When a child was born in Renaissance Italy, the family would often commission a "desco da parto" — a wooden birth tray, usually painted with narratives from literature or ancient history — to mark the occasion. (Lorenzo de’ Medici, the Florentine banker and art patron, kept the one given to his mother Lucrezia until his own death.)
During wedding processions, a bride traveled to her new husband’s house accompanied through the streets by a wooden marriage chest with gilded and painted panels. And after artists like Albrecht Dürer started to mass produce prints, scenes of social satire or moral instruction became commonplace domestic decorations.
These works, along with other art that suffused everyday life in early modern Europe, are the subject of "Lust, Love, and Loss in Renaissance Europe," a new exhibit at the recently reopened Smart Museum of Art at the University of Chicago. Curator Nora Lambert, a doctoral student in art history at the U. of C., said she first had the idea for the show after visiting a 2008 Renaissance-era exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art featuring artwork associated with important occasions in people’s lives.
Beyond showcasing deschi da parto or wedding gifts, Lambert was interested in drawing attention to the objects put on display as part of ordinary existence. “I wanted to think about how works of art not commissioned specifically for familial rites of passage might also be speaking to contemporary concerns and social mores,” she said.
One example is "Venus at the Forge of Vulcan," a 1617 oil painting by Jan Brueghel the Younger and Hendrick Van Balen I. The piece displays a scene from Virgil’s "Aeneid," in which Venus, the goddess of love, asks Vulcan to make armor for her son Aeneas, who is waging war in the Italian peninsula. Though Vulcan and Venus are married, she repeatedly cheats on him with younger men. (Other works in the Smart exhibit revolve around Vulcan’s plot to catch Venus and Mars — her frequent lover — in the act of infidelity.)
“The relationship between Venus and Vulcan spoke a lot about Northern European concerns about infidelity because men were so much older than their wives — there was much anxiety about the havoc adultery could wreak on society, the way it could cause instability,” said Lambert. “Artists used stories from classical mythology as a way to grapple with very pressing present-day issues.”
The didactic element in much of the artwork derives in part from a collective fluency in certain literary touchstones — Boccaccio, Ovid, and Petrarch all serve as inspiration for pieces. So do episodes from the Bible, which functioned as political salvos in the conflicts of the Protestant Reformation and subsequent Counter-Reformation. A 1695 painting by Giovanni Gioseffo dal Sole shows the Biblical figure Judith with the decapitated head of Holofernes, an Assyrian general who persecuted the Jewish people.
“It’s a painting of an Old Testament Hebrew heroine, but in the context in which it was painted, it was very much a declaration of Counter-Reformation initiatives,” said Lambert. “Protestants rejected the story of Judith as false and removed it from the Bible. So Catholics double down on it and allegorize Judith as the Church victorious over heretics.”
The commentary isn’t always particularly strait-laced, however. In Dürer’s engravings, for instance, morality is imparted with a side of humor. "The Promenade" hints unsubtly at an affair between a young bachelor, identifiable by his plumed cap, and a married woman out for a not-so-innocuous stroll in the countryside; in "The Temptation of the Idler," a man taking a nap next to the fire dreams of being seduced by Venus. (It turns out to be the work of a noonday demon blowing in his ear.)
“Investigations into these objects are sometimes a little too either-or. Either the artworks served didactic, moralizing purposes, scaring viewers into behaving themselves, or they were enjoyable, entertaining, or humorous,” said Lambert.
“I think that all of the objects in the show demonstrate more nuance and a much broader range of thought. Viewers weren’t thinking of these artworks as one or the other — either pleasing or prescriptive. That’s a dichotomy that I would like to dismantle, as I think it obstructs our ability to understand the potency these works may have had in their own time.”
"Lust, Love and Loss in Renaissance Europe," Smart Museum, 5550 S. Greenwood Ave. Through June 13. Free, reservations required in advance. Visit smartmuseum.uchicago.edu to book a time and to learn about COVID-19 safety protocols.