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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Weddings in the Italian Renaissance

Many official descriptions of weddings between wealthy or important people survive. Wedding celebrations could go on for several days, involving a succession of parades, processions, spectacles, performances, games, and meals. Beginning in the fifteenth century, the ancient Roman practice of declaiming custom-written poems celebrating the union was revived. Wedding poems, called epithalamia, are full of references to the purpose of marriage: to perpetuate the civic and political institutions that maintain a stable society. The humanist writers of the wedding poems generally shared the “family values” expressed by Leon Battista Alberti and others who extolled the civic virtues of marriage.

The wedding procession was the most public part of the marriage, and provided an opportunity for the entire community to share in the celebration and thus ratify the marriage. The ritual actions of the father handing the daughter to the husband, expressed in the Latin phrase tradere filiam suam (to hand over his daughter), and of the husband taking the woman into his house, uxorem ducere (to lead a woman), were the essence of the ceremony. Like the many gifts exchanged before and after the ceremony, the bride herself was an object handed from one owner to another.

Wedding processions became more elaborate during the Renaissance period. Marriages, which were also mergers, were potentially explosive moments, and lavish festivities may have diffused some of the tensions that might arise between families over dowry arrangements and other touchy subjects. The bridal procession might even face dangers from hostile mobs or individuals, as suggested by a Florentine statute from 1415, which forbade the throwing of stones or garbage at the home of the couple. Wedding processions were often compared to ancient triumphal processions. The idea of the wedding as a triumph is reflected in the imagery on cassoni (marriage chests) panels such as Apollonio di Giovanni’s Triumph of Scipio Africanus, known in several versions.

Descriptions of fabulous scenery and floats for the great Medici weddings of the sixteenth century are well known through Giorgio Vasari’s Lives and other sources. In his account of the life of the versatile designer Il Tribolo, Vasari describes the 1539 wedding, in Florence, of Cosimo I de’ Medici and Eleonora di Toledo: “Tribolo was given the charge of constructing a triumphal arch at the Porta al Prato, through which the bride, coming from Poggio, was to enter; which arch he made a thing of beauty, very ornate with columns, pilasters, architraves, great cornices, and pediments. The arch was to be all covered with figures and scenes, in addition to the statues by the hand of Tribolo.” Vasari catalogues the allegorical figures on this arch as well as the decorations in the Medici palace, in the Piazza San Marco, and the scenery for theatrical events staged during the wedding festivities. Other descriptions of entire cities being transformed into stage sets for the performances of great court weddings tantalize the imagination, yet little visual evidence remains.

Wedding feasts were among the most lavish of meals, featuring entertainment as well as many courses of specialty foods for both eating and beholding. When Eleanor of Aragon arrived in Ferrara in 1473 for her multiday wedding, she was greeted by a parade of allegorical floats, followed on subsequent days by a fifty-six-course feast, and dances and jousts, during which sugar sculptures were displayed. The humanist Filippo Beroaldo reported that the 1487 wedding of Lucrezia d’Este and Giovanni Bentivoglio in Bologna featured giant sugar sculptures of castles, ships, people, and animals, and a flaming wheel of fireworks that accidentally ignited some of the wedding guests. Contemporary handbooks provide specific instructions on wedding planning and menus, such as Domenico Romoli’s 1560 Singolare dottrina, which contains a section instructing the steward on how to lay the tables with embroidered tablecloths. In his spalliera painting The Banquet in the Pinewoods, one of four grand panels for a wedding chamber based on Giovanni Boccaccio’s dark moralizing tale, in The Decameron, of Nastagio degli Onesti, Botticelli illustrated a feast gone awry. The potential bride being wooed by the hapless Nastagio has been invited to a banquet, where she bears witness to a spectral reluctant bride pursued to the death by her spurned lover—a knight—and his dogs. As the naked woman is nipped by dogs in the foreground prior to being eviscerated at the hands of the knight, the carefully laid table is thrown into disorder by the agitated guests, overturned glasses staining the tablecloths and gleaming vessels clattering to the ground. In its remarkable detail and psychological poignancy, this image conveys both the highest aspirations and the greatest fears of any bride on her wedding day.