Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

Paintings of Love and Marriage in the Italian Renaissance

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  • "La donna nuda"

    When Guidobaldo della Rovere, soon to be duke of Urbino, wrote to his agent in Venice in March 1538 about Titian's now-iconic painting known as the Venus of Urbino (Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence), he called the picture simply "la donna nuda" (the nude woman). In his terse, serviceable letter, there is absolutely no mention of the painting's meaning or of the motivation behind its commission. Guidobaldo's lack of specificity makes it difficult for the modern viewer to grasp the meaning of many comparable sixteenth-century paintings, meanings that almost certainly were clear to the original owners. Consider the following interpretations of this image: the subject is a sexy, nude woman lying on her bed; she is a courtesan (hence Manet's reinterpretation of her as Olympia); she is the mythological goddess Venus; she is a Venus indulging in an obscene gesture; she was created as a marriage painting; she was painted specifically to commemorate della Rovere's marriage to the prepubescent Giulia da Varano (which had taken place some four years before the picture was executed, in 1534). Perhaps the painting's ambiguity would matter less if a whole group of paintings were not pulled into its wake. These begin with Giorgione's Sleeping Venus (Gemäldegalerie, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen, Dresden), executed some twenty-five years earlier, and are followed by works of nude or semi-nude women by Palma il Vecchio, Domenico Beccafumi, Lorenzo Lotto (1986.138), and Paris Bordon, among many others.

    Numerous contemporary authors wrote about the efficacy of such images in stimulating married couples hoping for children, as well as about the belief that visual beauty before a couple's eyes could influence the appearance of their offspring.

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    Historians argue that many of the elements in these paintings relate to nuptial imagery and to the decoration of bedrooms (camere) after a wedding. The poetic figure of a resting or sleeping Venus plays an important role in epithalamia, the marriage songs in poetry or prose invented by the Greeks (above all, Sappho), adopted by the Romans (Catullus, Statius, and others), and revived on a grand scale during the Renaissance. In these songs or orations, Venus is described as reclining in a bower, while Cupid—sometimes armed with his arrows—rouses her to come to a wedding as pronuba, or patroness, of marriage. Other details in these paintings are taken directly from the evolving language of the Renaissance epithalamium and are associated with the celebration of weddings. For example, Titian's Venus of Urbino includes many significant details related not only to epithalamia but also more generally to contemporary marriage imagery: servants packing or unpacking the sumptuous gowns stored in the two cassoni in the background; the myrtle bush; Venus's rose petals; her pearl earring; and her faithful dog. Even the way in which Titian uses Venus's gesture and the geometry of the composition to draw our attention to the goddess's pubic area could contribute to the themes of maritally sanctioned sexuality and fertility. In this respect, the painting calls to mind Lorenzo Lotto's Venus and Cupid (1986.138), in which Cupid directs a spray of urine onto Venus's rose-petal-covered pubic area.


    When Giorgio Vasari saw Titian's painting in Pesaro in 1548, it was hanging along with other works by the artist in the duke's guardaroba, or wardrobe. However, there is evidence that horizontal paintings of female nudes were often installed directly over beds or, at least, in a bedroom. Numerous contemporary authors wrote about the efficacy of such images in stimulating married couples hoping for children, as well as about the belief that visual beauty before a couple's eyes could influence the appearance of their offspring. But we must not be misled into thinking that the meanings of such paintings were entirely innocent or domestic. It is clear that their content was understood to have an erotic charge. The Dominican preacher Savonarola's understanding of this aspect of such paintings was revealed when he complained that people had "near their beds and lettucci images of naked men and women doing indecent things."


    "I can dress her and I can make my chamber"

    How did such allusive and evocative paintings make their way into the nuptial bedroom? Florentine husbands took pains to embellish the spaces their brides would come to inhabit in their fathers' homes. The decorations included great chests (cassoni, or forzieri, which in the fifteenth century were almost always painted), an elaborately carved bed and daybed (lettiera and lettuccio), sometimes surmounted by a hat rack (cappellinaio), a bench (cassapanca), mirrors, tapestries, and hangings. In addition, a devotional work—either painted or carved—was an essential element of a complete bedroom in fifteenth-century Italy.


    By the later decades of the fifteenth century, artists were producing important cycles of paintings for the walls of these camere (32.100.69) and panels specifically meant to hang over beds. Some of the imagery seems to have migrated from its original location on the lids of cassoni to these more prominent places. Paintings that hung over the massive daybeds were also part of the furnishing of the camera. The most tantalizing of all such paintings in Florence is Botticelli's Primavera (Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence), likely painted for Lorenzo the Magnificent's cousin Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de' Medici (1463–1503). In a 1498 inventory of the Casa Vecchia, a Medici townhouse on the Via Larga near the Medici Palace, this masterpiece is recorded in an inventory as hanging over a daybed in the room adjacent to Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco's principal camera on the ground floor. The room also included Botticelli's splendid so-called Pallas and the Centaur (Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence); both paintings are generally believed to have been commissioned for Lorenzo's wedding, perhaps as a gift from his older cousin. Among numerous other topics/subjects, scholars have identified references in both paintings to sources whose themes include the marriage union, chastity, and fidelity.


    Some of the most interesting paintings commissioned for the private rooms of young Tuscan couples are spalliere paintings. The term spalliera, related to the Italian word for "shoulder" (spalla), covers a bewildering variety of paintings and hangings, all of them installed at shoulder height or higher. Decorations called spalliere ranged from the painted backrests of daybeds and wood paneling or wainscoting, sometimes with intarsia work, to tapestries hung above benches. Recently, scholars have suggested that we underestimate the height at which spalliere panels (and other domestic works, such as devotional tondi) may originally have hung. Analysis of contemporary documents describing the disposition of paintings in a room, and visual analysis of the compositions of the paintings themselves, indicates that these works were often meant to be seen above eye level. It may well be that the viewer had to look up at the narratives that ornamented the upper parts of the walls of the camera.


    Paintings commissioned to be inserted in the wainscoting of rooms, or hung independently at that height, could treat the most disparate subject matter (including the lives of saints) and could suit many varieties of patronage, including civic commissions. Yet, a surprising number of the fifteenth- and early sixteenth-century paintings that fit the general definition of spalliere panels can be associated with marriage and the preparation of a camera, and depict narratives chosen from ancient texts or contemporary literature.


    Botticelli's Venus and Mars (National Gallery, London), for example, demonstrates that commissions for nuptial spalliere paintings could inspire artists to exercise great wit and inventiveness. Vasari described other spalliere paintings made by Botticelli for the same family, concentrating on their installation, rather than their subjects: "Round an apartment [camera] of the house of Giovanni Vespucci, now belonging to Piero Salviati, in the Via de' Servi, he made many pictures which were enclosed by frames of walnut-wood, by way of ornament and paneling [per ricignimento e spalliera], with many most lively and beautiful figures." Vasari's descriptions make clear that these paintings were very much parts of ensembles, meant to be seen as unified wholes.


    Of ensembles made to decorate the Florentine camera, the most elaborate seems to have been the paintings commissioned by Salvi Borgherini on the occasion of the wedding of his son Pierfrancesco (1480–1558) and Margherita Accaiuoli, in 1515. The great woodworker and architect Baccio d'Agnolo designed the walnut furniture, including a lettuccio and two cassoni, and the paneling of the room. A consortium of painters led by Andrea del Sarto, alongside Jacopo Pontormo, Francesco Granacci, and Francesco Bachiacca, was hired to paint fourteen panels with scenes from the Old Testament narrative of the Life of Joseph. The disposition of these works constituted a veritable encyclopedia of the possible locations of paintings within such a chamber: they were inserted as panels in cassoni, as spalliere above cassoni and elsewhere, and perhaps above a cassapanca, above the lettuccio, around the sides of the bed (tornaletti), and possibly over a door and the fireplace.


    In 1529, some years after the completion of the room, when the Medici partisan Pierfrancesco was in exile in Lucca during the siege of Florence, a representative of the anti-Medicean Republican government, Battista della Palla, asked Margherita Accaiuoli to give up the Joseph paintings for sale so that the city could present them to his party's supporter, the king of France. Margherita lashed out at the "cheap salesman" who made the request, declaring, "This bed, which you want for your private interest and greed for money—although you cloak your malevolence in false piety—this is the bed of my nuptials in honor of which my father-in-law Salvi made all this magnificent and regal decoration, which I revere in memory of him and for the love of my husband, and which I intend to defend with my very blood and life." What was the meaning of this speech that Vasari puts in the mouth of the offended wife? Through the metaphor of her bed, Margherita defended the honor of her home, her husband's family, and of her city as she saw it. In 1530, the siege of Florence ended; the Republicans were defeated; and Margherita's nemesis, Battista della Palla, was thrown into a Medicean fortress, where he soon died.


    Epithalamia and the Poetry of Marriage

    While the relevance of certain cassone and spalliera subjects to nuptial themes is not always clear, paintings that respond to the poetic imagery of epithalamia are direct statements of the pleasures and hopes of marriage. Written in praise of marriage in song, prose, or verse, epithalamia were usually composed for specific occasions. They have a complex history, but in short we can say that many were inspired by the great examples of Catullus (84–54 B.C.), especially three of his poems known as Carmen 61, 62, and 64; Statius, who wrote about 90 A.D.; and Claudian, who was active at the end of the fourth century A.D. Examples of epithalamia come from all over Italy, although in the fifteenth century they were most numerous at the courts of Ferrara, Naples, Milan, and Rimini, where they were delivered as Latin or Italian orations at weddings. They often commented at length on the virtues and qualities of the bride and groom, as well as those of their families.


    Lorenzo Lotto's great, hitherto enigmatic, Venus and Cupid (1986.138) was created with the imagery of the epithalamium in mind. It was in the poetry of Statius that the goddess Venus came to play the primary role in the celebration of marriage, replacing Hymen. As one scholar writes, she "unites the couple, sanctions the passions that brought them together, and increases their amorous desires." Cupid comes to the bower where Venus is resting and escorts her to the wedding, where she adorns the bride and prepares the bridal bed. Lotto (and most likely his patron) also found inspiration in the beautiful language of Catullus's poetry. It is in Catullus's Carmen 61 that we read of the bridal wreath and the "glossy-leaved myrtle," of the beauty of the bride as compared to Venus, and her delicacy compared to myrtle's tiny flowers. Catullus twice uses the metaphor of a vine clinging to a tree to describe a married couple. In the same poem, he indulges in ribald jests that were meant to help ward off evil; in Lotto's painting, the ribald content is contributed by the "giocoso" (jesting) Cupid. Significantly, a laughing Cupid appears again in a nuptial poem by Claudian. An emphasis on illicit, somber, or threatening aspects of love is an important element of Carmen 64, conveyed in the story of Theseus and Ariadne—a tale of illicit love and abandonment. This darker aspect may be reflected in Lotto's sinister depiction of a snake beneath the blue cloth upon which Venus reclines and the nearby rod with which she might chastise Cupid. To this antique inspiration Lotto added contemporary Italian and Venetian references to marriage: the bridal tiara and pearl earring, the veil, and the Cupid who urinates as a symbol of fertility.


    Epithalamia were written to celebrate marriages, and therefore were required to be positive about the institution. There were many excellent reasons that marriage was important for society, which were voiced in these orations and poems. But these orations also express the personal satisfactions that marriage could bring. Addressing himself to the guests at the extravagantly grand wedding of Costanzo Sforza and Camilla of Aragon in 1475, Pandolfo Collenuccio began his oration with a reference to oft-expressed antimarriage sentiments: "I am amazed at how many men are hostile to marriage, since they believe that wives are an impediment to work, studies, and the contemplation of the truth." The author was absolutely against such an approach to life: "There can be no happiness without a wife and no one should be judged wise, as Aristotle says, who spurns so great a good of nature, so great a pleasure of friendship, and the usefulness of so great a gift. . God established marriage; nature beckons us to use and enjoy it; peoples agree upon it; and individual cities have founded rites and solemn ceremonies for it." The paintings created to celebrate marriage in one way or another express these same sentiments, encouraging young couples to enter into the "blessed bond of board and bed" that Shakespeare named in As You Like It.

    Andrea Bayer
    Department of European Paintings, The Metropolitan Museum of Art