In the full figure portrait painting of the great dames of the eighteenth century, under the brocade and the silk of the full skirts, not even the tips of the small shoes would show, perhaps considered an inconvenient sensual call for a woman; but just a glimpse of the paintings of the Royal Collection of Queen Elizabeth is enough to understand how instead, boots and shoes were not only an indispensable part of male elegance, but in a way were displayed also to represent power, virility and the caste.

Calzoleria Rivolta| The measure of elegance

Calzoleria Rivolta| The measure of elegance

Among the most beautiful hunting boots that have ever been seen are those worn by the handsome Prince Albert in a painting by Sir Edward Landseer; made of soft reddish suede, floppy, with a wide flap and worn over tight-fitting light pants, between hunted game and frolicking dogs, they give the consort prince a very sexy look. And one understands why the young and graceful queen looks at her handsome consort with a certain regal covetousness, offering him a small bouquet of red flowers.

In that painting there’s also a sweet little girl all dressed in red frills and baby desert boots, just one, the first-born Victoria, while in another, done by the famous portrait painter of monarchs, Franz Xavier Winterbalter, there are five children (they will later become nine), and of at least two little girls one can make out the tiny candid slippers tied with ribbons on the childlike legs; the couple is seated on red, brocaded armchairs framed in gold wood and they aren’t looking at each other. She is dressed in fluffy white lace and jewels, he instead has a moustache and perfectly styled handlebar moustache and many decorations on his black suit: and delicate black shoes, thin as cigars, worn with transparent black embroidered stockings stopping at the knee of the pants and, on the left leg, stopped by the precious Order of the Garter.

In the paintings of the period we already find all the types of shoes that have spanned the decades, with few changes, and the most contemporary ones seem to exhibit, in general, exaggerations and less care, except for the extraordinary ones, custom-made by hand. Returning to the past, the magnificent moccasins with buckles and half heel of the young and rich adventurers of the eighteenth century who from England crossed the inconvenient Alps for the Grand Tour of mysterious and beautiful Italy, were the same ones that reached London to go to concerts: seeing that in the most impervious and dangerous parts of the trip they continued in a sedan-chair, transported by labourers, the latter instead wearing heavy and rustic boots.

We know that today shoes contend with bags the supremacy of fashion fetish, and there are women who in times of sentimental sorrow buy a pair or two, thereby stuffing their wardrobes. No sensible girl forgets Carrie’s passion, a character in Sex and the City, for certain precarious sandals that are like clouds on super tall heels, of which the brand is indispensable, it is what allows them to be sold at outrageous prices to humans. And as concerns men, there are those who remember with a shiver an old film made in 1964 by Buñel (but there was a first version in 1946 directed by the great Renoir), entitled Diary of a Chambermaid, where the fetishist master falls in love with the laced boots of the perverse chambermaid Jeanne Moreau and he kisses them frantically. I don’t think the opposite happens, i.e. that women in love kiss the shoes of their men, not even if it’s that marvelous Richard Gere of American Gigolo who treats the tools of his mercenary job obsessively that is, his elegant, designer clothes, including his shoes.

It must be said that in the last few years, from this point of view, women have been punished in the fetishist strangeness, from male fashion (and not only) of running shoes possibly without laces or with unlaced laces, and evermore gigantic and shapeless. What indecent dreams could these mountainous objects stir up, that by nature and material composition they emanate odors that are not exactly pleasant? It’s not only a cheap product, given that there are some designer ones and which are thus very expensive, it’s the crazy idea that they make one look young. They’re great for real young people but they remove from those who are over thirty any minimally attractive corporeity.

When a man crosses his legs with virile gracefulness, and his shoes are in the limelight, if they’re perfect, polished, in good condition, not exaggerated, in English or Italian taste, sporty or elegant, undoubtedly custom-made, that man exudes power, tranquility, security, friendly charm and interior strength. As in the past, the members of the ruling houses in the official authoritative portraits, like the fantastic protagonist of the Mad Men series, that takes place in the world of advertising of the ‘50s and ‘60s in New York, that mysterious, melancholy, ruthless, charming, extremely elegant (even with a hat, as the important men used to wear back then) Don Draper, played by the actor John Hamm, a new Cary Grant, who is moving on to film.

The story of beautiful shoes remains a long, unknown adventure that this book reveals to us in all of its rich history. Certainly there have been centuries and places not even too far removed in time, where shoes were the sign of unattainable wealth; let us not forget the great The Tree of Wooden Clogs (L’albero degli zoccoli) by Ermanno Olmi that brings us back to the misery of the Bergamo area at the end of the 1800s when even a pair of wooden clogs were prohibitive for the exploited farmers, or the barefoot Neapolitan urchins of Raffaele Viviani, or still, in a nice book published recently, Temptation by the Hungarian writer Székely Jànos, from the childhood of Bela who in the first decades of the 1900s, goes to school in the snow covering his feet in paper. The story of beautiful shoes remains a long, unknown adventure that this book reveals to us in all of its history, mercantile and creative, social and political, artistic and mundane aspects. Also the history, totally Milanese of the Rivolta shoe shop, founded in 1883 in via Gesù, which then moved to via Verri, now in via della Spiga where the most important feet of Milan are lovingly treated to custom-made shoes, by a team of magnificent artisans and the latest digital technology.

“Magnificent obsession” by Natalia Aspesi, in “The measure of elegance”