By Bridget Bailey
Frist Art Museum, November 16, 2018–February 18, 2019
This past winter the Frist mounted the exhibit Life, Love, and Marriage Chests, centered around the craft of cassoni, marriage chests constructed from wood and elaborately decorated for their role in the marriage rituals and subsequent lives of the upper social strata of Italian society in the 16th through 18th centuries. Similar in shape and size of Roman and Greek sarcophagi—and thus a good follow up to the Rome: City and Empire exhibition at the Frist in 2018—the chests were often commissioned in pairs and decorated to tell stories – often serving as cautionary tales for brides-to-be – of life, love, foibles and trials via myth, à la Ovid and literary tradition.
These chests were paraded through the city in which a couple married, carrying items of the bride’s dowry. They ultimately became prized possessions of her new household, that of her husband, likely ten years her senior, with whom the bride would most likely have had an arranged marriage. Thus cassoni, and their subsequent form as panel paintings, are vestiges of these ritualized proceedings and loaded symbols of expectations imposed on these brides by Italian society.
The exhibition begins by setting the scene of affluent households in Renaissance Italy. There are “decorative” portraits of upper-class women on panel that once formed the upper border around the ceiling of a room and platformed shoes worn by women to keep their dresses from dragging in the mud of the streets as they get in and out of carriages; small in size, they are reminiscent of shoes worn by Chinese women of noble birth subject to the practice of foot binding—neither of which are built for comfort or long walks.
The paintings themselves, bereft of their original context on chests and displayed as panel paintings on the wall, handle themes of femininity as a condition of being, of moral conflict, and something to be both sought and protected, as told through myth. One remarkable cycle of paintings explores the cult of Diana, the huntress, and her chaste disciples1.Thus, the concept of chastity enters in—referring presumably to the expectation of chastity for unmarried women leading to their wedding night. The feminine closeness of this cycle is perhaps referring to the separation of spheres of men and women, the sacredness of the feminine and the chaste, the emphasis on this as a protected sphere, yet one in which hunting—action and agency— can transpire. It brings to mind the poem Goblin Market, by Christina Rossetti, in which sisters together battle the temptations of men, and counter unchaste actions or thoughts with sisterly love. These themes of Diana and her following and their protected sphere of sisterly love serve as indications of the chastity of a bride—the expectation of this—and then, too, a bride’s devotion to love that is pure, whatever that could mean.
What “proper love” meant in Renaissance Italy is interesting to contemplate given another common cycle of paintings for marriage chests, included in multiple in the exhibition: depictions of battles between multitudes of women with flowing blonde tresses and ornate dresses, presided over by Eros, goddess of carnal love, and Anteros, goddess of chaste love. There do not seem to be any characteristics that distinguish women of opposing sides, and they are all on level ground2. The message is that it was expected for Italian women to tow this line, to embody both carnal and chaste love, and to be the embodiment of a happy and healthy wife—a binary, moral self. A path of moderation.
Cautionary tales, too, are depicted: very notable is a scene of a former love interest of Alexander the Great’s riding atop the back of Aristotle, who is on his hands and feet, as the woman wields a whip. A striking visual, the story here is that Aristotle dissuaded his pupil Alexander from maintaining a relationship with this young lady, and when Aristotle himself displayed affections towards her, she asserted herself and her worth with vengeance by riding Aristotle all the way to Alexander’s residence. Mysterious, somewhat, is the reason that this particular story was depicted on a cassone, but it is interesting as an embodiment of girl power, a feminist tale of the embarrassment of the masculine stronghold of power.
Also included is a pleasingly simple depiction of the story of Apollo and Daphne, in which the god Apollo chases the nymph Daphne, who calls upon her father, a river god, to change her into a laurel tree, lest she intercept Apollo’s unwanted embrace. Apollo embraces the laurel as his chosen plant for crowing victors, besting honors. This story, though seemingly simple, is complex—Daphne sacrifices her personhood to escape unwanted touch in an effort to remain chaste. Is the message here for Italian women of the Renaissance react as Daphne did if it is a suitor who is not her own husband? Is it a commendation of Daphne, through the retelling of her story—thus a commemoration of woman escaping unwanted touch? Through modern interpretation, in the Me Too era, the latter is unarguably true.
In the same group of paintings is the story of Pyramus and Thisbe, a weepy tale of star-crossed lovers who fall in love through a fissure in a wall. Their subsequent meeting, ill-fated through missed timing and a dropped shawl bloodied by a lion, leads Pyramus to believe Thisbe is murdered, thus leading him to kill himself. Thisbe, upon discovery, uses his blade to kill herself in turn. This extreme love and bond through death is perhaps meant to convey the notion of a long-lasting marriage, the bond only broken by death. The bond is still preserved afterward, as they are commemorated by the red mulberry, symbolizing, the union of family lines through marriage.
An interesting and compelling portion the exhibition is a side gallery of religious, devotional art typically found in the bedchamber of a married couple. A madonna and child attributed to Botticelli and workshop is the glowing jewel, an emblem of motherhood and its sacredness3. There, too, are pietas, altarpieces, and smaller devotional portraits. These works point to the expectation of brides to bear children. In the same space a table is placed, littered with books referencing Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Thus, this space is a study room of sorts, offering context, primary source, and spiritual grounds for the works on display in surrounding galleries.
The didactic nature of the paintings made for marriage chests is strong, still, in their present-day consumption. There, too, however, is room for an evolved and expanded interpretation, as the line these brides were expected to tow, between carnal and chaste love, is a fine one—a double standard to which society often and uniquely holds women to this day.
Bridget Bailey is an artist and educator in Nashville, TN.