Art and Love in Renaissance Italy

Paris Bordon, Venus, Mars, and Cupid Crowned by Victory on view in Art and Love in Renaissance Italy

Art and Love in Renaissance Italy

March 15, 2009 to June 14, 2009

Key moments in the lives of Italian men and women in the Renaissance were marked by celebrations of the highest possible degree of magnificence, and none more lavishly than betrothal, marriage, or the birth of a child. Art and Love in Renaissance Italy, on view this spring at the Kimbell, will offer a unique look at approximately 150 paintings and art objects, dating from 1400 to 1600, that were created to celebrate love and marriage. It will include marriage portraits and paintings that extol sensual love and fertility, exquisite examples of jewelry and maiolica (tin-glazed ceramic) given as gifts to couples, and some of the rarest and most significant pieces of Renaissance glassware, cassone panels, birth trays, and drawings and prints of amorous subjects.

The exhibition will present three major sections. The first, Celebrating Betrothal, Marriage, and Childbirth, will feature splendid wedding gifts. For wealthy families in cities such as Florence, Venice, and Milan, the best marriage depended on a sizable dowry provided by the bride’s family—not only money and property, but a variety of goods for the bride’s new home, including clothing, jewelry, and domestic objects. The lavish wedding celebrations of the period occasioned the giving of extravagant gifts, such as maiolica decorated with narratives or portraits, rare Venetian glassware, rings (including one of the earliest known diamond wedding rings) and other jewelry, delicate gilded boxes, and vividly painted cassoni, or bridal chests that would be filled with costly linens and clothing. Likewise, the safe birth of a child was celebrated and commemorated with the production of finely painted deschi da parto (wooden childbirth trays) and maiolica childbirth bowls known as scodelle da parto,  often painted with encouraging representations of a mother resting in her confinement room, with evocative representations of Renaissance interiors. Marked with heraldic devices, childbirth trays and bowls were prized possessions in many households and handed down from generation to generation.

The section Profane Love will focus on erotic, at times salacious, imagery treated in drawings, prints, and other objects created by some of the most celebrated artists of the time, including Parmigianino and Giulio Romano. Many of these works exhibit a witty, burlesque sensibility that satirizes more intellectually elevated modes of art and literature. Classical mythology, especially the loves of the gods as recounted by Ovid and other ancient poets, provided a convenient pretext for the portrayal of erotic imagery. The world of the courtesan and associated luxury items will also be explored in the exhibition.

Famed for their beauty, cultural accomplishments, and wit, courtesans were especially prevalent in Rome and Venice.

From Cassone to Poesia: Paintings of Love and Marriage will shift the focus to nuptial portraits and paintings on themes of love that decorated bedchambers and private quarters. Highly important and intriguing portraits—including double portraits commemorating marriage, rare portraits of babies, fathers with their children, and widows—by such painters as Fra Filippo Lippi, Domenico Ghirlandaio, and Lorenzo Lotto will be on display, and the poetic genius of the Renaissance will be represented by some of the most beguiling and sensual works by Titian, Palma il Vecchio, Tintoretto, and their contemporaries. Decorating the camera (bedroom) of a new husband and wife was of enormous importance to their families, and huge sums were spent on cassoni and often panel paintings called spalliere, which were installed about shoulder height as part of the wainscoting. Virtuous women from ancient history or the Hebrew Bible, whose stories were represented on cassoni panels, were also the subjects of paintings that decorated the walls of nuptial chambers, serving as exempla for the newlyweds Portraits of belle donne, or beautiful women, reflect poetry that lauded women’s beauty. The symbolism of these ravishing paintings is not straightforward, as the identity of the women portrayed continues to be debated: are they courtesans, brides, or idealized beauties?  The extraordinarily evocative representations of Venus by Titian and other Venetians launch us into a new era of paintings that treat subjects related to love and marriage. Distant cousins of the reclining nudes found in the inner lids of cassoni in the fifteenth century, these later paintings are imbued with far greater poetic sensibilities, as visual equivalents of the poems that the ancient Romans recited at weddings. Like contemporary poems and prose by writers beginning with Petrarch, these mythological and allegorical paintings thus evoked the poetic language of love. The great Renaissance paintings on the themes of love and marriage owe their rich complexity, and often ambiguity, to the broad range of contemporary thought on the subject. The exhibition offers a unique, illuminating look at the function and imagery of the artworks on view, in tandem with the historical context of Renaissance marriage and its many-sided attitudes toward love.

Art and Love in Renaissance Italy is organized by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and the Kimbell Art Museum. It is supported by an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and Humanities. The exhibition was on view at The Metropolitan Museum of Art from November 11, 2008, through February 16, 2009. The Kimbell is its only other venue.

The exhibition is accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue published by The Metropolitan Museum of Art in association with Yale University Press, New Haven and London, available in the Museum Shop. This important volume, by a distinguished group of scholars, is the first to examine the entire range of works to which Renaissance rituals of love and marriage gave rise and makes a major contribution to our understanding of Renaissance art in its broader cultural context.

The authors of the catalogue include Andrea Bayer, curator, Department of European Paintings, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, who is also the editor of the catalogue; Beverly L. Brown, independent scholar, London; Nancy E. Edwards, curator of European art/head of academic services, Kimbell Art Museum; Everett Fahy, John Pope-Hennessy Chairman, Department of European Paintings, The Metropolitan Museum of Art; Deborah L. Krohn, associate professor, Bard Graduate Center, New York City; Jacqueline Marie Musacchio, associate professor, Department of Art, Wellesley College, Massachusetts; Luke Syson, curator, Italian Painting, 1460–1500, The National Gallery, London; Dora Thornton, curator, Renaissance Collections and the Waddesdon Bequest, Department of Prehistory and Europe, The British Museum, London;  James Grantham Turner, professor, Department of English, University of California, Berkeley; and Linda Wolk-Simon, curator, Department of Drawings and Prints, The Metropolitan Museum of Art.