A long time ago between the end of the '80s and the beginning of the '90s, in a fashion galaxy far away, Benetton launched a collection of T-shirts with Latin quotes from the Aesop's Fables and Greek extracts from Homer's Odyssey. Favoured not just by Latin and Greek students in grammar schools, the shirts became a hit in Italy, especially when matched with the then fashionable (yet terrible looking) black cotton cyclist shorts. Wondering why and how they became popular? It is almost too easy to understand: the ensemble guaranteed a trendy look, but also allowed students to show off a rare knowledge of the classics in an irreverent and fun way (something not admissible in today's terribly ignorant world lost in Logoland...).
Memories of those days in which Latin quotes were popular on Italian beaches came back after seeing Valentino's Autumn/Winter 2015 Haute Couture collection entitled "Mirabilia Romae" (Wonders of Rome; these words usually defined a literary genre that became popular from the 11th century on and that consisted in descriptions of Pagan and Christian monuments in Rome).
Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pierpaolo Piccioli looked indeed at Rome, interpreting it not just as the city where everything started for the maison they are now directing (and where its headquarters are still based), but also as a unique place where they can get inspired by its ancient history, temples and architecture.
The show took place last Thursday in the open air: models sashayed down a runway designed by artist Pietro Ruffo at the entrance of the 16th century Palazzo Mignanelli, where the Valentino ateliers are based and near its (just opened) largest store in the world (over 20,000 square feet).
Models were clad in delicate Haute Couture gowns that could be described as modern reinventions (mostly in black to hint at the sinister and noir aspects of Rome, with some splashes of Valentino Red and opulent gold) of Roman costumes.
Long lace or tulle tunics and togas prevailed, some of them characterised by draped motifs that called to mind the stola originally draped with fibulae down the arm, belted at the waist and richly bloused. Long dresses flowing asymmetrically or covering just one shoulder reminded instead of the palla, the garment that women used to wrap over the left shoulder and around the hips.
Some of the high-collared wool capes and velvet sheaths were extremely simple, almost starkly monastic; others featured intricate embroidered motifs and elements such as leather flowers or embossed decorations that may have been lifted from armours, and strips of velvet backed on tulle that recreated the pteruges or skirts made with decorated strips favoured by the Roman and Greek soldiers under their armours.
A gold leather dress pointed towards emperors and gladiators, but gold wheat stalks on a tulle gown gave a model the look of a goddess or of a Hollywood star à la Elizabeth Taylor starring in a Roman blockbusters of those ones shot in the Italian capital in the '50s.
Ancient icons such as the eagle, a symbol of imperial Rome, were reworked in long evening gowns, while fluid red gowns reunited in the same dress the blood of the first martyrs, the attire of cardinals and the robe favoured by Dante Alighieri.
Though long, a few gowns were quite revealing, yet there was no vulgarity on the runway, almost a miracle for the times we are living in.
The most understated pieces were the capes covered with subtle squares derived from Rome's Pantheon, the most impressive and unreinforced concrete dome in the world, and the repeated arches of the Palace of Italian Civilization (or Square Coliseum) at the Eur on a floor-length, double-face wool and velvet cape.
These weren't the only architectural references, though: coloured minidresses, coats and capes in brocade mosaics were indeed inspired by the intricate geometric forms of the Cosmatesque floors that can be seen at the Basilica di San Giovanni in Laterano, in San Clemente, at the Basilica di Santa Maria in Cosmedin, in the four Stanze di Raffaello in the Palace of the Vatican and the pavements of the Sistine Chapel.
This technique was employed also during the Renaissance and somehow revealed that this was not a collection revolving around the Roman classics, but a trip through different times and eras for Chiuri and Piccioli, from Roman times to imperialism, Catholicism and Baroque, with modern elements and solutions thrown into the mix.
Most garments were matched with flat gladiator sandals and all models wore Alessandro Gaggio's gold jewellery (thin diadems and head wreaths, pendants and metal belts) featuring wolves, griffins and bees, or masks and disturbing symbols borrowed from the vanitas genre.
At times the pendants included bits and pieces of quotes from poems and odes or Latin words: "Imperator" (Emperor) read one; "Per aspera ad astra" (Through hardships to the stars) and "Audentes fortuna iuvat" (Fortune favours the brave, adapted from Virgil) stated another.
Catullus, the nightmare of many grammar school students, seemed to be a favourite wth several bits and pieces from his works reappearing here and there, among them "Cum suis vivat valeatque moechis" (May she live and fare well with her adulterers, Carme 11) and "ille (…) qui sedens adversus identidem te spectat et audit dulce ridentem" (he (…) who sitting opposite watches and listens to you again and again sweetly laughing; Catullus 51, adapted from Sappho's fragmentary lyric poems, Sappho 31).
These bits and pieces could have been hints at eroticism, but they were lost on most of the celebrity guests (it must be said that some Latin quotes - such as "pulcrae puellae inferunt bellum", "pretty girls cause wars", and "mihi scribe ab amore altero" - actually sounded as casual as those incorrect sentences and mottoes tattoed on people's skins that make many Latin experts scream in utter despair). And this brings us back to a few hours before the actual runway show.
Earlier on the guests were indeed treated to a visit to a diffused exhibition co-curated by Chiuri, Piccioli and art historian Filippo Cosmelli.
This event was actually a rare tour of the city that revealed Chiuri and Piccioli's layered inspirations.
Couture dresses from previous seasons were scattered in locations quite often closed to the public, including churches, and palaces such as Villa Medici (with its rooms with ceilings by Jacopo Zucchi, depicting plants and animals and Venus and Cupid, inspirations for the intricate embroideries of monkeys, snakes and birds in Valentino's latest designs, including the Haute Couture A/W 2012-3 and S/S 13 collections); the 16th century Biblioteca Casanatense, with a single row of gowns standing among thousands of tomes, their embroideries echoeing the images on antique globes or the illustrations of plants on the pages of ancient volumes; a fencing school; the Bagno di Diana, the bathroom of a private palazzo commissioned by Prince Filippo Andrea Doria Pamphilj for his British bride, Mary Talbot; a 3rd century AD Mithraic grotto; the set department of the opera house with backdrops and scenery still in the making; Giorgio de Chirico's apartment and a final space with Valentino's archival work dialoguing with the new creations of the maison.
Dawn and Samantha Goldworm, the twin sisters behind boutique fragrance studio 12.29, worked with Chiuri and Piccioli (the Goldworms and Cire Trudon already created for Valentino the scented candle "Effortless Grace") to develop a series of scents that perfumed these spaces.
Chiuri and Piccioli undoubtedly did a great job finding their own inspirations (rather than copying everybody else's and that's already honourable...) and relaunching Valentino in the last few seasons, finding new and younger clients for the maison and generating a renewed interested in the Eternal City as well.
The irony stands in the fact that it all looks lifted from Paolo Sorrentino's 2013 film La Grande Bellezza, just like the video shot in Palazzo Mignanelli by Roman film director Francesco Munzi showed in June when Chiuri and Piccioli received the CFDA International Award at the Lincoln Center in New York.
Sorrentino's Fellini-esque story of beauty and decadence - set every now and then in locations rarely seen by ordinary people - was indeed populated by kitsch, ignoble and grotesque characters.
Thursday's event wasn't a re-run of any previous events, but a re-run of La Grande Bellezza, complete with haunting soundtrack à la Tenebrae Choir's "The Lamb" and dubious characters (clients, critics, celebs in free Valentino gowns and poseurs...) especially flown in for the occasion (mind you, this time Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson, busy filming Zoolander 2 in Rome, only made a last-minute, late-night appearance after dinner rather than walking down the Valentino runway as they did in March).
Chiuri and Piccioli may have organised indeed a private tour of the hidden Roman places for their esteemed guests, but some of them were definitely more interested in taking pictures of their Valentino Rock-Stud stilettos on the Spanish Steps, so that they could have immediately posted them on Instagram to get some (hard-earned?) affiliate program money. You have the impression that if Chiuri and Piccioli had entitled the collection "Catullus for the Instagram generation", it would have been even more successful.
What's even more tragicomic is that Valentino now prides in a lost identity: while Chiuri and Piccioli genuinely love Rome, the maison is currently owned by Qatar's royal family, and the great historical and architectural beauty they created is going to be lost to the majority of the rich and wealthy crowd following them.
The only slogan fit for some of the guests invited wasn't indeed something from Catullus, but a brief "In vestimentis non est sapientia mentis" (literally: The gown is not proof of a knowledgeable mind), after all in between those ones busy posting stuff on Instagram and the people who couldn't even copy the name of the collection from the press release on their blog posts (but boasted about having studied Latin in school...), the levels of ignorance were certainly pretty high.
So it's a shame that, unlike those Benetton shirts with Latin/Greek quotes that uncannily turned a rave Summer into a literary Summer, this beauty is not for everybody, but for very few ones, and from "open city" Rome is a closed city for the "fashion flotilla", aimlessly (and ignorantly) travelling from one opulent harbour to the next.
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