Beauty and Duty: Museum Celebrates Marriage, Italian Style

Story posted May 15, 2008

It's hard to come up with modern-day equivalent for a cassone, or painted wedding chest, a major showpiece of an early Italian Renaissance wedding procession. Think Picasso-painted Ferrari, designed to roll through the streets astonishing all with your family's learning, prestige and wealth.

Fra Angelico cassone
Scenes from Boccaccio's "Il ninfale fiesolano," Fra Angelico, tempera on panel, ca. 1415-1420, 11 3/8 in. x 49 13/16 in., Bowdoin College Museum of Art. Gift of the Samuel H. Kress Foundation.


Fill it with objects from the sublime to the sundry—precious jewels, elaborate gowns, aprons, ribbons, dolls. Throw in some morality lessons—even some bedroom instructions—then park it in the most public room of your house.

Cassoni, signature objects of early Renaissance marriages in Italy, are at the heart of Beauty and Duty: The Art and Business of Renaissance Marriage, a major new exhibition on view at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art through July 27, 2008.

It includes 50 Renaissance objects reflecting themes of marriage, gender relations, and domestic life, which have been selected from 14 museums, collections and libraries nationwide—including Bowdoin's own art museum and George J. Mitchell Department of Special Collections & Archives.

The starting point is Bowdoin's intriguing painted cassone panel, Scenes from Boccaccio's "Il ninfale fiesolano" ("The Nymphs of Fiesole") c. 1415-1420, which has recently been attributed tentatively to none other than the young Fra Angelico. Read story.

Two additional chests and five cassoni panels borrowed from museums including Yale University Art Gallery, Cincinnati Art Museum and Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, "show the range of subjects that were painted—gardens of love, mythological stories of lovers and battles, and famous queens of the Old Testament," says the exhibition's organizer, Associate Professor of Art History Susan Wegner, an expert on Italian Renaissance and Baroque art.

From a concentration on cassoni, the exhibition branches out to include portraits, medals, engravings, and other art works that speak to the celebration of marriages and subsequent domestic life.


Susan Wegner, flanked by the Bowdoin College Museum of Art's Italian Renaissance painting, Portrait of an Unknown Youth, Cristofano Allori, 1577-1621.

"I want museum goers to be surprised, delighted and informed by the range of objects we are presenting," notes Wegner, adding, "some of which will seem strange. We want people to compare their own experience with that of people of the past and reflect on the stark differences and rich commonalities of human experience across 500 years."

The story of Renaissance marriage is not easy to reconstruct, notes Museum Director Katy Kline. "There's not a whole lot that remains," she says. "Susan has had to extract her information through art work, books, contracts. But through her excellent research on scholarship about the period, you begin to understand the complexities that attended this event, which was far from the carefree, joyous romp that we tend to think of now."

Take the betrothal. Not likely a proposal by smitten young prince on bended knee. More likely, it was the fruit of a highly tactical contract arranged between the bride's and groom's fathers, sometimes when the intended bride was as young as two.

"The families were making an alliance; you wanted a transaction beneficial to your clan," notes Wegner. "The woman frequently had very little say in who she married and often didn't meet the person until late in the process."

In the 1400s, no church setting or priest was required for a marriage, which was a purely secular affair—though set in a culture defined by Christian belief.

Lady Portrait
Portrait of a Lady, oil on canvas, n.d., 26 1/4 x 20 1/2 in., Bowdoin College Museum of Art. Gift of Miss Susan Dwight Bliss.

While often powerless to rule her own fate, the Renaissance bride was nonetheless a powerful symbol of family wealth and prestige. In paintings and prints, Beauty and Duty reflects the rich gowns, jewelry and decoration brides wore as they made their way in elaborate processionals through the streets from their father's house to their new home—where the marriage contract could be signed.

"You spent more on marriage than on any other time in your life because it was enormously expensive to pay for all the clothes, jewels, furniture and banquets for this public display," notes Wegner. "You were using the bride as a spectacle representing your taste and prestige so you had to make a good showing. All the newest silk, finest gold embroidery, and masses of pearls."

According to the custom of the day, the bridal gown was more likely to be red or black, rather than white.

"After the bride was in her home, you could pick apart her jewels and garments and sell them or give back what you borrowed," adds Wegner. "But you did whatever you could to look good throughout the wedding celebration."

Wegner illuminates the lives of several women whose likenesses represent the ideals, if not the actual experiences, of Renaissance brides.

Maddalena Medal
Maria Magdalena of Austria, Grand Duchess of Tuscany, Wife of Cosimo II, Guillaume Dupre, 1613, bronze, hollow cast, 3 11/16 in., Bowdoin College Museum of Art. Gift of Amanda Marchesa Molinari.

Archduchess Maria Maddalena of Austria (1589-1631), whose Florentine wedding to Cosimo II de' Medici was among the most ostentatious of its day, is depicted in the exhibition on a medal and in an elaborately painted portrait. The painting shows her several years after her marriage, says Wegner, "the fecund mother-to-be of the son who would inherit the Duchy. At least three of the dozens of portraits painted of Maria Maddalena show her as pregnant.

"A reference to a woman's fertility would not be improper even in a portrait of an unmarried princess," adds Wegner.

A case in point is a portrait in the exhibition of Maria de' Medici, later Queen of France, 1594, in which she appears markedly pregnant, even though deliberations over her marriage were taking place at the time of the portraiture. Depictions of Maria pregnant would not be seen as reflections of her lack of virtue, says Wegner. "Instead, they proclaim the chief motive behind Renaissance marriage: procreation."

Wegner traveled extensively to collections in Europe and across the United States to research the exhibition, which was sponsored in part by the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, donors of Bowdoin's cassone panel.

Chest engraving
Detail from Nuptiae from the series "Schema seu specuulum principum," Raphael Sadeler I in collaboration with Johan Sadeler I, 1597, etching and engraving on laid paper, 9 1/2 in. x 11 7/8 in., Bowdoin College Museum of Art.

"The Kress Foundation had given wonderful Renaissance paintings to colleges and universities over the years," says Wegner, "and they noticed these objects were 'detached,' that general visitors would not know what these things were made for."

As a result, they created the "Old Masters in Context" program to which Wegner turned for support for Beauty and Duty. As it turns out, Bowdoin's exhibition is leading a wave of new interest in Italian Renaissance marriage.

"It's a very hot topic in early European studies right now," notes Wegner. "Bowdoin is the first of four significant exhibitions on Italian Renaissance marriage this year. The Metropolitan Museum, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, and the Williams College Museum of Art are opening exhibitions in the fall.

For all the contrasts between life in 15th-century Europe and 21st-century North America, Wegner offers that "we're not so different from people of the past. Marriage matters to us intensely. It occupies a huge component of our mental landscape and it supports an immense industry. We are holding passionate debates about what marriage is and for whom it's permitted.

"I am hoping that by understanding our history, we can also get more perspective on the transformation of expectations around marriage over time, not all of which have been universal throughout the centuries."


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