||Issue Date: 2 / 2009
Love and Marriage in Renaissance Italy
Engagement, marriage, child birth. What was it like to experience these milestones during Renaissance Italy? Exploring the arts that celebrate family life during that period, provides fascinating insights not only into this aspect of society, but into Italian Renaissance culture in general -- at least among the upper classes who could afford the sumptuous treasures now found only in museums.
An impressive exhibit mounted by the Metropolitan Museum of New York City provides an enlightening and often amusing journey back to Renaissance Italy, the place and time of Sandro Botticelli and Leonardo Da Vinci, roughly 1450 to 1620. On display are more than 150 objects including paintings, glassware, jewels, pottery (majolica) that were created to celebrate or to mark engagement, marriage, and birth.
The Riches of Florence and Rome
Let me set the scene. The streets of Florence are narrow and twisty but the buildings of the new merchant princes are magnificent, inside and out. Think of the Medici family and their worldwide empire, their aspirations to marry into the great houses of Europe and to acquire immense wealth. Over the centuries they were to achieve both.
You can see the fruits of their efforts even now, some five centuries after the Renaissance in the Uffizi (the office), a Florentine palace -- now a museum -- where the Medici hung the luminous works of Italy’s Renaissance master painters and stored their sculptures. These included some of Europe’s most famous works of art: “The Birth of Venus” by Sandro Botticelli (1465-1510) presenting the exquisite model Simonetta Vespucci arriving on a half shell. She is greeted by, among others, a red-haired maiden representing Spring. There is Leonardo da Vinci’s (1452-1519) sensitive “Announciation;” and Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio’s (a.k.a. Caravaggio, 1571-1610) “Bacchus,” the god of wine and mirth in all his glory.
Not to be outdone by the Medici, Rome boasted equally illustrious patricians, in particular the Barbarinis and the Borgheses. Princes, popes and cardinals from both families continued to shine on Renaissance horizons for centuries.
But Was It Love?
Looking at portraits of engaged couples of the period, you might well be surprised at their youthful appearance. In fact, teen marriages were quite routine. If you remember your Shakespeare, Juliet was only 14 when she married Romeo in Friar Lawrence’s cell. Many boys and girls were married at similarly early ages during the Italian Renaissance.
A good reason for early marriage was fear of early death. This was a time, after all, of primitive medical care and ignorance of basic sanitation and its role in preventing disease. Antibiotics, vaccines, and other health care tools taken for granted today did not exist. Epidemics, most notably the black plague, regularly decimated the European population. Large families had a better chance of surviving its effects; the younger the bride, the more children she would be able to bear during her reproductive lifespan, and the more likely some would survive to carry on family dynasties. Marriages did take place at later ages, as well, but typically under circumstances when great wealth was not a factor or when division of property would not cause a hardship to either party.
Some of these young marriages were arranged in haste -- the result of impulse or the impatience of passion. But far more often, marriages were not for love, but for attaining strategic alliances that elevated power or wealth. Marriages were arranged between families with go-betweens negotiating the best possible financial and social terms.
Impalamento: The Negotiation
It was usually up to the parents of the prospective bride and groom to make the arrangements for an impending wedding. Marriage brokers were usually brought in and the two parties decided on what formalities would take place. An agreement would be confirmed in writing, specifying exactly what the dowry would be and how all transfers of property were to be handled. At this point the prospective couple might meet, if it were convenient and they were lucky, but often contact was only balcony to balcony. Once this meeting of sorts was concluded in a satisfactory manner, the potential groom -- laden with presents for his intended bride and her family -- visited the bride’s home.
Sponsalia: The Sponsorship
Sometime after the “impalamento,” a “sponsalia” would take place. This was a meeting between only the male members of the families, who went over the contract arrangements and asked for assurances on the part of both families that the terms were realistic and equitable. Although the bride would not be present at this strictly ceremonial meeting it was assumed that she would assent to its terms and conditions. Supposedly she would not be forced to go through with the arrangements should she not have found them suitable, although the pressure to accept a financially desirable or status-boosting arrangement must have been overwhelming.
Marriage did not take place in a church, but more often in the bride’s home, before a notary. After all the parties were satisfied that every requirement was met, a ring was placed on the bride’s finger. The Sunday following the “matrimonium” the couple would have the actual ceremony, surprisingly not in the church itself but on the church’s steps.
The Renaissance Portrait
In arranged royal marriages, portrait paintings took on very important roles. Ambassadors would travel far, then report back to court with portraits of possible candidates for marriage.
Men also relied on portraits of their intended, to decide if they wanted go through with a proposed arrangement, since the two potential parties were often separated by great distances. Of course, factors other than appearance also came into the mix. Accomplishments, voice and musical ability, popularity in the country of residence were other important considerations. Then, if all parties were in accord, a wedding would take place, with the bride and groom sometimes meeting for the first time on that very day. We can assume that the portraits were flattering, and guess that there were some disappointed brides and grooms when they actually saw their intended.
When you look at the portraits, you’ll notice that young, single women wore their hair long. Once married they wore their hair short or styled off the neck, often covered by a Juliet cap of velvet and satin. Rectangular necklines and soft shoulders were preferred. Gowns were flared and always loose-fitting. Even in summer, ladies wore gowns of heavy velvet. Their shoes were generally flat-heeled slippers, velvet, or at times made of leather. Boys and man wore flared doublets, cloth caps and fitted leggings.
Jewelry and other adornments were of great importance. Diamonds and pearls were in fashion, decorating rings, necklaces and medallions. Frequently jewelers were inspired by plant and animal objects for their designs. Birds, especially doves were favorites. Rose and lily motifs appear frequently in the jewelry creations of the Renaissance.
And here we have another important role for portrait paintings. Without official recordings of marriages -- there were no government offices of vital records -- and with the vulnerability of the papers on which negotiations and agreements were written, paintings became valuable proof that the marriage took place. Likewise, costly jewels and clothing worn by the bride, and sometimes the groom in their portraits, were evidence of provenance and possession. Unfortunately for the bride, these possessions were never really hers, but belonged to her father and became the property of her husband at the time of the wedding.
The bride’s dowry of household items was kept in a wooden chest called a “cassone.” It was placed at the foot of the couple’s bed and contained various textiles including, tablecloths, coverlets, robes and dresses. A groom did not come empty handed to his bride at the time of the “impalamento” and often brought a cassone with special gifts to his intended. The lids, both inside and outside, of these wooden boxes were painted, many times by well-known artists. For the most part, they illustrated stories from the bible or presented mythological scenes. Although very few cassone survive intact, the Metropolitan Museum in New York is showing several of the painted lids. One of these represents the “Story of Esther.” A second lid shows episodes from the story of the Argonauts.
Desco di Parto
Pregnancy and childbirth were risky ventures during the Renaissance period. Complications were common, and without treatment, women or infants or both did not survive. Pregnant women took to their beds early in pregnancy. To boost their spirits and their nutrition, both before and after delivery, visitors often brought platters filled with delicacies to the bedside. The platters themselves, called birth trays or “desco di parto,” were beautifully illustrated and became keepsakes long after the goodies had been eaten.
Desco di parto were a uniquely Italian art form. Typically constructed of glazed pottery called majolica, they were richly decorated, often with themes from mythology. For example, one of the most attractive trays on view at the current Metropolitan Museum show depicts the “Triumph of Venus.” The figure of Venus is surrounded by an array of worshipping hunters in a mille-fleurs (thousand flowers) landscape. Elegantly groomed they offer their obeisance to the goddess. Desco di parto could also be amusing, and scenes of very young boys urinating decorated trays that celebrated the birth of a boy.
Through modern eyes, the lives of young people during this Renaissance period who were entering into marriage and family life may seem harsh and difficult. But there was much beauty in their world, and yes, even romance. Renaissance poets and authors could not talk or write enough about love, fidelity and pride of family. Dante Alighieri’s “Francesca di Rimini” sections from the Divine Comedy were recited endlessly as were the poems of the great Renaissance artist Michelangelo.
Although not Italian, the English Renaissance poet and dramatist Christopher Marlowe echoed the sentiment of the time:
Come live with me and be my love,
And we will all the pleasures prove
That hills and valleys, dales and fields,
Woods or steepy mountains yields.
Fred Stern is an art writer and poet based in New Jersey. His
recent collection of poetry, Corridors of Light is
available from Booklink.com and on the web.