A Zibellino, flea fur or fur tippet was a women’s fashion accessory popular in the later 15th and 16th centuries. A zibellino, from the Italian word for sable, is the pelt of a sable or marten, worn draped at the neck, hanging from the waist, or held in the hand. Some zibellini were fitted with faces, and sometimes paws, of goldsmiths work with jewelled eyes, and other gems and pearls encrusted in them. Unadorned pelts were also popular.
“This fashion began in the north of Italy [reportedly invented by the d’Este sisters — Beatrice and Isabella] in the beginning of the sixteenth century, and spread from there through Europe and England. England seemed to be a little slow in taking up this fashion as it was not until 1584 that Elizabeth I came in[to] possession of one as a New [Y]ear’s gift from the Earl of Leicester”. – The Muff in Sixteenth Century Dress
One of the earliest surviving mention of a pelt to be worn as neck ornamentations is in an inventory of Charles, Duke of Burgundy, in 1467, but the fashion was widespread in northern Italy by the 1490s.
The term fea-fur is from the German term flohpelz, was not coined until 1894, when it was suggested that these furs were worn to attract fleas away from the body or the wearer, but there is litle historic evidence of this claim.
One line of thought describes the appearance of the wearing of zibellini as being associated with childbirth and pregnancy.
“The marten was thought to conceive its young through its ears, free from sexual intercourse, and was thus associated with Christ’s miraculous conception. This symbolic meaning is indicated by the presence of the dove of the Incarnation on the creature’s snout. Such objects were fashionable in Europe during the sixteenth century. They also served as protective amulets for pregnant women.”- Walters Art Museum
This belief about martens, who are of the weasel family, is echoed in a number of medieval sources one such isThe Aberdeen Bestiary,
“Some say that weasels conceive through the ear and give birth through the mouth; others say, on the contrary, that they conceive through the mouth and give birth through the ear; it is said, also, that they are skilled in healing, so that if by chance their young are killed, and their parents succeed in finding them, they can bring their offspring back to life. Weasels signify the not inconsiderable number of people who listen willingly enough to the seed of the divine word but, caught up in their love of wordly things, ignore it and take no account of what they have heard. ”
The fashion for carrying zibelini died out in the 17th century, although fox pelts continued to be worn as fashion accessorys well into the 20th century, before becoming unfashionable with the animal rights movement.
A jewelled Zibellino held at The Walters Art Museum
“This jeweled marten’s head is nearly identical to that attached to the fur held by the countess in Veronese’s portrait of Countess da Porto (Walters 37.541) and is displayed here in a similar way. The animal was associated with childbirth, and 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). The dove on the creature’s nose may be a symbol of the Holy Ghost and further allude to Mary’s miraculous conception. This would add to the amulet’s protective powers.” Walters Art Museum
Countess Livia da Porto Thiene and her daughter Porzia
by Paolo Veronese circa 1551
by Giovanni Moroni, cira 1552
Method of Construction:
The head of the zibellino was crafted using air dry clay, and teddy bear acrylic eyes. This was left to dry for about 3 days, then painted with gold paint and decorations as per the picture on page 3.
I constructed the body somewhat smaller than a real marten as it was a little too bulky for my taste, I used a fur like fabric that I had already in my material cupboard. I decorated the claws with beads. The body was simply attached with glue and decorated with a string of pearls.
Accessories Of Dress, Lester, Kathryn and Oerke, Bess,Dover Books, 2004