Developed in the early sixteenth century and especially popular among Venetian women, the high-platformed shoe called the chopine had both a practical and symbolic function. The thick-soled, raised shoe was designed to protect the foot from irregularly paved and wet or muddy streets. But the enhancement of the wearer’s stature also played a role.
The chopine’s height introduced an awkwardness and instability to a woman’s walk. The Venetian woman who wore them was generally accompanied by an attendant on whom she would balance. Despite the obvious expense, Venetian sumptuary laws (laws regulating expenditure on luxuries) did not address the issue of exaggerated footwear until it reached dangerous proportions. It was once thought that very high chopines, twenty inches as seen in an example from the Museo Correr in Venice, were the accoutrements of the courtesan and were intended to establish her highly visible public profile. However, sixteenth-century accounts suggest that the chopine’s height was associated with the level of nobility and grandeur of the Venetian woman who wore them rather than with any imputation as to her profession.
The chopines in The Costume Institute’s collection are not as high as the pair depicted in Vittore Carpaccio’s painting of two women from about 1500 (Museo Correr), perhaps the most famous representation of chopines in art. Here the shoes are among several erotic or exotic elements that litter the painting, insinuating that the luxuriously outfitted women are courtesans. The confusion between patrician and courtesan is also evident in the Metropolitan Museum’s print (55.503.30), in which a Venetian woman, the target of a cupid, reveals a vertiginous pair of chopines when her skirt is lifted. Her use of a feather fan to deflect cupid’s arrows suggests the cool worldliness of the professional beauty, but it is impossible to say with certainty. The elaborate dress of the respectable Venetian noblewoman was almost indistinguishable from the costume of the successful courtesan. So vexing was the confusion that sumptuary restrictions were established to define the boundary and at one point prohibited courtesans from wearing silk dresses and virtually all jewelry.