Florence Files:  Zebellini of the 16th Century
Recreating 16th Century Florentine and Tuscan  Clothing and Lifestyle

Florence Files

Zebellini are often called flea fus or tippets, literally it means the pelt of a sable (zibellino). It can also be of furs of ermine, sable, marten, lynx and other animals. Marten appears to be very commonly used. Mary Queen of Scots has a documented faux pelt in 1561 - being documented as "the other of plush silk with a head of jet covered in gold and a chain enameled in black" (Medieval Clothing and Textiles, Vol. 2). The zebillino often has a head and /or paws decorated or jewelled, depending on the fashion and sumptuary laws of the time. Commonly it appears to be documented as being suspended from the girdle by a gold chain. The fashion was seen to be worn, initially 
attatched to the girdle, held in the hand or commonly over the right shoulder, though pictorial documentation shows as also worn on the left (Vecellio).

Isabella d'Este and Beatrice d'Este are attributed with starting the fashion of wearing the zebillino (The Muff in Sixteenth Century Dress). They remained a popular accessory for fashionable Northern Italian noblewomen being documented from the late 1400's. The first known mention of the zebillino is in the 1467 inventory of Charle the Bold Duke of Burgundy ' a marten ofr putting around hte neck, the head and feel of gold with ruby eyes, with diamonds onthe muzzle and paws.' The next written documenation is from a Milanese source in 1489 - of a ungarnished sable worn by Isabella d'Aragon Duchess of Milan. (Fleas, Furs, and Fashions)

Written documentation records the zebillino as reaching to Portugal in 1520 and France in 1529 invoice. They are also mentioned in the inventory of King Henry VIII (1540s), Mary Queen of scots (1560s) and were given to Queen Elizabeth I, as a New Year's gift, in 1584. The fashion declined in the late 1500s.

In the late 1800s, Wendelin Boeheim called zebellini flea furs. He surmised that the flea fur was used to attract fleas. However, this has been rejected by other researchers, as fleas would have no interest in a 'dead' skin lacking warmth and blood. (Fleas, Furs, and Fashions, Kather Kerr of the Hermitage etc.)

It has also been suggested that the zibellino was a symbol of fertility or associated with pregnancy or childbirth. Walters Art Museum website states that the zebillino also served as protective amulets for pregnant women.
wearing its fur was believed to increase a woman's fertility and protect her during pregnancy. Since antiquity, the marten had been thought to conceive through its ear or mouth (and therefore chastely)."

Marten and sable zibellini were also popular as wedding gifts, and can be found documented in dowries. (Fleas, Furs, and Fashions, Muff in the Sixteenth Century). Lynx zibellini were associated with chaste behaviour and are suggested to be more suitable for older matrons while sable for younger wives. (Fleas, Furs, and Fashions) Weasles assoc with childbirth p134 (Fleas, Furs, and Fashions). Zebillini are also often seen in wedding portraits (Fleas, Furs, and Fashions. p 138)

Materials and Decorations
In its simplest form, the zebellino is a basic pelt of a marten or sable worn over the shoulder or carried. The zebillino can also be quite extravagently decorated. This can include: silver, gold, jet, crystal, jewels, diamonds rubies etc. Crystal heads survive but are not found visually in portraits. No jet heads survive, but one is recorded in the 1561 inventory of Mary queen of Scots (crystal and jet = less quality to gold). In the early 16th century, the earliest mention of 'fake' heads were of silver. Later gold became more fashionable. They could be ornately decorated as the martens head found in the Walters Art Museum, below (dated 1520-1600).

By middle of 16th century zibellini were more expensive than cloth of gold. Forty pelts valued at more than 1000scudi (Fleas, Furs, and Fashions) This made the zebillino a definate luxury item. So it is not surprising that sumptuary laws followed, to restrict the amount spent on the items of fashion.

1545: (Bologna) 'in order to avoid any superfluous costs and to get used to some ornaments honest and proper, it is ordained and ordered that regarding zibellini and fans, they cannot make heads, or handles, or other ornaments in gold, silver, pearls, or jewels but it is tolerated that they can be attatched with a gold chain if the said chain doe not exceed 15 and 20 scudi and not more'

This was then amended to (possibly due to flouting of the law)...
1545; 'except that it is permitted to who wants it, to wear zibellini with gold heads and a gold chain and have fans with gold handles, also with a gold chain without pearls or gems of any sort. But it is encouraged that the gentlewmoen content themselves with the first ordinance rather than to use this new license.'
Additionally, zibellini with gold head were allowed only to Bolognese women who had been married a minimum of two years.

1565 - milan noblewomen restricted from wearing 'pearls or any kind of jewels on the ... headdress, not at the belt, not on a handles, not in heads or on collars of a zibellino'

1575- Cesena - 'zibellini, lynx, marten and other pelts that are whole or ornamented with the heads in gold or silver or without and the same for the fan with handles, to all women of any status or condition even if their husbands want it, no matter who, it is prohibited and forbidden.'

The following is written documentation of zebillini:
1520- Isabel of portugal wardrobe acct
1501 - dowry inventory of Paola Gonzaga
1516= gold in Lucrezia ZBorgia's jewel inventory
1537 - visual: titian's port of Isabella d'Estes daughter Eleonara Gonzaga, Duchess of Urbino
1547 - inventory of Henry VIII
1557-62 A cameo of eleanora di toledo and her children - wearing zibellino over shoulders
1561 mary queen of scots -faux fur also
1566 Florence- cosimo d'Medici
1573- letter to Albrecht V of BVavaria
1586- inventory of jewels of Camilla Martelli
An Italian Zibellino of the Mid 16th century
1591 Florence - inventory of jewels and gold of Frand Duke Ferdinanado Medici of Tuscany

Portrait Evidence
Visually, evidence can be seen in portraits from the early 16th century .Vecellio shows the Costume of the Venetian woman (1530) and A woman of Padua is found in the Album Amicorum of a German Soldier (1595) showing examples from both ends of the 16th century.

Florentine examples can be found in portraits of Isabella di Medici (Moda Firenze), Cristofano dell Altissimo's Portrait of Guilia Gonzaga 1535 (Moda Firenze) and in the cameo of  Eleanora d'Medici. (1557-62)

How Worn
Early portraits show zebillini hung from the girdle. They could were also seen over the shoulder, documented as usually right shoulder, though pictorial evidence shows also the left shoulder, or held in the hand. The cameo of Eleanora di Toledo and her children show her wearing zibellino over shoulders.

The 'girdle chain' could be attatched from a ring in the mouth (from the British Museum, below) etching by
Erasmus Hornick: "Two muzzles and one fox-paw; from a series of twenty  etchings of jewellery designs. 1562. or from the neck 'collar' as seen in Cristofano dell Altissimo's Portrait of Guilia Gonzaga 1535 (Moda Firenze) - above.

  1. Basic Zebellino (right)



All intellectual content, original photos and layout are copyright to La Signora Onorata Katerina da Brescia (K Carlisle), except those original renaissance artworks and extant articles whose copyright remains with the current owner.
If you would like to use something from this site, please contact me, and cite this website reference.

(c). K.Carlisle, 2008-9.

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All intellectual content, original photos and layout are copyright to La Signora Onorata Katerina da Brescia (K Carlisle), except those original renaissance artworks and extant articles whose copyright remains with the current owner.
If you would like to use something from this site, please contact me, and cite this website reference.

(c). K.Carlisle, 2008-9.