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To Love, Honor, and Obey? Stories of Italian Renaissance Marriage Chests

July 3, 2010–July 3, 2011

In Renaissance Italy, betrothal and marriage were celebrated with a variety of events as well as commemorative works of art. Often elaborate, these objects marked the joining of a couple while symbolizing wealth and demonstrating alliances between powerful families. Particularly significant were cassoni, large storage chests produced in pairs and typically used to hold the bride's dowry. In mid-fifteenth-century Florence, these chests were sometimes paraded through the city in wedding processions. As part of the domestic interior, the chests were designed to complement the other furnishings in the new couple's bedchamber.

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Cassoni in museum collections typically consist of painted panels from chests that were dismantled long ago. This exhibition includes two complete chests and related painted panels in the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, all produced in Tuscany in the mid- to late-fifteenth century. The display considers the contexts for which marriage chests were made and used, techniques employed by craftsmen in producing them, and the sources and meanings of the decoration. Usually representing moral exemplars intended for the education of the married couple—particularly the wife—the tales and images that decorate cassoni provide insight into Renaissance Italian art, life, and society.

To Have and to Hold

To Have and to Hold:
The Material Culture of Love and Marriage in the Italian Renaissance

During the Italian Renaissance, many works of art were made in connection with rituals of courtship, weddings and childbirth. While the chests created to commemorate marriages examined in this exhibition are perhaps one of the best-known and distinctive examples of such productions, the objects discussed here – selected from the Philadelphia Museum of Art's rich collection – allow us to explore the topic in greater depth.

Picturing Love and Courtship

Depictions of love, lovers and couples abounded in the Italian Renaissance. Although many objects emphasize the positive aspects of love and marriage in accordance with societal ideals, some works of art relate somber or even tragic tales to warn couples against folly. The objects presented here underline the significance that was placed on a healthy, proper and productive union in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

The white banderole next to the fashionably dressed woman at center identifies her as Orsella; the capital "B" is short for bella, or beautiful. The image of Orsella is probably not a "portrait," but rather an idealized depiction. The heart pierced by an arrow, and the young man pictured on the rim suggest that the dish was presented to Orsella during courtship or upon betrothal. Dishes depicting idealized images of women – dubbed belle donne (meaning "beautiful women") – are frequently seen in Italian Renaissance ceramics and offer modern viewers a glimpse at cultural ideals of female beauty and virtue in the early sixteenth century.

Directly underneath the spout on this jar is an image of a young man and woman gazing lovingly into one another's eyes. He sits in her lap, while his left hand is placed upon her bosom. With his right hand wrapped gently around his lover, the man points to a banderole floating above the couple, which reads ISOEPIU / FELICE OMO / DEQUESTA / TERRA 1548 (I am the happiest man on earth 1548). The connection between this charming scene and the function of the object – it would have been used in a pharmacy – is unknown.

The scene depicted on this plate tells the story of Apollo and Daphne. The god Apollo feverishly pursued the nymph Daphne, who adamantly spurned his love. Her father, Peneus, a river god who is seated at the center of this dish, turned her into a laurel tree to protect her from her pursuer; here we can see her arms transforming into branches. The story is one of unrequited love, and was reproduced on cassoni panels and other media in this period. Subjects inspired by Classical literature found new favor in the Italian Renaissance. The Roman poet Ovid was closely read by artists and their patrons, particularly his Metamorphoses, a narrative poem based around the ancient Greek myths and the transformations of the gods. It is from this poem that the story of Apollo and Daphne derives.

Scholars have suggested this painting is a visualization of a story of the beautiful nymph Agapes by the fourteenth-century poet Giovanni Boccaccio, whose tales inspired the content of a variety of Italian Renaissance marriage objects. Agapes was married to an old husband, whose lecherous advances repulsed her. Jacopo de' Barbari's painting also recalls a northern European tradition of satirizing mismatched couples. De' Barbari painted this during his residence in Germany, and was probably aware of such imagery depicting elderly and unattractive men or women propositioning young and comely companions.

Objects commemorating Marriage

Until the Council of Trent, which formalized marriage rituals under the Catholic Church in 1563, weddings in Italy differed markedly from our own times. A variety of ceremonies would be held, and would take place in any number of locations. However, the exchange of gifts – like those considered here – was an effective means of providing visual evidence of the bond between two lovers and their respective families.

The two crests visible on this vibrant plate represent the union of two prominent families through marriage. This plate is a piece of a larger service that seems to have been commissioned for the late 16th century wedding of two families from Augsburg, Germany. Wares created in Italian maiolica workshops were highly sought after, and exported throughout Europe.

Although there is no painted image on the exterior of this vase to identify it as a marriage object, its shape indicates that it was. Made to resemble a pinecone, this vessel would have contained pine nuts, a delicacy used in sweet and savory dishes, and frequently gifted at the time of marriage. Additionally, the pinecone was associated with fecundity in Ancient Greece and, during the Middle Ages, it was thought to stimulate the libido. During the Italian Renaissance, the pinecone could have symbolized a virtuous and chaste wife, considering the difficulty one encounters extracting a pine nut from a cone.

Small, terracotta beads like these would have provided weight at the bottom of a spindle so that wool or flax could be spun into delicate thread. This domestic activity was considered a female responsibility during the Italian Renaissance and frequently spindle whorls were small tokens gifted during courtship or upon marriage. As a result, these beads were often inscribed with the names of young women, and in some cases, the name was accompanied by the letter "b" or the Italian word bella, meaning "beautiful." Spindle whorls might have been made from leftover clay in a workshop otherwise producing plates, dishes or other vessels. They were inexpensive to purchase, and could have been easily personalized upon request.

According to a story in Ovid's Metamorphoses, King Ceyx had resolved to sail to the oracle at Claros, much to the chagrin of his wife, Alcyone. She had warned him of the danger in traveling by sea, but Ceyx assured her that he would return within two months. The painter, Vittore Carpaccio, chose to visualize an especially harrowing moment in the story: Upon seeing Ceyx's shipwrecked corpse near the shore, Alcyone dove into the water to join her husband. The gods took pity on the drowned couple, and transformed them into kingfishers so their love would endure – the birds are visible in the lower left hand corner of the composition. Given the romantic subject matter, it is almost certain that this painting was made to commemorate a marriage. Narrative paintings conforming to this oblong format were hung at shoulder height within a married couple's bed chamber, and are known as spalliere (the word spalla in Italian means "shoulder").

Marriage chests continued to be made in Italy into the 1500s, but retained less prominence than before. Sixteenth-century chests were predominantly decorated with sculpture, as in the present example, made from carved walnut. This cassone (an Italian term applied to marriage chests from the mid-1500s) shows scenes from the life of Julius Caesar, reflecting Renaissance interests in ancient Roman history. However, this object was further embellished in the 1800s, with gilding and inscriptions added to identify the scenes. Italian Renaissance objects – and cassoni in particular – were popular among collectors in the nineteenth century and were often altered or adapted in accordance with later tastes.

Furnishings for the nuptial chamber... and to celebrate new arrivals

A groom spent a significant amount of time and money commissioning works of art for his and his wife's bedchamber before his marriage. While such objects sometimes reflected ideas about the responsibilities of wives and husbands, attention was also paid to the next generation. Children – and especially male children – were important, because they would maintain their families' name and protect their wealth and property.

According to the ancient authors Livy and Plutarch, Romulus and his followers – the founders of ancient Rome – abducted women from the Sabine tribe to populate their new city. In this energetic depiction by the Florentine artist Jacopo del Sellaio, the Sabines and the Romans are prepared for battle. At center, the Sabine women intervene, and hold out their newborn children to their tribesmen to halt their attack. The Sabine women were widely admired – and therefore frequently depicted – in Renaissance Italy for their absolute devotion to their Roman husbands. This subject, therefore, is appropriate for a spalliera painting that would have hung in a Florentine couple's marriage chamber.

This image of the Virgin Mary and infant Jesus flanked by two saints was made in the workshop of Apollonio di Giovanni – an artist known in fifteenth century Florence as a painter of objects for the domestic interior. The range and versatility of Apollonio was impressive; his workshop specialized in marriage chest decoration, spalliere paintings, and deschi da parto (birth trays), among other things. Apollonio's account books for the production of marriage chests survive, and have become an invaluable resource for scholars studying the material culture of marriage during the Italian Renaissance.

This object typifies the sculptural techniques developed by the della Robbia family in Florence in the fifteenth century. Having taken over his uncle Luca's workshop by ca. 1470, Andrea della Robbia produced high-relief sculptures in terracotta of white figures on blue backgrounds. This particular relief seems to have been made from a model intended for reproduction, and several examples are known to have survived. Documentary evidence suggests reliefs showing the Virgin and Child were often acquired around a wedding and typically displayed in the camera, or bedroom. Intended for private devotion, this sculpture was probably also considered to have talismanic properties. Contemporary thinkers espoused the belief that if a woman was within eyesight of a beautiful image during conception, she would be more likely to give birth to a beautiful child.

On the inside of these objects are two interior scenes of a bedchamber. The images within show a woman who has recently given birth, surrounded by a cadre of attendants, presumably a midwife and servants. Childbirth sets like this were commissioned by well-to-do families typically to commemorate the birth of a male child, who could inherit his father's property and maintain the family name. Practically speaking, the bowl would have held broth to be consumed by the mother during her confinement following labor.

The birth of a male heir was cause for great celebration for aristocratic families in the Italian Renaissance. A variety of objects, such as this elaborate cradle, testify to the status of newborn children in the period. While we can admire the skillfully carved flowers, leaves and other natural motifs on this cradle, its ornament would have appeared even more splendid in the sixteenth century. Traces of paint and gilding suggest that the surface was once richly decorated, while the small holes at either end of the cradle would have received an impressive canopy of feathers or fabric. Although the child for whom this cradle was made would likely have slept in a smaller, less elaborate crib at night, this example was intended for prominent display. It is unclear who exactly commissioned the cradle, but the two coats-of-arms on the sides insist that the child was the result of the union of two prominent families.

Technical and Historical Study

Main Building


This exhibition is supported by Maude de Schauensee.


Jack Hinton • Assistant Curator of European Decorative Arts and Sculpture

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