These days, it may seem that marriage has the transient shelf life of milk. Walk through any self-help aisle, flip through the grocery store tabloids, or watch an MTV show to observe the turbulence of the institution. However, marriages have not always had this reputation. A new exhibit, "Beauty and Duty: The Art and Business of Renaissance Marriage," which opened this past Wednesday at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art, reveals and explores this fact.
"Beauty and Duty" transpired as a result of the efforts and inspiration of Professor of Art History Susan Wegner and Director of the Museum of Art Katy Kline. Both Kline and Wegner were interested in a painting from the Bowdoin collection. The painting was originally on a Florentine cassone, or marriage chest. This evocative 15th-century Italian artwork by Giovanni Bocaccio, entitled "The Nymphs of Fiesole," features nymphs, goddesses, a love-struck shepherd, and his worried parents.
It is the beauty and intricacy of this piece, as well as its role in Renaissance marriage, that piqued Wegner and Kline's interest. Thus, with the help of the philanthropic Samuel H. Kress Foundation, which supports educational research, Wegner and Kline worked to bring "The Nymphs of Fiesole" into context and provide an explanation of its origins and the use of cassones in Renaissance culture.
As the exhibit explains, cassones were not a remedial artistic decoration. Rather, they played an integral role in the intricate and complex Renaissance marriages of the 14th through 16th centuries. Arranging marriages in this era could last years as they were comprised of a detailed four-step process. These Renaissance weddings were important politically- and economically-motivated bridges between two families. The four steps solidified and certified the marriage of the families, their friends, their societies, and the law. It was the final marriage step, the wedding procession, in which the cassone played such an important role.
The cassone was carried throughout town as the bride made her way from the home of her family to the new home of her husband. The girth of the chest, the intricacy of the woodcarving, and the delicacy of the painting decorations served to broadcast the wealth and prestige of the newly joined families. Later, the chest would reside in the new home of the bride and groom and serve to both decorate the home and to hold precious jewels or clothes. cassones spoke of the individual marriage, but were more importantly indicative of the prevailing attitudes toward love, beauty, politics, wealth, and community of the Renaissance period, according to tradition.
In addition to the original cassone painting that Bowdoin possessed, Wegner and Kline investigated and searched for other pieces of art that would flesh out this marriage process and the complex role that it played in society. The rest of the art in the exhibit includes about 12 small bronze portrait medals that served as gifts between the bride and groom as well as five or six portraits that were illustrative of the married individuals. Both the medals and the portraits worked to explain why the families chose the particular images on their cassones. They also served to shed light on societal values including what the ideal woman should be and what qualities the ideal man should possess. The portraits in particular were significant as they revealed the qualities that the individual valued, whether that be wealth, chastity, and purity, or the fact that the woman was healthy and fertile.
The exhibit holds many original Bowdoin pieces and broadcasts the diversity of the Bowdoin collection. The exhibit pieces also hail from institutes around the country, including the art museum at Yale, the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., a private collector in New York and collections in Massachusetts, Ohio, Kansas, and Wisconsin.
"Beauty and Duty" will be on display in the Museum until the end of July. The exhibit will be complemented by many related programs. These include several lectures, a re-creation of a Renaissance wedding procession, and a concert and performance of a Shakespeare play.