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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Courtship and Betrothal in the Italian Renaissance

In the Italian Renaissance, as now, lovers exchanged gifts. The physical embodiment of desire, these objects often display literary or symbolic representations of the pursuit or attainment of the lover. Couched in the ancient metaphor of the phoenix, the mythical bird that burns yet emerges unscathed from the embers, the explicit language of desire winds along the length of a woven belt: I WILL SMOULDER EVEN AS A PHOENIX/ WITH THE FIRE OF YOUR KISSES,/ AND I WILL DIE. Though its author has eluded identification, the verse echoes chivalric love poetry from the late Middle Ages by Petrarch or Dante, texts well known among a broad range of social classes by the middle of the sixteenth century through musical contexts such as madrigals as well as in written form. Belts or girdles (17.190.963) were associated with fertility as well as marriage, since the touch of a particular relic of the Virgin‘s girdle was said to aid women in childbirth. The front of a niello plaque that cinched this belt features a profile portrait of an amorous couple, the woman’s arm provocatively encircling the shoulders of her lover. The woman wears a head brooch and a pearl necklace, both characteristic bridal ornaments; a lady holding a carnation, traditional symbol of love, betrothal, and marriage, is on the reverse. Mentioned in literary and documentary contexts, belts had a practical function as well, and were probably worn by women high above the waist with the weighted ends dangling suggestively.

Love can also be painful. The notion of “sweet suffering” was diffused through sources such as the Canzoniere of Petrarch, which provided rich descriptive vocabulary such as this from the sixty-first sonnet:

Oh blessèd be the day, the month, the year,
the season and the time, the hour, the instant,
the gracious countryside, the place where I
was struck by those two lovely eyes that bound me;
and blessèd be the first sweet agony
I felt when I found myself bound to Love,
the bow and all the arrows that have pierced me,
the wounds that reach the bottom of my heart.

Here, the poet praises the moment when he first saw the eyes of his beloved but elusive Laura, and was bound to her by love, which led to his heart’s being pierced by wounding arrows. This imagery of piercing and binding is ubiquitous on a group of maiolica dishes from Deruta, Faenza, and Gubbio. The textual inspiration for these images is evident from the fragmentary but evocative inscriptions that animate the line drawings on the ceramics, words that bespeak a familiarity with this currency of expression.

A tin-glazed earthenware, or maiolica, plate from Deruta features the inscription EL MIO CORE É FERITO P[ER] VOE (my heart is wounded by you). On it, a barefoot woman seen in profile carries a footed dish in which a heart, pierced by two arrows, rests. She is framed by two oversized ears of millet, perhaps an allusion to fertility. Spurned love is also the theme represented on a plate from Gubbio. The inscription ME DOL L’INFAMIA TUA: PIU CHE [I]L MORIRE (your infamy hurts me more than death) appears on a sign in the foreground of a landscape in which a woman points an accusatory finger—and a dagger—at a man whose arms are bound to a tree. A crespina, or fluted bowl, from Faenza features a scene of amor crudel (cruel love): seated in a landscape, a woman wields a dagger in one hand, and in the other she holds a heart she is about to pierce with her weapon. On a dish from Deruta, a woman draws back a bow strung with an arrow, her target a man whose arms are bound behind his back. A banderole winds behind him bearing the inscription O Q[U]ANTA CRUDELTA (O what a cruel fate). Between the archer and her mark, a heart, pierced by two arrows, rests on a footed dish.

But the symbol of the heart pierced by an arrow—understood metonymically as the weapon generally deployed by Cupid, son of Venus, to ensnare his victims—is also one of hope. It appears at the center of an ivory comb (17.190.245), once perhaps part of a dowry ensemble, a reminder of the one for whom the hair is being dressed. On a two-handled cup from Deruta, winged Cupid holds a footed dish that contains a heart pierced by an arrow. Two inscriptions on the cup leave no doubt about its meaning: QUISTA TE DONO P[ER] AMORE BELLA (I give you this, beautiful one, as a token of my love) and P[ER] AMORE TE PORTO IN QUISSTA COPA BELLA (for the love I bear thee in this fine cup). Cupid himself appears as a feisty and plump toddler in the magnificent allegory of marriage by Lorenzo Lotto, the painting Venus and Cupid (1986.138), wounding arrows stashed in his quiver to shift the focus from the pains of love to the joys of marriage and hopes for fecundity.

Petrarchan messages are conveyed on other objects connected with courtship and betrothal. A wood casket decorated with reliefs inspired by chivalric romance (41.100.188) has the inscription ONESSTÀ FA BELLA DONNA (integrity makes a beautiful woman), written in Gothic letters, on its cover. The casket may have been created to store small personal effects such as the ivory comb (17.190.245), spindle whorls, or needle case, which could have made up a trousseau. The inscription alludes to the central idea that beauty is the outward manifestation of inner virtue.

The many ceramic plates that feature images of beautiful women, with inscriptions that generally give a name followed by the word bella, also fall into this category of art objects tied to the rituals of courtship and betrothal. A plate from Urbino or Castel Durante with the bust of a woman and a cartellino indicating that she is LIVIA BELLA (1975.1.1084) is a prime example of coppe amatorie, or “love gifts,” made until at least the eighteenth century. Though the question of whether these beauties represent portraits of actual women has not been resolved, scholars suggest convincingly that they are linked to a literary genre of catalogues of illustrious men and women that flourished in Renaissance cities like Florence, Bologna, Venice, and Naples after being revived from classical antiquity by Petrarch and Boccaccio. These plates were most likely commissioned by male suitors as gifts for their intended brides, and, along with rings, played an important role in cementing the union between a man and woman.

Rings often took the ancient form of two clasped hands, known in the Renaissance as the fede, or faith, motif. This motif may refer to a specific moment in contemporary marriage rituals when representatives of the couple met to conclude a contractual agreement, shaking hands afterward. The symbol of clasped hands appears on a variety of objects besides rings. A ceramic inkstand features images of a man and woman facing each other, with a pair of clasped hands in a roundel between them. The inscription reads IO. TE DO.LA.MANE / DAME. LA.FEDE (I give you my hand, give me your faith [i.e., the ring]), a concise description of the marriage ceremony.

Rings played a seminal role at various points in the process of marrying. The anellamento, or ring day, marked the passage of the couple from betrothed to married. The placing of the ring on the bride’s finger is illustrated in cassone and spalliera paintings, such as Apollonio di Giovanni’s Story of Esther (18.117.2), suggesting the ring’s strong symbolic power. Rings made a marriage. When the beautiful widow Lusanna attempted to argue that her boyfriend Giovanni had actually married her, she stated that he gave her a ring, and when she explained through her lawyer that Giovanni later turned around and married another woman, the proof of his marriage to this other woman was that it took place “in a public ceremony with an exchange of vows and rings and with other customary solemnities.” Rings were also an important part of Jewish marriage customs. A Jewish betrothal ring fashioned of gold filigree and brightly colored enamel (17.190.996) features the characteristic rooflike shape that represents the shelter that marriage and family were intended to provide.