyes and gems”, as says a Latin poet, in contrast to the delicate feminine complexion. Also common are the ghirlanda or crowns of natural flower. The Botticelli figures are often crowned with light garlands, their foreheads characterized by a soft melancholy."
"Of a totally different nature, heavy and pompous, is the capigliara that appears in the portrait by Tiziano in Vienna. Rotund, enormous, this headpiece stands between the wig and the hairdo. Eleanora Rusca, Countess of Coreggio, having seen it "worn by gentlewomen" defines it as "a new longhaired fashion of silk that comes as a notable invention" by the Marquessa (Isabella d'Este), and asks her for one as a gift "that may not be in use...in order to measure/trace it accurately". Evidently Isabella conceded the privilege of wearing the capigliara only to certain preferred ladies.To our eyes this headdress seems a simple refacing of the 15th century balzo, with which in fact the Molmenti (?) confused it. But in comparison to the balzo it is most exaggerated, bundled with ornaments, more crushed and worn further back; in a manner in which the bands of hair in the front remain uncovered; and came quickly into fashion. Of the rest even the balzo, that Vecellio recorded as a fashion totally of the 1300-1400's, had not gone completely into disuse by the beginning of the century. In fact, in 1530 Battista Stabellino, one of the informants of Isabella, giving her the news of a ball held at the court of Ferrara, describes the Queen of Naples daughters "dressed in our fashion with balzo and scoffiato (?).The singular headdress, was therefore of properly Italian character.In a return to the past another headdress also appears, vaguely resembling the hennin for its height, which according to Vecellio was in vogue around 1530: "about 60 years ago the Venetians began to reuse cages of branches, covered with caps made of gold nets, decorated with varij (jewels?), and rich ornaments", and a 'lovely black veil/cloth, of transparent silk, that covers them in front'."
This project began with me trying wall wreaths on my head in the craft shop. It must have looked pretty strange to other customers, but it paid off in the end. This was the first piece of garb or accessory that I had to cook in the creation process, but I believe the method, structure and appearance to be period. Having now made several balzi and taught a few classes in it, this is an updated set of instructions. Do not be deterred by the amount of instructions here – the process is very easy but I wanted to be as explicit as possible. Making the frame can be done in an hour or less.
First, decide on the century and shape of the balzo to be created. You will need to gauge the overall size of the piece you want to create in relation to your own head. Balance and proportion are important, as I found from creating a too-large version. If you are imitating a picture, then measure the face in the picture and measure your own (forehead to chin). Remember that 15th century foreheads were plucked and therefore higher. Create a scale to use to estimate the size of the balzo : for example: the face in my Pisanello picture was 2 cm tall. My face is approximately 10” tall. Therefore, the scale I used to measure the pictured balzo was 1 cm = 2 inches. The 15th century balzo measured approximately the same as the exposed face, so my frame was about 10” tall, or 23” inches over the top. (See measurements below). The height and shape of the 15th century balzo are the most important issues. Width seems to fall into place naturally. Likewise, in the 16th century flatter version, the width is the most important, as the height seems to follow naturally. My 16th century frame measured 20” over the top – I would not go much larger than that, if at all.
Weight is extremely important! Having created a small 15th century monstrosity the first time that weighed in at a hefty 20 oz., I know from experience. The 15th century style in particular will be very uncomfortable at a heavy weight, as it will give you a headache and be hard to keep on. The 16th century model I made is only 4 oz., and feels great. Make sure your frame style is correct and do NOT add padding to change the shape. Instead, correct the frame.
You should definitely consider how you will wear your hair underneath the balzo. In the 15th century, foreheads were artificially high and plucked, but all hair is smoothed back and not visible under the balzo. In the 16th century the hair was parted in the middle, and slicked down, frequently covering the ears. There might be a couple of curls plastered to each side of the forehead. For the 15th century, I would recommend hairtaping a braid around your head with a ribbon, as this provides an ideal base for a balzo, particularly one that is a bit large. I have also worn my hair this way with the 16th century model, but also in a high bun at the back. Either way, it is important to do your hair in a period fashion, at least the hair that shows, so your finished look is not odd! No curls or long hair dangling down, please! (A good website on this can be seen at http://www.mfgraffix.com/hird/faoilt/hairtape.html, the website of my good friend and costuming colleague, Lady Faoiltighearna MacQuarrie (mka Margo Farnsworth)).
Facilities: Just to mention that you will need a kitchen or area where you can boil water in a big pot in order to keep the reed steamed and flexible while constructing the balzo.
Flat basket weaving reed is the best choice – ½” for base around head, about 2 yards, and thinner reed (1/4” or 3/8”) for the rest of the frame -about 6-8 yards If you can only find one thickness, that is fine as you can easily split it or double up for stability. OR a few branch/grapevine wreaths ½ - 1 cm in diameter. The wreaths can easily be found in craft shops, but the flat basket weave takes a little more searching. Note: Reed requires less work and less steaming than the branches, as well as being able to be folded around the frame without breaking. Hence it is the preferred material. The branches create a bumpier frame requiring more work to smooth out with coverings. Thin White florist wire (22 gauge, 18” length covered with white thread) available in craft shops is preferred as it twists easily and cuts with normal scissors OR Thin beading wire OR Twisty ties (wire variety)
Linings and Coverings: Cotton batting (preferred) or Fiberfill
batting if you are doing a smooth covered balzo Padding:
for the frame around your face. This is only a narrow piece of springy
wool or cotton batting, about two inches wide and as long as needed to
make your frame fit snug but comfortably – one length around or two. Overlining:
Natural fabric – approx 24 – 28” circle (depending on frame size) or ¾
-1 yd. Can be open weave wool, cotton or linen. Remember this goes on your
head and should be able to breathe! I used a open weave wool. Lining
next to your head: Natural fabric approx 18-20” diameter circle. Do not
choose a “slidy” fabric for this, as you want it to grip your hair and
not slide off.I used black cotton for one balzo, for the other a dupioni
silk that matched my dress. Covering materials – fabric, false hair,
feathers, fabricated or natural garland, etc. For the ruffled 16th
century capigliara covering, use a 45” circle ofplain smooth silk
, not slubbed, rough, raw or dupioni.
Step One – Making the Base:
Make the base out of the wider reed (if you have it) or thicker branches using about three coils around the head, with enough room for your hand to slide through flat. My head measures 22 ½” and my frame measured about 24”. Secure the base with wire in the front and mark the front with a magic marker!!
Step Two – Making the Vertical Framework
Leaving the thinner reed in the pot to steam, take out a length at a time, and start bending it over the frame back and forth. Originally I cut the reed to be flush with the base, and although this is a little neater, it is not actually correct. The sketch of the 15th century balzo frame shows the material being weaved into a cross hatch pattern, and this requires folding under the frame and coming back up. However, either method will work, so you can cut it if you wish, but be sure that your ties are tightly secured or the upper frame can separate from the base. I recommend cutting the first tow pieces so you can get a more exact height or width, and then wrapping the rest fro security. Once you wrap the reed it breaks down the fibers and weakens it, so you do not want to keep redoing it Secure each cut cross-section to the base with some wire, crossing over the reed on top, and behind/under the reed on the bottom to be secured, then twist together. This should form an “X” pattern that holds it in place
I found that at least twelve vertical strands are necessary for stability. This equates to six pieces going over each side. At this point (or whenever the structure starts to feel brittle), throw the whole thing back in the pot to soften it up. Start your shaping by bending the base into an oval, and start pushing on the back or front to get it molded into the right shape. This will get better as more cross pieces are added and the gaps become smaller, but shaping is necessary. For the 15th century version, push the front backwards and the back of the frame in to create a slight bulge. For the 16th century version, push the crown down with some force, as this should not be totally round, but somewhat flattened.
Step Three – Adding the Horizontal and Bands
Taking a long piece of willow, weave it around the outside of the "cage", filling in the gaps somewhat. Make at least two of these horizontal rows, each about a third from crown and base, with no more than about 2” between each area. Secure all joins with an “X” of wire so that the structure is sound. Throw the whole thing in the pot to soften up and mold it by pressing and tightening joins to get your shape right. Let it sit in the air to dry, but check on it from time to time to keep the shape intact. Your finished frame should retain its desired shape.
Step Four – Covering the Frame
Note: Do NOT add padding or any additional weight unless you really need it. These things can get heavy depending what you cover them with! Cover the outside with a natural material as suggested above. The easiest shape is a rough circle wrapped round the underside of the base and sewn to itself on the inside. Else a rectangular piece can be gathered along one side for a more elongated balzo. Either way you will have to take a few tucks or gathers around the base. The easiest way to do this is with a rather large sewing needle and going in and out of the balzo frame. Note: If you want a smooth balzo with only this as a final covering, put on the base padding and inside lining first (see next steps).Step Five – Decorating: The final covering
Cut a piece of springy fabric for padding the base to fit around your head, pin and whip stitch it to either side of the base, attaching to the outside covering. This can also be done first, I just find it easier to sew it to the outside covering. Cut a smaller (16-18” diameter) circle of cloth for the inside lining. Wrap the edges of the circle around the outside of the frame (over the padding), and pin on, adjusting to fit your hairstyle. This lining will not go all the way into the frame, as you do not want your head floating around in the balzo, but rather supported by the inner lining. You may wish to gather it more at the back than the front, in order to accommodate your hairstyle if a bun. Secure the lining by stitching above the inside band, going in and out of the balzo frame. Also, take a few tacks through the upper part of the balzo so the lining does not sag down on itself when off your head.
You can really use some imagination here, but there are many examples in period of garland, feathers, false hair, gems, wire, etc. I recommend finding an example to follow, but have provided two methods here. In either method, make sure your front is marked, as it does tend to get lost.
To cover the 15th century balzo with false hair and braid with ribbons:
Obtain false hair from a beauty supply store. You may wish to get a couple of hairnets too, in order to control flyaway hair. Note that blonde hair was preferred in Italy during this period. I got a “deluxe braid” of “Kanekalon” synthetic hair and found that it weighs quite a bit (3 oz), so use one package for the covering and one (or less) for making the braids. Starting at the back, spread the hair over the balzo and pin strategically to cover the lining. Don’t lose your pins in the hair! Use transparent nylon thread to baste it on around the base (but slightly above the edge) and at necessary junctures. Stay away from pin cushions and plants! They will get tangled in the hair! You can cover the false hair with a couple of hairnets to control the frizzing. Make a few long braids with the other skein of hair, interweaving ribbon into the braids (I used two colors that matched my dress). See the diagram or Pisanello’s costume sketches for placement of the braids. Secure with transparent nylon thread. You can put an ornament at the front if you wish. Be prepared for many Marge Simpson and Bride of Frankenstein comments!
For the 16th century ruffled capigliara:
Cut a circle of silk 45" in diameter. Sew twelve machine basting lines in concentric circles, about two inches apart. This does not have to be extremely precise, but I marked mine in chalk first. Start gathering the circles from the center working out, using the balzo frame as a reference for size of each circle. When it is looking very strange (tee-pee in shape), and all the circles have been gathered roughly, pin the silk to the balzo starting at the outer edge. (Leave the gather threads loose for now). Remember that the first four or five rows are most visible, and adjust the ruffles as best you can. Each two inch circle should be spaced roughly one inch apart, creating the ruffle. Starting at the (raw) outer edge, fold it under at the outside of the headband, and start tacking it to the band. Work entirely around the row, adjusting ruffles as you go. I used a backstitch for security. For each successive row: tie off the gather threads, matching the balzo edge as closely as possible. Tack over the gather stitching, adjusting the ruffles and pins where needed. Fluff the ruffles when complete, and add some sort of ornament to the center front, as this was the focal point of the head piece.
Finsished Capilgliara - ruffled black silk Example of covering for capigliara and concentric gathering (this is not silk)
Interesting group picture showing the balzo concurrent with other hairstyles: Sella, wired veil, etc.
15th century balzo with false hair and braids, recreated in above article. Legend of Saint George, by Pisanello, 1436-1438, Chiesa d' Anastasia, Verona
Detail: Salome before Herod, by Masolino da Panicale 1435, Battistero, Castello Olono. You cannot see it very weell, but they have actually put a crown (!!) on top of her balzo. I did not see this until I bought the wonderful Italian Frescoes book which shows it in better detail. Once you wear a balzo this size you will realize that a crown would never stay on!
A ghirlanda: Gentile da Fabbriano: Presentation at the Temple, 1423, Louvre, Paris
Perhaps a balzo? Date
unknow but estimate about 1510.
Vecellio's rendition of the balzo (circa 1520)
16th century balzo: Isabella
d'Este by Tiziano, 1534: Kunsthistorisches Muesum, Vienna
Ghirlanda looks like it is made of wool or curled fiber. Woman holding drawing of Lucrezia by Lorenzo Lotto (1480-1556), National Gallery, London guess painting to be circa 1530.
recreated in above article. Portrait of a Woman,
by Bernardo Luini, National Gallery, Washington, D.C.
My 16th Century Favorite - capigliara: Portrait of a Woman by Paolo Cavazzola, 1515: Galleria Accademia Carrara, Bergamo (Lightened this up quite a bit to show balzo).
Lucita Brembati by Lorenzo Lotto, 1518: Galleria Accademia Carrara, Bergamo
Eleonora Gonzaga della Rovere by Titian, 1536 - Uffizi Gallery, Firenze
Laure de Diantis by Titian, 1523, Kister Collection