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Is a Veil a Veil? – Maria Giuseppina Muzzarelli’s A Capo Coperto

In recent years, discussions about veiling have almost always revolved around Islamic women wearing hijab or other head coverings. To counterbalance this eastern-centred controversy, Maria Giuseppina Muzzarelli’s A Capo Coperto focuses on the western uses of veils. In doing so, Muzzarelli reminds us that the prescription for women to cover their heads has also been a crucial part of our western history and culture, not only of the Islamic one. Her aim is to show who covered their head, with what consciousness it was done, what people covered their heads with and with what results.

Maria Giuseppina Muzzarelli is professor at the Department of Literature and Philosophy of Bologna University where she teaches Medieval History and History of Fashion. She studies history of culture, society and mentality in the period between the Middle Ages and the Modern Era. In 2014, Muzzarelli edited a volume on the history and symbolism of veils in the Mediterranean area together with Maria Grazia Nico Ottaviani and Gabriella Zarri (Il velo in area mediterranea fra storia e simbolo). Based on the discussions and the material from the research for that volume, Muzzarelli published the monograph discussed here in 2016.

Focussing on the basic use of it, a veil is a veil. In its function to cover heads, necks and shoulders, it is a rather simple object, usually made of light and transparent cloth. However, when we talk about veils today, we think of an object loaded with symbolic significance. But what kind of messages and discourses did these head coverings evoke in medieval and early modern contexts? As becomes clear in Muzzarelli’s study, a veil has not always been simply a veil but also much more. As a highly ambivalent and ambiguous object, the veil covers, hides, protects but also alludes, adorns and attracts. It has the power to form personal identity (from the girl to be married to the married woman), social identity (from the secular woman to the nun) as well as religious identity (from a symbol that connotes Christianity to the symbol of the Islamic faith).

Muzzarelli’s starting point is the exploration of the use and significance of veils and similar head coverings in the ancient world. In his first letter to the Corinthians (1 Cor. 11:2-16), Apostle Paul writes that men have to pray to God bare-headed, as they are the image of God and reflect his glory, whereas women have to do so having covered their head in the name of an explicit divine hierarchy: the woman being in fact only the glory of the man. The female head covering thus became symbol of a double dependence: on God and on the man. Further emphasis was given to this notion by the work of the patristic writer Tertullian. In the larger Christian tradition, thus, covering the head became the prevalent theoretical condition for all women: unmarried, married or widowed.

By the late Middle Ages, almost all women wore veils when leaving the house but often also within the house. However, the significance of shape, size, colour as well as requirements on when and how to wear a veil varied significantly from region to region and even from city to city. A yellow veil, for example, was first used as a sign of mourning. When the colour yellow became associated with marginal groups such as Jews or prostitutes, in Foligno (Umbria) the mandatory colour for mourning veils became white (only later did black become the prevalent colour for mourning). Similarly, prescriptions on who was allowed to wear which kind of head covering were not uniform and comparisons between different sumptuary laws testify to the knowledge people must have had to read such vestimentary codes.

With the rise of fashion in the late Middle Ages, veils became more fashionable, too, changing from simple scarfs to sometimes very elaborate head coverings. Thus, women’s heads became the site of exhibition of grace and wealth. Furthermore, veils more and more symbolized transitions such as the act of getting married (i.e. changing from one’s own family to that of the husband) or entering a monastery. Despite this expansion in use and significance, the veil never completely lost the power to represent the dignity and modesty of the woman as well as, and even more so, the honour of the man who was her head either as father or as husband.

With the expansion of markets and production in the early modern era, the veil became an object of consumption, neutralized on the symbolic level and affordable, useable and enjoyable in relative liberty. In a way, the veil became a veil and nothing more. However, even today the covering of the head still evokes bewilderment: for its being in contrast to the imperative of transparency, for its being perceived as a relict of the past which is considered to be overcome and for its having been understood as a symbol for subjugation for a very long time. With her analysis, Muzzarelli succeeds in bringing back some of the significance that the veil has lost, not only with the lifting of the Roman Catholic requirement for head coverings in church by John Paul II in 1983 but already much earlier. A veil is still more than a veil.

Tracing the history of this piece of clothing, Muzzarelli makes use of a wide range of sources: inventories, sumptuary laws and clothing regulations, court records, tracts, paintings as well as other pictorial sources such a costume books, specifically Cesare Veccelio’s famous Degli Habiti Antichi et Moderni. She thus not only considers practices but also theory as well as representation. Due to her research interests (Muzzarelli has widely published on sumptuary laws in medieval and early modern Italy, see e.g. Disciplinare il lusso) her analysis is strongest when it comes to the late medieval and early modern period. Likewise, her geographic focus lies on Italy and the urban legislation on clothing and luxury. Yet, she carefully considers the differences between the ideal model of veiling set up by regulations, the practices of everyday veiling as well as the pictorial representations of veils in paintings and costume books and makes a reflected use of this large corpus of sources to trace the veil’s use and significance from antiquity to today.

For a short book discussion by the Swiss Italian radio station (RSI) see:

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