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.


Judith Starkston said...

Delightful background about Renaissance weddings. I recently researched Hittite and ancient near eastern weddings, and I'm struck by how much they share in common.

Donna Russo Morin said...

So glad you enjoyed it, Judith. I'm sure that many of such customs evolved out of those you've studied as well the ancient Romans.