During the early fifteenth century, Europe continued to evolve out of a series of medieval feudal states ruled by wealthy landowners into concentrated town centers or cities functioning as powerful economic nuclei. As these cities took on greater political and financial authority, the middle classes, made up of artisans, bankers, and merchants, played more substantial roles in commerce with their greater wealth and independence. Along with this prosperity, particularly marked in Italy, an increased number of palaces and villas were constructed, subsequently creating a greater demand for extravagant furniture and domestic art, both for established aristocratic patrons and the newly wealthy. The Metropolitan’s Farnese table (58.57) with marble inlay, commissioned for a wealthy papal family, represents the kind of large, monumental furniture that populated the newly built, spacious interiors of these magnificent palaces.
The manufacture of secular art objects, usually for the purpose of commemoration, personalized these lavish Italian Renaissance interiors. Because childbirth and marriage were richly celebrated, a number of objects were made in honor of these rituals. The wooden birth tray, or desco da parto, played a utilitarian as well as celebratory role in commemorating a child’s birth. It was covered with a special cloth to function as a service tray for the mother during confinement and later displayed on the wall as a memento of the special occasion. A desco da parto was usually painted with mythological, classical, or literary themes, as well as scenes of domesticity. The reverse often displayed a family crest. In some cases, a birth tray was purchased already painted, but custom-decorated with heraldry that personalized what might otherwise be a line item from a shop. The Metropolitan’s Triumph of Fame (1995.7) by Scheggia, Masaccio’s younger brother, is the finest and most extravagant surviving example of a birth tray. It is noteworthy for its condition, beauty, and association with the great Florentine Medici family. This tray was specially commissioned by Piero de’ Medici and Lucrezia Tornabuoni to commemorate the birth of their first-born son Lorenzo.
Eventually, ceramic bowls, or maiolica, replaced wooden birth trays as service objects during childbirth. Originating on the island of Majorca, these brilliantly colored wares were decorated with narratives related to birth, while wooden trays eventually portrayed more heraldic and mythological scenes. These rich ceramics were also produced as dinnerware and containers, exemplified by the Metropolitan’s Medici porcelain ewer (17.190.2045) and Faenza bowl (1975.1.1043a,b).