Early Italian Renaissance art was centred around Florence from around 1400-1490. Florentine and other Tuscan artists such as Filippo Brunelleschi, Donatello, Masaccio and Andrea Mantegna revolutionised public and private art in Italy and eventually further afield in Western Europe. The Early Renaissance was supported by the wealthy Florentine Medici family, evolving to become the High Renaissance period between around 1490 and 1530, with works by Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, Michelangelo and Titian.
Many famous Italian Renaissance artworks were created to celebrate love and marriage. The Early Renaissance saw the first tokens commemorating betrothal, marriage, and the birth of a child by the commissioning of objects or the exchange of objects as gifts, ranging from pottery to glassware to jewellery, musical instruments and nuptial portraits. A precedent was also set at this time with erotic drawings and prints, which lead to an increasingly inventive approach to subjects of love and marriage culminating in paintings by some of the greatest artists of the later Renaissance, including Giulio Romano, Lorenzo Lotto as well as Titian, who died in 1576.
In the early Renaissance period, marriage had no clear legal basis; only mutual consent was an absolute necessity for a marriage to take place. This did it imply that couples chose their partners themselves. It was only in 1563 that the system for a legal marriage was implemented at the Council of Trent. This meant that in the fifteenth century, it was not necessary to be married in a church, by priests. No banns needed to be posted and no appearance requirement before a legally appointed person. Whilst most weddings were public affairs; there was no exchange rings and witnesses were not required. That did not mean, however, that weddings lacked elaborate ritual.
Traditional rituals became important to validate weddings, particularly for wealthy families. A likely match was identified many years before a wedding, perhaps suggested by a broker or influential family connection. Negotiations between two families were sometimes sealed until the bride reached puberty and a suitable dowry could be amassed. Dowries were among the greatest financial obligations that families with female children faced, even marriages among social equals required substantial investment.
A public wedding ceremony and the material objects generated for them provided the physical demonstration of the marriage’s legitimacy with weddings of the ruling families throughout Italy the most extravagant, lasting for days and for which innumerable artefacts were created. In art, paintings commemorating marriage would show clasped hands, or garlands of myrtle, with couples painted in facing profile with the words fede (faith) and volo (I wish to) providing declarations of love.
When Annibale Bentivoglio, the eldest son of the ruler of Bologna, married Lucrezia d’Este, the daughter of Duke Ercole I d’Este of Ferrara in 1487, houses and shops along the path of the triumphal procession were demolished to accommodate the crowds of spectators, with decorations that were very ostentatious.
The legitimisation of a couple’s union in Early Renaissance history usually followed a procession through the streets of the town, as the bride—together with the groom’s gifts to her and her dowry goods—was moved from her childhood home to her husband’s house. This is illustrated in The Story of Esther by Marco del Buono Giamberti and Apollonio di Giovanni di Tomaso, now at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
The wedding depicted on this wood panel, once part of a wedding chest, is that of the biblical Esther, but the action has been translated in time and place to fifteenth-century Florence, much like the wedding of Annibale and Lucrezia.
Once the wedding festivities were over, marriage defined the nature and role of a good wife and a properly run household, including the bearing and raising of children. Whilst love was rarely part of the marriage agreement, the subjects of love, beauty, and attraction were pivotal to Renaissance men and women, being discussed at every level from base to elevated both in words and in art.
Florentine artists rejuvenated classical art to portray love with a more humanistic and individualistic style, being more naturalistic and anatomically detailed and in proportion. Art was no longer just elevating the devotional but documenting contemporary times, alongside the historical. These artworks emphasised the emotionally expressive and individualistic characteristics of its subjects that led to a more intimate art experience for viewers.