Combs and other personal grooming implements were often included in bridal trousseaux during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries in Italy. In 1474, for example, Caterina Pico da Carpi had seven ivory combs in her wedding trousseau. This one is decorated on both sides with animals and birds, and the center of one side has the amorous device of a flaming heart.
Combs were very much part of the pictorial imagery of the beautiful woman, not always in a virtuous context. The comb was also considered a privileged object in that it could touch the beloved directly. This idea was expressed in poetry as a metaphor for much-desired intimacy.
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Date:15th or 16th century
Culture:French or Italian
Medium:Elephant ivory, paint and gilding
Dimensions:Overall: 3 7/16 x 5 1/16 x 3/16 in. (8.8 x 12.9 x 0.4 cm)
Credit Line:Gift of J. Pierpont Morgan, 1917
Two sets of teeth have been sawn into this panel of ivory, forming a double-sided comb. The upper teeth are thicker and more widely spaced, while the lower are more delicate and packed more densely. When this comb was made in the early fifteenth century, a user would use the more robust set of teeth of double-sided combs to untangle knots. After the hair was untangled, the user would pull the lower, finer set of teeth through the hair multiple times in a row. This practice helped the hair slough dust and shed skin and drew sebum from the scalp to the tips of the hair, leaving hair clean, smooth, and shiny.
The comb is painted and gilded on both sides. The thick space between the two sets of teeth displays birds on a flowery groundline on one side. The composition on the other side centers on a flaming heart. On either side of the flaming heart, three hounds chase a rabbit through a flowery landscape. The imagery calls attention to central place that medieval poets afforded combs as a symbol of courtly love. In his De Amore, the poet Andreas Capellanus claims that a comb is one of the gifts that a lady could accept from a suitor. In his opinion, it was particularly suitable because combs were among the tools that women used to make themselves attractive. Later medieval poets leaned into this comment and transformed the hair comb and hand mirror into a metonym for erotic attraction and the gendered arts of makeup and fashion. In his Romance of the Rose for example, Guillaume de Lorris characterizes Idleness, the gatekeeper of the Garden of Love, as a seductive, fashionably dressed woman. The illuminators of two early manuscripts of this poem now in the Morgan Library represented Idleness as a woman with a round mirror and a double-sided comb similar to the present example (Morgan Library MS M.48 fol. 5v; MS M.324 fol. 5v).
The overlapping associations between combs, the care of the self, and the arts of love made combs like the current example appropriate for wedding gifts and bridal trousseaux. When the Modenese noblewoman Caterina Pico da Carpi married Lionello Pio I of Savoy in 1474, for instance, her trousseau included seven ivory combs. That said, while medieval poetry and courtly love ideology suggests a largely female usership for deluxe ivory combs like the present example, the strong emphasis that European court cultures placed on the dress and personal appearance of a ruler ensured that their use was not strongly gendered in practice. In 1386, Philip the Bold, Duke of Burgundy (r. 1365-1404) bought a leather box containing three combs, one mirror, and a brooch, all made of ivory for his own use from the Parisian comb-maker Hauryet de Greez for the price of six gold francs. The same receipt records the further five francs he spent on a similar box set for his son Jean, and another two francs for a leather box with a single ivory comb (Archives Départmentales de la Cote d’Or, B1471 57r). Form-fitting box sets or etui like these are common in records of late medieval courts and protected expensive articles like combs when not in use.
Timothy B. Husband and Jane Hayward, ed., The Secular Spirit: Life and Art at the End of the Middle Ages (New York: Dutton Publishing, 1975), pp. 94.
Andrea Bayer, ed., Art and Love in Renaissance Italy (New York and New Haven: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2008), pp. 106-107.
Paul Williamson and Glyn Davies, Medieval Ivory Carvings, 1200-1550, Part II (London: V&A Publishing, 2014), pp. 609-631.
Catalogue Entry by Scott Miller, Andrew W. Mellon Curatorial and Research Collections Specialist, Department of Medieval Art and The Cloisters, 2020–2022.
J. Pierpont Morgan (American), London and New York (until 1917)
New York. The Cloisters Museum & Gardens. "The Secular Spirit: Life and Art at the End of the Middle Ages," March 28–June 15, 1975.
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Art and Love in Renaissance Italy," November 11, 2008–February 16, 2009.
Fort Worth. Kimbell Art Museum. "Art and Love in Renaissance Italy," March 15–June 14, 2009.
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Metropolitan Vanities: The History of the Dressing Table," December 17, 2013–April 13, 2014.
Husband, Timothy B., and Jane Hayward, ed. The Secular Spirit: Life and Art at the End of the Middle Ages. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1975. no. 107a, pp. 86, 94, fig. 5.
Bayer, Andrea, ed. Art and Love in Renaissance Italy. New York and New Haven: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2008. no. 37, p. 106–7.
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