Italian Renaissance art gives us great impressions about marriage in the past. With today's latchkey child syndrome, sometimes we reject values like marriage and family for the sake of avoiding heartache. Some of us never realize how cherished marriage was in the Renaissance. Though a sensitive topic, we can appreciate the true beauty of its art.
First off, it was all about childbearing. Until Pius IV relaxed ancient rules in a 1563 bull, partners exerted no free will in the negotiations. Marriage arrangements remained like they were in Antiquity and the Middle Ages. Thus, despite traditions and rituals, matrimony was nothing short of a political contract.
Secondly, matches were mainly about honor and coverture, and rarely about love. It is odd that the female never met the groom; betrothals transpired at a very early age, even with witnesses. A bride's male family members legalized matrimonial negotiations through a notary public and a priest. Later, family and friends celebrated the betrothal and matrimony. Sound like a wedding of our culture?
Most important, marriage negotiations aimed for economic practicality. In the Renaissance, matchmaking led to marriage, a literal contractual proposition. A father's dowry paid to a groom's family kept marriage business-like, but not in the same way as weddings are today. A matchmaker's sole purpose was transparent: the formulation of a permanent legal bond between husband and wife.
Finally, gifts sealed a contract. As economy in the Renaissance was based on the gift, families sealed marriages through gift exchange. Royal weddings established the legality of a marriage pact through gifts of art. An ideal Renaissance marriage was that between Isabella I of Castile and Ferdinand II of Aragon, who sealed their marriage with a double portrait.
Isabelle might have stored her bridal trousseau in a spalliere or cassone. Wedding chests are illuminating in that they are rich with detail. Spalliere and cassone depicted family heraldry and scenes from well-loved religious themes or literary tales. The cassone was a furnishing and a central piece of domestic furniture of the wealthy in Italian culture. Late Medieval wooden chests featured inlaid or carved woodwork artists decorated with white chalk, gesso, paint, gilding, and pastiglia. One example of the cassone is at the Sala di Ercole, Palazzo Vecchio, Florence.
There are many ways in which this subject can be adapted for various age groups, but the most interesting would be to examine the various pieces of art associated with matrimony in the Renaissance from a historical or aesthetic approach. Listed below are a few resources teachers can use to guide lesson themes.
Eileen S. Prince, Art Is Fundamental: Teaching the Elements and Principles of Art in Elementary School
Gene A. Brucker, Giovanni and Lusanna: Love and Marriage in Renaissance Florence
Theresa Huntley, "Chapter 10: Marriage," in Women in the Renaissance, 10-14
Anne B. Barriault, "Morals and Meanings," in Spalliera Paintings of Renaissance Tuscany : Fables of Poets for Patrician Homes
Christiane Klapisch-Zuber, "Chapter Five: Childhood in Tuscany at the Beginning of the Fifteenth Century," 94-116, in Women, Family, and Ritual in Renaissance Italy "
Chapter Six: "The Cruel Mother, Maternity, Widowhood, and Dowry in the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries," in Women, Family, and Ritual in Renaissance Italy, 117-131
Chapter 10: "The Griselda Complex: Dowry and Marriage Gifts in the Quattrocento," in Women, Family, and Ritual in Renaissance Italy, 213-246