Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Birth and Family in the Italian Renaissance

As with courtship, betrothal, and marriage rituals, those attending the arrival of children were accompanied by gift-giving. Prescriptive literature emphasized the importance of family and, specifically, children for maintaining the health of the civic body. In Book 2 of Leon Battista Alberti’s I libri della famiglia, the author’s interlocutor Lionardo discusses fatherhood: “It will serve our purpose, also, to remind the young of the dignity conferred on the father in the ancient world. Fathers of families wore precious jewels and were given other tokens of dignity forbidden to any who had not added by his progeny to the population of the republic. It may also help to recall to young men how often profligates and hopeless prodigals have been restored to a better life by the presence of a wife in the house.”

The dialogue also addresses issues concerning the mother’s pre- and postnatal care. After admitting that it is best to leave specific instructions to the doctors, Lionardo tells Battista: “The woman, then, who thinks she is pregnant should live discreetly, contentedly, and chastely—light nourishing foods, no hard, excessive labor, no sleepy or lazy days in idle solitude. She should give birth in her husband’s house and not elsewhere. Once she is delivered, she must not go out into the cold and the wind until her health is fully restored and all her limbs have fully regained their strength.”

Doctors were probably less in evidence in the birthing room than midwives, whose knowledge comprised superstition as well as an intuitive understanding of childbirth greater than most male doctors would have had at the time. Many contemporary objects manifest the attendant risks and potential joys of bearing offspring.

Responsible parenting began even before the moment of conception. A variety of talismans, amulets, and herbal remedies were employed by women who desired children. Many people believed that gazing on certain images would ensure the birth of a perfect male child. The eroticizing imagery of nudes painted on the inner lids of cassoni presumably helped in this process, as did images of young boys cavorting on the reverse of painted wood deschi da parto, or birth trays. An example of the latter is the reverse of the tray by Bartolomeo di Fruosino, with the chunky toddler wearing a coral amulet and holding a pinwheel. Like Lorenzo Lotto’s Cupid (1986.138), he urinates in a shower of good wishes, as recounted on the inscription that runs around the rim of the tray: MAY GOD GIVE HEALTH TO EVERY WOMAN WHO GIVES BIRTH AND TO THE CHILD’S FATHER . . . MAY [THE CHILD] BE BORN WITHOUT FATIGUE OR DANGER. I AM A BABY WHO LIVES . . . AND I MAKE URINE OF SILVER AND GOLD. On another desco, a group of boys play a well-known game, the civettino, in a public square.

Once a child was born, deschi da parto and other objects helped to smooth his (and probably only rarely her) entrance into the world. Painted wood trays such as that created in 1448–49 by Giovanni di ser Giovanni Guidi (Scheggia) (1995.7) to commemorate the birth of Lorenzo de’ Medici might be cherished by their owners throughout their lives. The imagery on this tray, the Triumph of Fame, alludes to a theme made popular by Petrarch’s literary descriptions of various kinds of triumphal processions that took place in antiquity. Birth trays may have been used initially to serve celebratory delicacies to the new mother as she recovered in bed, where she might stay for an extended period. The image on the front of Bartolomeo di Fruosino’s tray displays a group of women gathered around a bed while the mother recuperates, her baby being serenaded by attendants in the foreground. Resting on the bed in front of the mother is what appears to be a polygonal tray covered with a cloth, perhaps to protect its painted surface.

The custom of creating brilliantly painted souvenir birth trays flourished in the fifteenth century but was short-lived. By the early sixteenth century, flat deschi da parto were superceded by round wood bowls, called tafferie da parto, like the outstanding example by Jacopo da Pontormo from about 1525. Unlike the flat trays, tafferie generally featured religious imagery such as the Naming of John the Baptist, which depicts John’s father, Zacharias, writing down the baby’s name, a favorite scene for the literate Florentines of the Renaissance prone to keeping track of their own families through memoirs, or ricordi. The bowls—probably created in ensembles—may have been designed to serve a special meal to the recovering mother. The confinement imagery on a set consisting of a scodella (footed bowl) and a tagliere (tray) from Castel Durante reflects its function. On the curved interior of the bowl, a woman sits comfortably in a fashionable lettiera (bed) with a canopy, a teal-colored coverlet draped over her legs. She holds a cup to her mouth and appears to be drinking. At a fireplace in the room, attendants prepare other food, some of which is being conveyed to the bed, where a cloth-covered tray awaits its charge. The baby sleeps peacefully in a cradle beside the bed. The tagliere, whose exterior is decorated with a matching landscape vista, would have cradled the scodella, which may once have had a cover to keep its contents warm. Just what was on the menu? A restorative chicken soup may very well have arrived at bedside in a beautiful maiolica covered bowl like that painted by Baldassare Manara (1975.1.1043a,b). This bowl represents stories from ancient sources—that of Aeneas and Hercules, exemplars of filial piety and strength, who are featured in images and inscriptions that wind around the bowl and cover, as well as that of the star-crossed lovers Pyramus and Thisbe, whose true love led to their destruction.

Another object that rounds out our picture of family life is the cradle or crib. In confinement images such as those visible on maiolica birth wares, cradles frequently appear, bearing their new occupants swaddled in fine linens. One example, in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London,, richly carved and emblazoned with family escutcheons, is testimony to the deep regard in which children were held. The cradle depicted on a wood childbirth platter from the circle of Battista Franco holds a large infant labeled on the front, in gold, HERCULES, who is unmistakable as he strangles the serpents sent by jealous Juno to destroy him.

Baptisms, like marriages, were also occasions to exchange gifts and cement family and kinship ties. As we know from descriptions and even from sumptuary regulations, babies were decked out in velvets and fine linens for the trip to the baptismal font while their mothers usually rested at home. Gifts for baby and mother were presented by the godparents and other important members of the extended family, and could include sweetmeats, wax, and even forks.