Monday, August 27, 2012


Much is made these days about finding the right mate—online giving a new outlet for the search—and the difficulties and angst for finding the ‘one true love.’ But the question of marriage and love, love in marriage, and what defines a marriage has been one of years—centuries—uncounted. Were we better off when the decision of one’s mate was made for us or is the notion of ‘one true love,’ ‘soul mate,’ and ‘happily ever after’ as shoved down our throats in everything from books and movies to deodorant commercials the better aspiration?

Up to and during the Middle Ages, many cultures recognized more than one form of a socially acceptable and binding union. Heading into the Renaissance it was primarily a legal transaction concerned mostly with property. In fact, though urged, a priestly involvement in the marriage ceremony was not necessary in Catholic unions until 1563. The Italians, highly passionate and deeply religious, not only included church involvement earlier, their ceremonies during the Renaissance reached flamboyant proportion.

In most cases, whatever the social status, a matchmaker or marriage broker was often involved. For the nobility and upper strata of society in Florence, that often meant the inclusion of one man, Lorenzo de’ Medici, who took the control of the city to expand to the arrangement of most strategic marriages to further his own agenda and that of his most loyal families. In other cases, marriages were arranged between families where tensions existed, done so in an effort to help diffuse the contention. There was very little—in truth almost no—input on the part of the bride-to-be in the choosing of her groom. The wishes of the groom and his family took precedence, then the bride’s family. The bride was merely to feel blessed by their guidance.

But once the participants were settled upon, the real extravaganza began.

An Italian Renaissance wedding ceremony took part in four stages and could be spread out over not only days, but weeks and months, and in some cases years, depending on the financial and social standing of the families. The stages included the impalmamento, the sponsalia, the matrimonium, and the nozze.

The impalmamento, the ‘joining of hands’ would only take place after the third party broker, the sensale, had completed negotiations between the interested parties. It was at this ceremony that the parents of each participant would meet for the first time (unless of course previous acquaintance already existed, very likely in the small circles of Italian society). No other work of art more accurately symbolizes this stage of the Italian marriage the Jan van Eyck’s enormously famous Arnolfini Wedding (National Gallery, London). With this gesture, the parents would seal the alliance, ferme il parentado. As the Renaissance progressed, the addition of written contracts was added to this stage of the marriage ceremony.

Once the joining of hands was completed, the prospective spouses were permitted to speak to each other through the casement windows (think Romeo at Juliet’s balcony). It was the job of the soon-to-be bride to engage the young man’s interest from the confines of the home. There typically occurred the exchanging of small mementos: a scarf or flowers from the girl, a simple piece of jewelry from the boy. If casement courtship continued, a declaration of marriage was cemented (painting Sir Frank Dicksee, Southampton City Gallery).

The sponsalia or stipulation sponsalitia comprised the very legal part of the coupling. Only the male members of the two families were present for this segment of the ceremony as well as non-family member witnesses. These witnesses, also known as guarantors or arbiters were chosen to ensure that each family fulfilled promises of the marital contract. In addition, specific values, dates, terms of payments were established. Such values were predicated on large part of the ‘movement’ of the families, i.e. if the bride were moving upward on the social/noble ladder, the dowry would have to reflect the prestige of the groom’s family. A document confirming all such amounts and promises was drafted and notarized.

It was typical for this portion of the ceremony to take the longest time as negotiations could become complex and many occasions were set aside to allow for the bride and groom to spend more time in each other’s company to get to know each other better. After such meetings, it was the function of the bride’s father to get her ‘consent’ (quotes used to denote the irony of the situation…it was rare indeed that a women could naysay the wishes of her father, her family, and the broker).

The most recognizable stage of the ceremony was the matrimonium, or the ring day. Here, a ceremony resembling modern custom would take place, whether civil or religious, depending on what year during the Renaissance it occurred, took place. Vows were exchanged though there is very little recorded as to the wording of those vows, the banns (the legal proclamation) of the arrangement were read one more time before all involved, and the question was asked of the groom:

“Do you wish to have this woman as your wife, and to love her, honor her, keep her and protect her, in health and in sickness, as a husband should his wife, to keep from all other women except her, as long as your lives shall last?”

The same question was asked of the bride with, of course, the inclusion of her delightful pledge to ‘obey and serve.’

Asked and answered in the affirmative, the notary would take the bride’s right hand (the left becoming the ‘wedding ring finger’ during the Reformation) and offer it to the groom or, when in the presence of a priest, the religious officiator would bless the ring before passing it on to the groom. Only in some cases was there a mutual exchange of rings. In either case, a pledge would accompany the placing of the ring, words that ring familiar even today: “I take thee…”

At this point gifts were exchanged between the families and the couple was considered legally married though the public festival and consummation had yet to take place.

Italian Renaissance wedding feasts were some of the most elaborate ever celebrated, especially those of the rich and powerful (painting The Wedding Feast, Tintoretto). No matter the opulence of the fare, great feasts and entertainments took place. Eleanor of Aragon’s multi-day feast in Ferrara in 1473 included a parade of allegorical floats, dances, jousts, and a fifty-six course meal. When Lucrezia d’Este married Giovanni Bentivigolio in Bologna in 1487 the revelries included flaming wheels of fireworks as well as sugar sculptures of castles and ships.

While there were no particular requirements for the food served in wedding feasts, the presence of the wedding cake was first recorded in the medieval era and almonds were the most frequent ingredient.

The final and most public stage of the Italian Renaissance marriage, the nozze, was the public procession of the bride to the groom’s household. The procession meant not only to publicize the marriage but to lead to its consummation. It provided an opportunity to make the entire community—almost a singular entity in these bygone days—to become part of the ceremony and the joining of the families. Wedding processions were often compared to ancient triumphal parades. The bride, escorted to her husband’s home by her family, was beautiful attired and crowned for the torch lit procession. And, if she was of the noble class, she most likely rode upon a white horse.

One can only wonder after so much time, so much negotiations, and so much excitation, what the ‘performance pressure’ of a nuptial evening must have been like. Perhaps isn't such a distasteful alternative after all.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Goodreads Book Giveaway

The King's Agent by Donna Russo Morin

The King's Agent

by Donna Russo Morin

Giveaway ends September 24, 2012.

See the giveaway details at Goodreads.

Enter to win

Thursday, August 9, 2012


“It was an ascension that felled me, I assure you.”

So said Michelangelo in The King’s Agent, a paraphrasing of the artist’s own words taken from his letters and his verse. The Sistine Chapel was, perhaps, Michelangelo greatest creation and yet he himself would deny it, not only because he was, in his heart and soul, a sculptor first and foremost, but because of the trauma he suffered in the completion of the work on the chapel, trauma both physical and mental.

In March of 1505, Michelangelo was called to Rome by Pope Julius II. Their first meeting came just after Michelangelo’s completion of the monumental work, The Madonna of Bruges (1501-1504, pictured from my own moment standing before it). These two dynamic men shared many characteristics. Both could-rightly and justly—be accused of, to use a modern phraseology, too much multi-tasking. Both men were such innovators they were relentless in their ideas and projects, much to the detriment of each idea, for the men often scattered their attention among the ideas as opposed to focusing on one at a time. “The first years of their friendship were a feverish delirium of plans.” (The Extraordinary Life of Michelangelo, Romain Rolland).

When Pope Julius II (pictured, National Gallery, UK), renown for his patronage of the arts and his ambitions building projects, called Michelangelo to the Vatican he initially commissioned the artist to sculpt statues for Julius’ own tomb, preparing a magnificent monument for himself before the possibility of his demise. It was a project which thrilled Michelangelo, incensed him so much he went into the mountains of Tuscany to personally select the marble for the work.

But the pope became impatient with the slow work that is inherently sculpture and his mind moved on to something else, something that some theorists say was implanted in his mind with the specific purpose of taking Michelangelo away from the medium at which he so excelled. Pope Julius was advised that to assure his immortality, he should revitalize the deteriorating St. Peter’s Basilica. Without thought for the artist’s own sensibilities, the pope pulled Michelangelo from work on the tomb .

Michelangelo himself wrote, “all the difficulties which arose with the pope and myself were the work of Bramante and of Raphael. It was their jealousy which kept him from having his tomb made while he was still alive. They tried to ruin me. Raphael had good reason for doing this, since all that he learnt of art he learnt from me.”

So heartbroken was Michelangelo, so devastated was he, that he fled Rome in the middle of the night on horseback, fled to his homeland of Florence. It took months of beseeching letters and messages before Michelangelo would return to the good graces of the Holy See; there was much capitulation, an apology, and another project begun—a bronze casting for which Michelangelo had no expertise--before he would take up the monumental task laid before him. A painting commission he would accept despite his best efforts to convince the pope that Raphael was the man for the job, to no avail. But even then, he truly had no concept, nor did the pope, of what was to come, both in terms of work and results.

Work on the Sistine Chapel began on May 10, 1508. The original design called for the representation of the 12 figures of the apostles to be created in the lunettes (a crescent shaped opening in a vaulted ceiling) and to fill the rest of the space with decoration. Bramante, the basilica’s architect, raised scaffolding and hired several fresco painters. But Michelangelo could only work alone. He replaced Bramante’s scaffolding—such as would cause holes in the ceiling—with one of his own design, and sent the painters away. For the next four years, he remained shut up with but a handful of workmen, such Giovanni Michi from Florence, and enlarged the scope of the project to including painting the walls down to the old frescoes.

As many have said, to analyze the work is to kill it, but perhaps none have said it as lyrically as Romain: “We must face the vision squarely and lose ourselves in the abyss of that spirit. It is terrifying and, if regarded calmly, incomprehensible—it must be hated or adored. It stifles and excites; there is no nature, no landscape, no atmosphere, no tenderness, almost nothing human; the symbolism of a primitive and the science of a decadent; an architecture of naked convulsed bodies; a barren, savage and devouring thought, like a south wind over a sandy desert. There is no corner of shade, no spring to slake the thirst; it is a whirling spout of fire, the vertigo of a delirious emotion, with no goal except the God in which it loses itself. The whole calls on God, fears Him and proclaims Him.”

Through the long days, months, years, Michelangelo barely ate, he lost all thought save for the ceiling, sacrificed his very essence to the work. As is the way of all artists, he questioned the very value of the work, suffered the war of art perhaps far more than anyone has ever done before or since. He battled those who would see him fail, illness, and his own self-doubt, one so consuming, he almost fled again. And, as myth portrays it, Pope Julius became impatient with the artist and the time the masterpiece was taking to be completed. The pope would ask him when he would finish and Michelangelo would answer, “when I can.”

That day finally came in October of 1512. Michelangelo would not paint again until 1529.