Left: A model for Gucci’s Fall 2018 collection exits the runway in Milan (courtesy Gucci); Right: “St. Margaret, Der Mühlhausener Altar” in Bamberg, Germany (via Wikimedia)

This week, Gucci presented its Fall 2018 collection on a runway in Milan, and the show quickly became one of the most talked-about spectacles of the season. And for good reason. Two models carried lifelike versions of their own heads down the runway; one strode into the spotlight cradling a small dragon. The props were created by Makinarium, a Roman visual effects company with an atelier inside the famed movie studio Cinecittà. At the center of the space was a turquoise examination table, making the show all the more surreal.

Online commentators were understandably baffled by the proceedings — but a closer look suggests a surprising source for all that creepy chic: Alessandro Michele, Gucci’s creative director, is obsessed with Renaissance art. Last year, Michele presented the brand’s Resort 2018 show in Florence, inside the Palatine Gallery of Palazzo Pitti. Models walked through the space surrounded by paintings from Titian, Perugino and Raphael, wearing faux fur jackets, brocade suiting and sequin-embellished velvet gowns — the typical magpie pieces of the Gucci aesthetic. And that’s not the only time the designer has borrowed Renaissance motifs: the label’s Spring 2018 campaign was inspired by Hieronymus Bosch’s “The Garden of Earthly Delights”(c. 1500), reinterpreted into a modern fantasy by artist Ignasi Monreal.

A model exits the runway in Milan (courtesy Gucci)

This latest show was titled “Cyborg,” in reference to Donna Haraway’s 1984 essay “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century.” But it seemed to contain several references to Renaissance paintings.

Take, for example, the hyperrealistic heads carried down the catwalk. While Michele described a “post-human” world in the Gucci’s press statement, the heads echoed historic depictions of the beheading of Holofernes by Judith, which were extremely popular during the Renaissance period. One artist in particular, Lucas Cranach the Elder, painted more than eight versions of Judith; not coincidentally, he focused on her clothing, progressively painting it to be more seductive and revealing. “This could also reference beheaded saints, especially as the models are holding heads of their own likeness,” Ariel Tusa, an art historian who wrote her master’s thesis on Giovanni di Paolo, said of the heads.

Lucas Cranach the Elder, “Judith with the Head of Holofernes” (1530, via Wikimedia)

Another odd feature of the show, widely shared on Instagram, was the series of what appeared to be baby dragons. Saint Margaret, another fixture of Renaissance art portraits, appears in paintings holding a dragon or stepping on one, wearing regal Gucci-like gowns in rich colors and textures. In one painting, part of the altar of the Bamberg Cathedral in Germany, St. Margaret holds the small dragon in almost exactly the same position as models in the Gucci show. Though the dragon looks like a baby, “Renaissance works used hierarchical scale — larger things are more important, and smaller things are less,” Tusa said. “This is especially true for saints and their attributes.”

Color carried symbolism in Renaissance art, and Gucci may have borrowed that too. Models were clothed in vivid blue pants and structured jackets; the runway and walls were decorated with the same intense pigment. “The rich blue suits and sheer overcoats hark back to the ubiquitous theme of the Madonna and child,” Tusa suggested. The virgin is traditionally shown in a deep blue mantle, the pigment made from lapis lazuli, with a diaphanous veil.”

Lastly, a few of the models had a realistic eye embedded on their skin — both on the forehead, like a Third Eye, and on their wrists, like an accessory. While some might associate this wth Eastern art, the theme of the Cyclops also inspired poetry, paintings, and sculptures in the Renaissance: Cyclops appeared in Homer’s Odyssey, while Polyphemus the giant, son of Poseidon and Thoosa, came from Greek mythology.

As the collection show notes explain, “Gucci Cyborg is post-human: it has eyes on its hands, faun horns, dragon’s puppies and doubling heads. It’s a biologically indefinite and culturally aware creature. The last and extreme sign of a mongrel identity under constant transformation. The symbol of an emancipatory possibility through which we can decide to become what we are.” Even in this description, the old seems to inform the new; Gucci’s post-human world takes cues from the 16th century. The designer’s love affair with Renaissance art appears to have come full circle.

Cristofano Allori, “Judith with the head of Holofernes” (1513, via Wikimedia)

Kristen Bateman is a New York-based writer and editor specializing in fashion and culture features. Her work has been published in The New York Times, Vogue, Allure, New York Magazine, Harper's Bazaar...

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