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Zibellini of the 16th Century and the Making of “Il Greggio”

By Lady Anna Sophie von Kreuznach 

Zibellini, originating in Italy, were considered a popular luxury accessory from the late 1500‘s to the late 1600‘s. They are often called "flea furs" or tippets, "flea furs" being considered a misnomer today. Literally a "zibellini" is the pelt of a sable. It was made of the furs of ermine, sable, marten, and other mustelids. Zibellini (zibellino, sing.) often had a silver or gold crafted head that was decorated with enameling and jewels. The paws were often decorated as well. This decoration could include silver, gold, jet, crystal, pearls, diamonds, rubies or emeralds. Other zibellini sported jeweled muzzles and collars. With a short gold chain or jeweled leash, it was attached to a girdle belt. It could also be draped over the shoulder or simply held in the hand and carried. In the early 16th century the heads were made of silver and later gold became more fashionable.
  Italian Martin Head, The Walters Art Museum
 1550, Italian Martin Head, enamled gold, rubies, garnets, pearls (Baltimore, The Walters Art Museum)
By the middle of the 16th century zibellini were considered more expensive than cloth of gold. As a luxury item, sumptuary laws followed:

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 attached with a gold chain if the said chain does 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 gentlewomen 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.'

It has been suggested that the zibellino was a symbol of fertility or associated with pregnancy and childbirth and also served as a protective amulet for pregnant women. They were a popular wedding gift!

Zibellini were a popular accessory for fashionable Italian noblewomen in the late 1400‘s. The zibellini later found its way to Portugal, Spain, France and England. The fashion declined at the close of the late 1500‘s

In the late 1800‘s Wendelin Boeheim called zibellini "flea furs" and surmised that the flea fur was used to attract the fleas of the wearer. Other researchers have rejected this because fleas have no interest in a dead skin lacking warmth and blood. Also, noblewomen would never desire to advertise that they had vermin living on them.

……….and now, we step forward in time…….

The Crafting of “Il Greggio” the Zibellino
pelt of mink
The pelt of a sable mink was gifted to me after being purchased at a yard sale. He (Il Greggio) spent thirty days and thirty nights in my freezer.

My crafting supplies included, white Sculpey (oven bake clay), tin foil, rolling pin, clay carving tool, various shades of gold colored craft paint, glass pearls, rubies and emeralds, gold beads and red, green and citrine rhinestones, and a can of clear fixative, one oven and a glass baking dish.
pelt of mink covered in tinfoil
While staring into his little beady eyes I explained what I was going to do to him and thanked him for his sacrifice. Then I got to work!

I covered his head with tinfoil and shaped it somewhat to preserve the original head shape and give a stable platform that would hold up to baking at 350 degrees for 15-20 minutes.
molded head
I worked the clay and rolled out a thin rectangle, covered the tinfoil, tweaked his ears and the slope of the muzzle. I carved the nose and refined the brow. Then I formed the collar and attached it to the head with a slender strip of clay.

After baking for 15 minutes at 350 degrees and cooling off I repeated the baking process once more because the thicker areas around the collar were still a wee bit softish. After 30 minutes total he was baked to perfection and still a creamy white….no burn here!
primer painted head
I applied two coats of "school bus yellow" primer paint allowing to dry overnight between coats. I then applied gold metallic paint, allowed for drying and a final coat of ―Imperial Gold‖ paint was applied.

Dimensional paint was used to give the raised effect over the eyes and at the fluted edges of the collar. He spent one more night drying out.

The rhinestones were applied first, followed by the half pearls. The feet were done following the same process as explained above.
mink feet
I then sprayed two coats of clear fixative over the head and feet and allowed all to dry.

The leash was strung with glass pearls, red and green glass beads and gold beads with a gold hook at the end to attach to a girdle.

The leash is secured to the head by a bead on the inside of the mouth. I attached the head over the pelt and it is secured by a string from the middle of the collar, through the real head and secured at the underside of the clay head. The two tiny green seed beads show the points of attachment. 

The feet are attached to wooden pegs that were inserted and glued to the inner skin of the pelt.

I used supplies that would replicate real gold and jewels because I can‘t afford the genuine materials that were used in the 16th century. I also do not have the skills of a goldsmith or jeweler.

.....and now I present to You, ―Il Greggio‖, a modern day zibellino!


Katherine Kerr of The Hermitage http://webcentre.co.nz/kk/garb.htm
La Signora Onorata Katerina da Brescia (K. Carlisle) http://katerina.purplefiles.net/FlorenceFiles/FLAccessoriesZEBELLINI.html
Zibellini (aka ―Flea Furs‖) in 16th Century Portraits http://larsdatter.com/zibellini.htm
Sherrill, Tawny: "Fleas, Furs, and Fashions: Zibellini as Luxury Accessories of the Renaissance"; from Netherton, Robin and Owen-Crocker, Gale (eds); Medieval Clothing and Textiles, Vol. 2
Orsi Landini, Roberta & Niccoli Bruna. La Moda a Firenze 1540-1580. Pagliai Polistampa, Firenze, 2005. ISBN: 88-8304-867-9
Pictures of period works: