WORDS Charlotte Di Qual
IMAGES Parco Archeologico del Colosseo & via Sofia Gnoli
Fashion’s fascination with the avian realm takes center stage in “Rara Avis. Fashion in Flight at the Farnese Aviaries”, organized and promoted by the Archaeological Park of the Colosseum. We met Sofia Gnoli, the curator of the exhibition, who walked us through the immersive display of unique and eccentric haute couture bird-dresses and feathered accessories.

Since ancient times, birds have continuously enchanted artists and writers with their diverse beauty and allegorical significance, embodying contrasting symbolisms such as freedom, beauty, transcendence, captivity, fragility, and fear. Fashion, too, has long drawn inspiration from the avian world and its forms and symbols—from Marie Antoinette’s towering hairstyles adorned with stuffed birds and miniature cages created by her hairdresser Léonard, to today’s runways featuring avian prints, embroideries, and symbolic representations. With avian-inspired haute couture as its focus, “Rara Avis” stands as an exploration of this enduring interplay between fashion and ornithology.

Set at the Farnesian Aviaries, a Renaissance gem in the enchanting landscape of the Farnese Gardens on the Palatine—the world’s first botanical garden—the exhibition was born from the synergy between Sofia Gnoli, fashion scholar and curator of the exhibition, and Alfonsina Russo, director of the Archaeological Park of the Colosseum. “She envisioned a fashion exhibition inside the Aviaries”, recalls Sofia Gnoli, “so I suggested, why not have an exhibition on bird-clothes?”. Gnoli adds:

“This is a cultural operation. I had total freedom. I had the opportunity to give shape to my fantasy, which is something that rarely happens.”

Thus, the Farnesian Aviaries, originally housing various species of exotic birds in the 17th century, have been transformed into a contemporary Wunderkammer, reactivating the sense of admiring wonder once experienced by the Farnese guests through a succession of spectacular bird-inspired garments, sourced from the archives of renowned fashion houses. Sofia Gnoli explaines:

“There are 11 dresses, 5 with feathers and 6 without. It’s about the idea of birds, interpreted by each visionary designer with their unique sensitivity.”

The revival of the particular dimension of astonishment, which distinguished cabinets of curiosities throughout the late Renaissance and Baroque, is enhanced through the exhibition’s immersive character. The three sections of “Rara Avis” offer a multisensory experience with projections that transport viewers into an idyllic microcosm.

The first section, Il Mito, opens with a tribute to Giovanni Gastel and his shot Zeus in forma di cigno e Leda (1990). Dedicated to myth and the divine, the first aviary is populated with white, black, and gold bird-dresses, featuring Maria Grazia Chiuri’s swan dress for Dior (Ready-to-Wear Cruise 2022), which alludes to the myth of Leda and the swan; Alexander McQueen’s black swan for Givenchy (Haute Couture AW 1997), evoking the murky Odile from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake; and Versace’s “angelic look,” with an imposing wingspan, worn by Katy Perry at the MET Gala 2018. The section also includes Angel or Devil, a dreamlike headdress by Philip Jones, and, with a nod to sustainability, La vittoria del colibrì, a dress made of non-violent silk feathers, created for the exhibition by the young Roman eco-designer Tiziano Guardini.
The dresses in this section are embedded in a mesmerizing display of projections that depict brambles intertwining and climbing up the walls, and a 3D reproduction of the aviary’s original roof breaking into the skies. Sofia Gnoli elaborates:

“The myth, of course, doesn’t take place in the Middle Ages—it’s a fairy tale, a fantasy—but I imagined a time when nature takes over again after the fall of the Roman civilization. Everything collapses, brambles climb up… Here is a new dark period, which may be the Middle Ages, but a dark period can also be a fantastic period unknown to us that can coincide with mythical events.”

Special significance holds the section Le ALI, irreALI, reALI. La alata fantasia della ‘mitica’ Anna Piaggi, also housed in the first aviary. Dedicated to the legendary Anna Piaggi (1931-2012)— fashion journalist, muse, collector, vintage initiator, and trendspotter—this segment pays homage to one of the most influential figures in contemporary fashion, despite being insufficiently acknowledged in her native Italy, as noted by Gnoli. She remarks:

“Anna Piaggi was herself a rara avis, a rare bird in her own right.”

The avian accessories from Piaggi’s personal wardrobe, including a cage bag with canaries and hats by Schiaparelli and Philip Treacy, are testaments to her visionary taste and “winged” fantasy. Reflecting on Piaggi’s penchant for eccentric, animal-inspired outfits, Sofia Gnoli shares with us a humorous anecdote:

“When she attended a ball given by Karl Lagerfeld in Paris, themed ‘Venezia la Serenissima,’ in the morning she bought fish and pigeons at the market and made a hairstyle out of it, a sort of basket of Venetian fish, like a fisherman’s wife, and pigeons of San Marco. She said that by midnight, it started to smell from the basket—a tragedy.”

The exhibition culminates with the section Kaleidoscopic Visions, hosted in the second aviary. Evoking a Garden of Eden, in this surreal landscape viewers encounter various exotic and colorful birds, such as Roberto Capucci’s dress created in 1983; Jean Paul Gaultier’s gown with parrot bolero, from his first haute couture show (AW 1997); a fascinating hybrid between a butterfly and a bird of paradise: the long black dress trimmed on the back by kaleidoscopic feathers designed by Thierry Mugler (Haute Couture SS 1997); Dolce&Gabbana’s organza corset dress, entirely embroidered with rooster and pheasant feathers (Haute Couture AW 2020); Alessandro Michele’s exclusive look for Gucci with 3D crystal embroidery, worn by Florence Welch at the MET Gala 2019; and a dreamlike dress by Iris Van Herpen, capturing the movement of feathers and bird flight patterns. The itinerary concludes with the bird of “vanity”: the peacock feather dress designed by Miuccia Prada (Prada SS 2005).

Accompanying the exhibition is a catalog published by Marsilio Arte and curated by Sofia Gnoli, that offers further insight into the ornithology of couture through rich illustrations and texts by Emanuele Coccia, Karen Van Godtsenhoven, Peter McNeil, Natsumi Nonaka and Simona Segre-Reinach.

In addition, on July 4th, a collateral event will be held at the Curia Iulia, the ancient Roman Senate House, featuring a contest for fashion students from Rome’s academies – an initiative that invites local students to create bird-inspired dresses, fostering a connection between the city and the exhibition.

“Rara Avis” is open until July 24 at the Farnesian Aviaries on the Palatine Hill in Rome. For more details, visit https://colosseo.it/en/.