Marriage in Italian Portraiture

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According to the Oxford Dictionary, “marriage is the legally or formally recognized union of two people as partners in a personal relationship,” (historically and in some jurisdictions specifically a union between a man and a woman.) Even though marriage today is very organized and consistent that wasn’t always the case during the Italian Renaissance, during the Renaissance marriage was chaotic, without uniform boundaries, or even legal consistency. Scholars Silvana Seidal Menchi and Diego Quaglioni directed a research project that dove into the matrimonial litigation housed in the ecclesiastical archives of Italy, which provided shocking information that proved how informal marriage actually was.(Bayer pg.3) Marriage at this time could take place at any time and any place, people got married in stables, in the kitchen or in the vegetable garden, in the pasture or in the attic, and so on and so forth.

These findings hinted that weddings were extremely just by surprise, and before the edicts of the Council of Trent systematized the requirements of a proper wedding in 1563, only consent between both the bride and the bridegroom was necessary for marriage. Individuals did not need for to be married in church or by priests, they did not need to appear before a notary. One story of marriage being a questionable act comes from Gene Bruckers classic Giovanni and Lusanna, a story that occured in the courtroom of Saint Antoninus, in this story a beautiful tailor’s widow tries to prove that she was in fact married to a man with a much more significant social standing than Lusanna. Lusanna brought witnesses forward that claimed they heard his promises and saw the exchange of rings. Court at first ruled in favor of the widow, but later the decision was reversed thanks to the Roman curia, where Giovanni’s family had more control.

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We assume that these wedding that happened with surprise were weddings of individuals with less social status than ruling families. The weddings of ruling families were almost impossible to even imagine, they lasted days, including artifacts being created. When Annibale Bentivoglio married Lucrezia d’Este it was a necessity to tear down houses and shops along the path of the procession to make way for guest and spectators. The main function of marriage at the time was to really just appeal to family and society. Create a good connection with similar families that could help with social class. Love rarely entered into the topic of marriage, although that subject was very obsessed over in poems, dialogues, and treatises. Men and women were mesmerized by the subject of love and attraction, even though some marriages were out of love that was an extreme rarity and didn’t occur often enough. The very famous Renaissance paintings of the themes of love and marriage owe their whole meaning to the coexistence of the huge and obsessive thought on the subject. Love was able to bring either pleasure or pain, or maybe even both, beauty was able to inspire blue thoughts or bring us closer to the divine, and marriage made it almost impossible to live a spiritual life or it provides us with a companion who brings pleasure and happiness. (Bayer)

The history and meaning behind the theme of marriage and love is important to understanding many portraits that depicted the theme of either marriage or love. Many portraits only scratch the surface of the meaning and history of this subject that has been obsessed with for so long and continues to be obsessed with to this day. Many portraits that have depicted love and marriage continue to be dissected till today.

A marriage portrait in the renaissance is a term that is frequently used by art scholars and history to describe fifteenth to sixteenth century paintings, medals, and or sculpted bust. The term is also a little difficult to exactly define, because many sitters are difficult to identify, and most paintings are hard to find out why they were even commissioned in the first place. Everett Fahy states, “the term embraces different type of portraiture, likenesses of potential brides or bridegrooms for parents and other interested parties to inspect, portraits celebrating betrothals or the births of male heirs , paintings commemorating long unions, and posthumous records of deceased spouses. The desired to portray married couples is a deeply human impulse going back to ancient times; it thrives in our digital age with images of newly weds smiling at us weekly from the Sunday papers.” Fahy has a point, the term marriage portraits branches off to many different categories including a double portrait of the husband and wife, a portrait depicting the bride (which included items in the background that described her), portraits of dead spouses that were loved and created as a form of remembrance, and finally even male heirs can fall into the category of marriage portraits. Portraits of male heirs tend to fall into the theme of marriage because that heir is the one that will continue the marriage or the family.

Although as stated early, some portraits that scholars believe fall into the theme of a marriage portrait could be wrongly classified. Many of those portraits have nothing that help to identify what was the purpose of the portrait. And in extremely rare cases the portraits contained an inscription or coat of arms to give clues to who might be portrayed, many times scholars are just left to compare the portraits to other works that look similar or at the end just have a scholarly guess. One example of scholars wrongfully classifying a portrait, is Pisanello’s Portrait of Ginevra d’Este, ca. 1434-36. Tempera on panel. This portrait of a young girl in Louvre, Paris was long thought to be a commemoration of the marriage in 1434 of Ginevra d’Este, many believe this is Ginevra because of the sprig of juniper tucked into the piping of her shoulder. Juniper in Italian is “ginepro” making it a pun on the name of Ginevra. But others believe this is a portrait of Margherita Gonzaga, again because of the juniper on her shoulder. Her husband Lionello d’Este used a juniper as one of his emblems.

Another portrait that has given scholars some trouble is Parmigianino’s portrait “Antea.” This portrait is of an anonymous young woman that could be getting married off, but ever since scholars have gotten their hands on this painting it has received many thoughts and opinions on what the Antea painting actually means. Many believe the painting to be the artist’s daughter, his mistress, a roman courtesan, a noblewoman bride, an ideal beauty, even a hermaphrodite. Another controversial painting that falls into the category of “perhaps a marriage portrait” is Francesco del Cossa’s Portrait of a young man holding a ring. Again not a lot of information is given about this portrait leading scholars to have a guess. The scholars do a good job at giving possibilities of what this portrait can actually be, for example it could be a self-portrait of Francesco Raibolini and the ring was a way for him to show all of Italy his craftsmanship. Many have thought this is the painters engagement. Or even just a young man showing of a ring he won as a prize for a tournament win. The style of this portrait resembles that of Rogier van der Weyden’s portrait of Francesco d’Este. The two portraits have a similar layout and both men pictured are showing off a ring to the viewer.

Many double portraits of couples were being made at the time fell into the theme of marriage and love these works included the Doni couple, Lorenzo Lotto’s portrait of Messer Marsilio and his wife, and Fra Filippo Lippi’s portrait of a man and a woman at a casement. Raphael Santi, Doubles portrait of the spouses Doni (Portrait of Agnolo Doni. Portrait Of Maddalena Doni) 1506 • Oil, Wood, Lorenzo Lotto (1480-1556), Portrait of Messer Marsilio Cassotti and His Wife, Faustina, 1523. Oil on canvas, Fra Filippo Lippi, ca. 1406-69, Portrait of a Woman and a Man at a Casement. Raphael’s Portraits of the Doni couple is extremely spectacular, he portrays the couple in three quarter length seated in front of a beautiful landscape similar to Leonardo’s Mona Lisa. The diptych shows the Doni couple with matching rings implying that the two are a married couple. On the back of this diptych another artist, the Serumido Master painted scenes in grisaille of the gods of olympus and the myth of Deucalion and Pyrrha ancestors of a new race which symbolized fertility. This actually meant a significant amount to the couple, since they had suffered from several miscarriages before the birth of their daughter Maria. Lorenzo’s portrait of the married couple actually looks to have been made at the time of the marriage ceremony. Marsilio is depicted in the portrait about to slip on the wedding band on to his wife’s hand and above them is “cupidineto” who is literally joining them together with yoke on their shoulders. Fra Filippo Lippi’s Portrait of a man and a woman in a casement has really raised some eyebrows about what this portrait actually means. At first look this portrait seems to be a typical marriage portrait the groom and his bride depicted before or after the wedding. The bride with her amazing garments and outstanding jewelry, and also what seems to be a wedding ring on the grooms finger. But that thought only scratches the surface of what this portrait is trying to represent. Joseph Breck the first scholar to actually say this portrait is the work of Fra Filippo Lippi, suggests that this portrait represents a betrothed or newly married couple. The argument about her pregnant looking body, breck states it is merely a fashion statement is is normal for the dress to protrude that way. Many other scholars tend to disagree with Breck, Joanna Woods-Marsden, since the woman is seen wearing the types of fabrics and jewels she is no longer a virgin and this painting was received as a gift from her husband. David Alan Brown suggests that the painting may celebrate the birth of the couple’s son in 1444. For Christina Neilson, it actually depicts a knight and his lady, not his wife. No matter which scholar people believe it is obvious that it is difficult to pinpoint this portrait to exactly what it is. Seems to be a different form of marriage portrait, but take the time to analyze it and it’s possible it isn’t what many think it is. (Fahy)

Comparing these three portraits is very difficult they all possess different qualities and characteristics that make them different, but have some qualities that make them similar in a way. The portraits of the Doni couple by Raphael are interesting because the couple actually looks to be together. Despite these portraits have being made on two separate panels they seem to be linked together. The couple is painted almost as they are sitting together for this portrait, the matching rings suggests they are a couple and finally the landscape in the background link together to form one big portrait. Notice the center cloud how it becomes one big cloud. Lorenzo Lotto’s painting of Messer Marsilio Cassotti and his wife is a little different still an obvious marriage portrait, but this was actually believed to be made at the time of the ceremony. There are hints and clues to this portrait that actually make this portrait an actual marriage portrait. For one you have the god of desire and affection hanging over their heads with a yoke on both of their shoulders. Cupid or “Cupidineto” as Lotto liked to call him is literally joining them together. Physically joining them together by bringing them closer together but also joining them together in marriage. All while the bridegroom is slipping a band on the bride’s finger, a tradition of marriage.(Fahy) Finally what seems to be a marriage portrait, Fra Filippo Lippi’s portrait of a woman and a man at a casement, who many speculate to be Lorenzo di Ranieri Scolari and Angiola di Bernardo Sapiti. This painting has confused many scholars for years and years, but if you look at it from a marriage portrait perspective it makes a lot of sense. In this portrait it seems that the woman is above the man, more powerful, the one that is boss of the relationship. That is actually not true, men during this time period owned everything, even their wives to a certain extent. This portrait is strange and mysterious because it is extremely difficult to see what the couple is feeling or thinking. Unlike the portraits before we can see a slight smile or the couple pictured together, in this portrait the couple seems to be looking past each other in a way, leading to a lot of confusion to what the painting even represents.

Hans Memling Young Woman with a Pink, 1485-90. Oil on wood. Is a painting that doesn’t depict any specific woman, but instead depicts the ideal beauty. This panel is expressing the virtues of love and what it must overcome. The woman is holding a “pink” which is a flower that symbolizes betrothal or marriage, she is also seen taking a peek over to her left shoulder. Which on the second panel is two horses and a monkey, the two horses represent lust and faithfulness, the monkey symbolizes evil. These two panels together are an allegory of true love, the monkey on the back of one of the horses ignores the woman and only worries about itself. The other horse on the other hand acknowledges the woman is near a few bricks, which is a symbol of love overcoming the temptations of evil. Very interesting how it connects to an actual relationship in real life.

Unlike Hans Memling painting, the best known marriage portraits are those of potential spouses. These portraits were always exchanged for arranged marriages, one example would be Raphael’s portrait of a soon to be groom, Lorenzo II de’ Medici, The Duke of Urbino, also nephew of Pope Leo X. Pope Leo wanted to form a great martial bond with the French, so that he could protect the papacy from the Holy Roman Empire. The Pope suggested to Lorenzo II to marry Madeleine de la Tour d’Auvergne. Raphael already at the prime of his career, he was busy making a three-quarter-length portrait of Lorenzo II, many reports suggest that Raphael had finished the painting by February 3, but had to varnish it, and in order to do that he had to wait for a “dry sunny day”. And on February 10, was the day, the painting was “finito del tutto” translating to “finally finished” and was later sent to France. Later Lorenzo traveled to Paris with thirty-six horses that all carried wedding presents, the ceremony took place on April 28, 1518. It was certainly not uncommon to have a portrait made and later have it sent over to your potential spouse. This occurred many times, because many spouses wouldn’t see their significant other until the day of the marriage ceremony and since many marriages were to form marital bonds with families that could help each other grow. So there really was any reason potential spouses would be meeting before the wedding.

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Marriage in Italian Portraiture. (2021, Dec 22). Retrieved from

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