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by Michèle C. Cone
Love among the elite of Renaissance Italy could be far cruder and more immediate than is suggested by the idealized love and remote adoration for Laura de Noves that filled the heart of the great 14th-century humanist Francesco Petrarch. For Renaissance artists, who took their cues not only from Petrarch but also from earthy writers like the Boccaccio as well as mythology and the Old Testament, the celebration of love required that they flatter both the high and low tastes of their patrons, using the double-speak of allegorical meanings to indulge in scabrous metaphors when necessary.

Or so is the message of "Art and Love in Renaissance Italy" at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which assembles approximately 150 objects -- great paintings, painted wooden trays and panels, majolica, glassware, jewelry, prints and erotica -- to illuminate the intimate, and often surprising, details of courtship, marriage, family life and adultery in the 14th and 15th centuries. The show offers singular insights into the private life of the rich at a time of cultural rebirth and licentiousness.

Take for example Lorenzo Lotto’s allegorical painting Venus and Cupid (1520s). If such a work was, as the curators claim, the "paradigmatic marriage painting," its recipient had to be pretty open-minded in matters of concupiscence to place it above the marriage bed. A "micturating" boy (Cupid, the symbol of love) is shown guiding a thin jet of urine (symbol of fertility) through a myrtle wreath dangling from the hand of a reclining woman (Venus, symbol of love), and landing it squarely on the woman’s "Venus triangle," which is hidden by rose petals.

Not minding the liquid trickling down on her nude body, Venus looks at us with resigned amusement, possibly signifying her indulgence of the quirky wishes of a childish lover. This painting from the Met’s own collection is found in the final room of the exhibition, and one can be assured that such delightfully strange imagery can be found throughout the museum’s scholarly and sensational exploration of art and love in Renaissance Italy.

The first image to welcome visitors to the show is a cassone panel (horizontal paintings that originally decorated the large chests that were part of a wife’s dowry) figuring a famous love match inspired by the Bible, namely Esther’s encounter with and betrothal to king Ahasuerus. Its surface rich in gold leaf, the panel by Marco del Buono Giamberti and Apollonio di Giovanni di Tomaso emanates a mystical light. Read like an animation strip, the king first appears on horseback with his friends on the left-hand side of the panel, then dismounts and is seen again as he enters a house in which several ornately dressed young beauties have assembled, and appears a third time pointing to his choice of bride, the impoverished Jewess Esther, now seated at a banquet table. Later in the show, an entire room is devoted to cassone and spalliere, panels either painted on the sides of wedding coffers or placed along the walls of a private chamber.

Other visual symbols of pure and perfect unions include a pair of tempera panels attributed to the Maestro delle storie del Pane, with the heads of a bride and a groom staring at each other in profile in front of partial views of the lands that their marriage will combine (1485-95). Also symbolizing a perfect union is a majolica plate that figures a pair of hands in a clasping gesture surrounded by a border of stylized plants -- the fede plate (1490-1510), commemorating the decision to marry, and a decorated glass cup from which bride and groom will both drink on their wedding day.

The next displays offer the sight of large majolica plates, bowls and urns decorated with festive patterns and a symbolic motif. These objects were typically commemorative gifts offered at the time of a betrothal or a wedding. Ironically, the images painted on them are hardly loving and peaceful. More often they suggest cruel one-sided love, and convey the pain inflicted by a woman. On one dish, a young woman holds a dagger pointed at a young man bound to a tree (1522), while on another a young woman holds in her right hand the heart she prepares to pierce with the blade she holds in her left.

On yet on another dish, a young woman draws her bow and aims an arrow at a man who is bound and naked (1470-90). Though influenced by the unrequited love of Dante for Beatrice and of Petrarch for Laura, the myth of womanly power over men hardly fit the social mores of the times, when parents chose their children’s future spouses, marriages were handled like business propositions, and the future bride was often barely out of puberty. As for the wedding itself, lasting several days and including processions, fireworks and much music, it was needlessly costly and ostentatious whether the newlyweds were happy or not.

Of the elaborate wedding gifts associated with weddings, the most useful one for the success of a Renaissance marriage had to be the contents of the majolica pharmacy jar from the Philadelphia Museum (1548). With its green spout pointed upward and the naive image of an embracing couple painted right below it, the jar’s content might be assumed to be a love potion, though the label on the jar, "acqua di Farfara," or coltsfoot, does not fit that description. (According to the curators, it is a plant whose leaves are sometimes considered a useful aid for breathing, bronchitis and asthma.) If the jar did covertly advertise a potency remedy, it would have been welcome as an aid to producing an heir, the primary motive of marriage besides creating wealth.

In Renaissance society the birth of children was not only reason for the family to rejoice but also to receive elaborate gifts -- dishes large and small called childbirth trays lavishly ornamented on both sides. An allegory like The Triumph of Venus (1400), a religious source like the Virgin birth by Bartomeo di Fruosino (1428), a passage from Boccaccio’s Commedia delle ninfe fiorentine (1410) provide the themes for exquisite representations by little-known masters, including that of a Renaissance interior with a confinement–room scene on one side and a urinating putto on the other.

Exceptional in this respect is The Triumph of Fame (1448) by Masaccio’s younger brother Lo Scheggia, celebrating the birth of a Medici. Very symmetrical in composition, it pictures an assembly of horsemen swearing quasi-fascist allegiance to a winged figure that towers above them, symbolizing Fame. Though the stretched out wings of the figure bring to mind the arms of Christ on the Cross, here the image symbolizes the utmost value that the newborn child must embody and preserve: fame.

In "Tuscan Notables on the Eve of the Renaissance" (Aries and Duby editors, A History of Private Life, vol. II), one learns that in those days children were wanted for the main purpose of insuring that wealth and power would continue to flow through to the next generation. The newly born were entrusted to wet nurses and lived away from home and, if they did not die of illness or violence, were returned to their families and to the company of siblings.

Not much is known of parental love. A case in point is Ghirlandaio’s painting of Francesco Sassetti and His Son Teodoro on view here. The attractive young son looks upward, and the father looks downward, but the two of them fail to exchange glances. (Dated 1488, the head of Sassetti is apparently an early example of a figure in frontal view. Thus a technical deficiency might explain the lack of reciprocity in the sitters’ glances.)

Married life meant not only children but a home life, and decorative furniture probably chosen by the husband is on view. The curators of the show illustrate this theme with several cassone, and spalliere. Like the birthday plates, these works tell stories inspired by mythology, the Bible and then-recent literary lore, especially Boccaccio.

Botticelli’s Banquet in the Pinewoods (the story of Nastagio degli onesti) (1483), which is usually on display at the Prado, illustrates the Boccaccio story of a banquet turned ugly after the bride refuses her suitor. In the foreground of the banquet scene is presented another story, this one telling of a bride who, having rejected her suitor and run away from him naked, is pursued by a sword-wielding horseman whose dogs are grabbing her thighs. In those days, a man’s lust easily turned to hatred, and a woman who resisted the entreaties of a powerful man did so at her own risk.

Not all stories told on the cassone are equally dramatic. Startlingly serene is the Adimari cassone (from the Accademia in Florence) by Lo Scheggia, Masaccio’s brother already mentioned above. Here, in a town’s piazza surrounded by Renaissance houses, all is calm below a red and white tent: Musicians play their tunes, four couples in sublime dress perform dance steps and, on the right, young men impatiently await their turn on the dance floor, scanning the rhythm of the music with their feet.

Once the children were born, wives became dispensable, so married life had its shortcomings. Nothing on that subject is more telling than the resigned expression on the faces of wives paired with their spouses, typically shown in profile in separate paintings. Renaissance men could have more than one private life, with a wife in one city and a lover in another. As the remainder of the show makes clear, plenty of beautiful women were available for Renaissance men of power to cavort with.

Unlike the married woman depicted fully clothed, the "other" woman was often depicted nearly nude. Raphael’s mistress, La Fornarina, here seen in a copy of Raphael’s painting by his assistant Raffaellino del Colle, is seemingly flaunting her physical attractions. With one hand she touches one of her plump breasts, and with the other she is shows her Venus triangle. A slight mischievous smile lingers on her lips, and her sideways glance hints at insincerity.

To this day, scholars do not agree as to whether she was a courtesan, a courtesan poet, a mistress or a bride. La Fornarina may have been all of these, as is suggested by Virginia Cox in her recent book, Women’s Writing in Italy, 1400-1650 (Johns Hopkins). The Renaissance seductress is an enduring theme, as is shown by the latest novel by Salman Rushdie, The Enchantress of Florence.

As revealed in the catalogue of the show, much bawdiness took place in private clubs and literary cenacles for men only. That men had "sex on the brain" is illustrated by various Arcimboldo-like renderings of a head constituted by intertwined phalluses. Judging by the abundance of lewd prints and drawings on view, involving both straight and homosexual activities, Renaissance men saw no harm in being bisexual. In his memoirs, the famous artisan Benvenuto Cellini reports that the Duke of Ferrara kept a wife in Rome and had a man friend in Ferrara, who eventually murdered him.

Artists with great names like Parmigiano, and Giulio Romano happily indulged these men with erotic drawings. As for Popes and other men of the church, they also indulged in affairs with men and women. Fra Filippo Lippi’s Portrait of a Woman and a Man at a Casement (1440-44), said to be the first double portrait in Italian art, hints at the carnal desire of a man dressed in the red robes of cardinals. With his face peering in through a casement window, he stares with deep interest at the richly dressed young woman seated across from him in a demure confessional pose.

The finale, the piece de resistance of this exhibition on art and love in Renaissance Italy, has to be Titian’s Venus with Organist and Dog (1550) from the Prado museum. A choice example of art in Renaissance Italy at its peak, it is said in the catalogue notes "to have been carried out in a matrimonial context and for a specific patron." By pairing Venus’ tender stroking of the lapdog’s fur with a surfeit of vertical forms -- trees in the garden and organ pipes near the organist, the artist imbues the painting with disguised signs of ardent mutual desire.

Clearly the exhibition is a departure from the usual art exhibitions seen at the Met. Though it is replete with beautiful works of art, its importance goes beyond traditional art history and, thanks to the well-researched catalogue (edited by the Met curator Andrea Beyer), touches on sociology, history and the sexual mores of a people at a specific time and place. But the consistently high quality of the objects on view also raise the issue of patronage in the city-states of Renaissance Italy. And this leads to one further question, namely the nature of the relationship between artist and patron that produced such a high level of artistic excellence.

As one learns from reading the memoirs of Benvenuto Cellini written in the middle of the 16th century, the answer lies in a mix of cruel competition among artists, and of fragile complicity between artists and patrons. Art served an unusually important function during the Renaissance, when lavish gifts of art and decorated craft objects recorded not only marriage alliances among families of different regions of Italy, but were also considered tokens of peace with a foreign country.

Approval of one’s work by a powerful patron, a duke or a Pope, resulted in immense wealth and, as long as it lasted, such approval immunized the artist even against prison and death in case of criminal behavior. Cellini was liberated from jail after killing a man, thanks to the intervention of a Pope who respected his work. Everyone lived dangerously during the Renaissance, but few as dangerously as artists, as Cellini’s memoirs show. Competition among artists was fierce; one could poison a rival to take his place. Patrons were fickle and were known to shift their favors from one artist to another.

So while artist and patron seemed to agree with the male view of woman’s cruelty to man -- as indicated by the messages inscribed on majolica plates and even if they shared a laugh over the scabrous metaphors disguised on matrimonial paintings, cassone, spandere, and childbirth plates, complicity between them had its limits, as Cellini himself recalls quoting a line in Latin written on one of his father’s creations, a wheel of "seven virtues" made in ivory which, thanks to the counterweight placed under the feet of the figures, always ended its rotation with the figure of virtue standing upright: Rota sum, semper, quoquo me verto, stat Virtus (whichever way fortune may turn, Virtue stands).

"Art and Love in Renaissance Italy," Nov. 18, 2008-Feb. 16, 2009, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10021.

MICHÈLE C. CONE is a New York-based critic and historian. Her latest book is French Modernisms: Perspectives on Art before, during and after Vichy (Cambridge 2001).