Love and Marriage in Renaissance Italy

By Stern, Fred | The World and I, February 2009 | Go to article overview

Love and Marriage in Renaissance Italy


Stern, Fred, The World and I


Engagement, marriage, child birth. What was it like to experience these milestones during Renaissance Italy? Exploring the arts that celebrate family life during that period, provides fascinating insights not only into this aspect of society, but into Italian Renaissance culture in general--at least among the upper classes who could afford the sumptuous treasures now found only in museums.

An impressive exhibit mounted by the Metropolitan Museum of New York City provides an enlightening and often amusing journey back to Renaissance Italy, the place and time of Sandro Botticelli and Leonardo Da Vinci, roughly 1450 to 1620. On display are more than 150 objects including paintings, glassware, jewels, pottery (majolica) that were created to celebrate or to mark engagement, marriage, and birth.

The Riches of Florence and Rome

Let me set the scene. The streets of Florence are narrow and twisty but the buildings of the new merchant princes are magnificent, inside and out. Think of the Medici family and their worldwide empire, their aspirations to marry into the great houses of Europe and to acquire immense wealth. Over the centuries they were to achieve both.

You can see the fruits of their efforts even now, some five centuries after the Renaissance in the Uffizi (the office), a Florentine palace--now a museum--where the Medici hung the luminous works of Italy's Renaissance master painters and stored their sculptures. These included some of Europe's most famous works of art: "The Birth of Venus" by Sandro Botticelli (1465-1510) presenting the exquisite model Simonetta Vespucci arriving on a half shell. She is greeted by, among others, a red-haired maiden representing Spring. There is Leonardo da Vinci's (1452-1519) sensitive "Announciation;" and Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio's (a.k.a. Caravaggio, 1571-1610) "Bacchus," the god of wine and mirth in all his glory.

Not to be outdone by the Medici, Rome boasted equally illustrious patricians, in particular the Barbarinis and the Borgheses. Princes, popes and cardinals from both families continued to shine on Renaissance horizons for centuries.

But Was It Love?

Looking at portraits of engaged couples of the period, you might well be surprised at their youthful appearance. In fact, teen marriages were quite routine. If you remember your Shakespeare, Juliet was only 14 when she married Romeo in Friar Lawrence's cell. Many boys and girls were married at similarly early ages during the Italian Renaissance.

A good reason for early marriage was fear of early death. This was a time, after all, of primitive medical care and ignorance of basic sanitation and its role in preventing disease. Antibiotics, vaccines, and other health care tools taken for granted today did not exist. Epidemics, most notably the black plague, regularly decimated the European population. Large families had a better chance of surviving its effects; the younger the bride, the more children she would be able to bear during her reproductive lifespan, and the more likely some would survive to carry on family dynasties. Marriages did take place at later ages, as well, but typically under circumstances when great wealth was not a factor or when division of property would not cause a hardship to either party.

Some of these young marriages were arranged in haste--the result of impulse or the impatience of passion. But far more often, marriages were not for love, but for attaining strategic alliances that elevated power or wealth. Marriages were arranged between families with go-betweens negotiating the best possible financial and social terms.

Impalamento: The Negotiation

It was usually up to the parents of the prospective bride and groom to make the arrangements for an impending wedding. Marriage brokers were usually brought in and the two parties decided on what formalities would take place. An agreement would be confirmed in writing, specifying exactly what the dowry would be and how all transfers of property were to be handled. …

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