Arts in New York City: Baruch College, Fall 2008, Professor Roslyn Bernstein
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Rennaisance Italy: Art for Love and a Love for Art

Love, betrothal, and childbirth were extremely important in renaissance Italy. For men, the taking of a wife was most often an affair predetermined by familial obligation or societal convenience. For woman, marriage was a coming of age (at a very young age,) and one’s inauguration as a caretaker and child bearer. This ritualistic matrimony, often void of sexual attraction, was inculcated by the Catholic Church and considered to be the most important event in a woman’s life. The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s new exhibit Art and Love in Renaissance Italy is a paradox in a sense; the historic marriage of man and woman, loveless and obligatory in nature, was the topic of some of the most handsome works of art in history.
The collection boats approximately 150 pieces from as early as the year 1400. Included are marital paintings, tea sets, birthing plates, and countless gifts given to newly weds. Often these depict the bride and groom standing together, having just been married, and surrounded by Renaissance symbols of hope. Often the couple will have a dog, a symbol of fidelity, or the woman will be painted pregnant to show her fertility. In one painting by Lorenzo Lotto cupid urinates on a reclining Venus to represent fecundity and love. Paintings that illustrate mythical subjects were often used to decorate a wealthy couple’s camera.
Another popular style of painting for the same purpose was the diptych portrait. In most instances, the husband and wife face each other, exposing their profiles to the viewer. This is an allusion to the Ancient Caesars. Whenever a new Caesar would take power, his profile would be minted on the currency. Distinguished Renaissance couples sought to announce their social prominence by having their portraits drawn in the same fashion. The MET exhibit enjoys many of these paintings.
It also breaks ground. Probably one of the most enticing pieces in the whole exhibit is Fra Fillipo Lippi’s Portrait of a Woman and Man at a Casement. The painting is entirely unique in that it transforms the traditionally separate style of diptych portraiture into the single image. The woman, who is adorned with jewelry and furs, stands sideways as she looks out the window. Meanwhile, the man (her husband) looks through the window; however, their gaze does not meet. This painting has engendered much criticism for Lippi’s intrepidity in rejecting the diptych and also for the bride apparent apathy. It seems that this painting expresses the general feeling toward marriage during the Renaissance: instead of love there is insouciance.