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Art Review

Parading their virtues

In painted chests and wedding processions, tales of Renaissance love and mores

By Sebastian Smee
Globe Staff / December 19, 2008
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Pity the poor boy: stripped naked, tied up, blindfolded, made to kneel, prodded by the horns of beasts, beaten, and roundly abused.

Then again, we are told he deserved no better: "An ill-tempered soul," was how the Greek poet Moschus described Eros: "A voice of honey, but a heart of gall; boorish, deceitful, an inveterate liar, fond of childish pranks and cruel practical jokes."

Is it just me, or is this a case of too much protesting? Eros - or Cupid, the Roman version of the god - was, after all, pretty cute. He crops up several times in an exquisite show at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum called "The Triumph of Marriage: Painted Cassoni of the Renaissance." The show, put together by Cristelle Baskins, takes a hard look at paintings that adorned wedding chests, called cassoni, in 15th-century Tuscany.

The paintings, all horizontal in format, number less than a dozen. But they brim with human actors in resplendent costumes, as well as jewel-like depictions of animals, landscapes, and architecture.

Even for those well versed in the history of art, however, these paintings test one's mettle. They illustrate stories and allegories, many of which now seem obscure; they are full of didactic content that can seem strange and at times downright off-putting; and they were made with purposes in mind that need a good deal of explaining.

Don't be put off: The show comes with a free brochure that summarizes the content of each painting in four or five crisp sentences. It's also accompanied by a splendid catalog, with clear introductory essays by Baskins and three of her colleagues. What's more, the show coincides with "Art and Love in Renaissance Italy," an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York that examines similar subject matter, though with a much wider purview.

Up until about 1460, important weddings in Italy were commonly marked with a procession from the bride's home to her new husband's. Not only was the bride herself paraded, but her possessions, too. These would be carried in a chest whose panels were painted with images intended to instruct, as well as delight and divert.

Many of them invite subtle and even contradictory interpretations, affirming traditional female virtues like chastity and modesty on the one hand while inciting desire on the other. But in Francesco di Giorgio's "Triumph of Chastity," the message is difficult to miss; it reads, indeed, like a rather brutal threat.

Cupid, evidently in his adolescence, stands blindfolded with his arms tied behind his back. Behind him is a float pulled by two unusually malignant-looking unicorns (imagine hyenas crossed with wolfhounds). Chastity, riding atop the float in a sumptuous gown, has already seen to it that Cupid's chariot is burned and his white horses killed. She is surrounded by personified virtues (Honesty, Modesty, Wisdom, etc.) and exemplary historical figures, including Hippo (who drowned rather than be raped by pirates) and Scipio (the Roman general who honorably returned a female captive to her fiance rather than having his own way with her).

The panel was inspired - like many of the paintings here - by Petrarch's "The Triumphs," a cycle of poems about the progress of the human soul that the early Renaissance poet and scholar left unfinished when he died. Following Petrarch's lead, the painter has pulled out all the stops to get across the socially responsible message that chastity is good and promiscuity (as represented by Cupid) will be punished.

Eventually, laws intended to limit public displays of wealth put an end to wedding processions. But cassoni continued to be decorated with paintings, which frequently riffed on the idea of a parade or procession by illustrating triumphant military processions.

If you're wondering what the connection between marriage and military triumphs might be, your first guess is probably right: It was a crude, patriarchal fixation that likened the groom's success in carrying off a bride and her possessions to a successful war party, which in turn reflected glory back onto his family.

But in poetry and on painted cassoni, this connection was imagined in a way that was also part of the Renaissance's broader revival of ancient culture. Thus, one painting here depicts Alexander the Great in a triumphant procession, carrying the spoils of victory over the Persian king Darius. Among the spoils are Darius's kinswomen.

The point of the painting is that Alexander preserved the women's chastity - facing away from them to preserve their modesty but dressing them resplendently as befitted their status - rather than degrading them as he might have.

Presumably we are meant to disregard the possibility that Alexander was simply uninterested in women. Instead, his honorable behavior was to be regarded as a model for relations between grooms (who tended to be in their late 20s) and new brides (generally 16-18).

Most cassoni were painted by workshops, rather than by the individual hand of recognized masters. And because they were made, ultimately, to decorate domestic interiors, they tended to be ignored by art historians until a recent revival of interest in the social history of the Renaissance, and particularly the role of women, put them under the spotlight.

A show like this, therefore, is an excellent chance to contribute to an area of scholarship that remains hazy, and Baskins has not disappointed. Indeed, she has proposed a whole new reading for one painting in the show, a superb work by Biagio d'Antonio from the National Gallery of Art in Washington.

Again, the theme is a triumphal procession, this time an entry into Rome in the republican era. Until now, it was thought to represent Marcus Furius Camillus's victory parade after defeating the Gauls in 390 BC. But, drawing on arcane clues in the picture and various literary sources, Baskins proposes a convincing new interpretation.

The painting, she argues, represents the triumphal procession after Camillus's victory over the rival city of Veii, not the Gauls. That victory came about after the Romans, at the end of a 10-year siege, tunneled under the enemy city, emerged into the temple of Juno, and routed the enemy. According to Livy, a Roman soldier asked the statue of Juno in the temple if she wanted to go to Rome, and the statue - a model of female acquiescence! - nodded her head in assent.

Since Juno was the goddess of family and fertility, and thus a Roman antecedent of the Virgin Mary, the subject seems especially apt for the "triumph of marriage."

The show's most curious item is a pair of paintings that, with terrific economy, tell the story of Antiochus and Stratonice. At the far left of the first painting we see a lovesick Antiochus being tended to by a physician. The source of his problems seems to be the beautiful Stratonice, her skirts suggestively agitated, who unfortunately happens to be his stepmother. At the other end of this panel we see the physician revealing the cause of Antiochus's listlessness to his father, the king Seleucus.

Miraculously, in the next panel, Seleucus presides over the marriage of his son to Stratonice, an act of staggering magnanimity celebrated by Petrarch in his poem "The Triumph of Love": "To give another his beloved spouse: O utmost love, unheard of courtesy!"

There are many subtleties to admire in the painting. But perhaps the most extraordinary thing about it relates to its former owner, Arabella Duval Huntington. Huntington married Collis P. Huntington in 1884 and then, three decades later, his younger nephew, Henry E. Huntington. She bought this painting the year before she remarried.

Sebastian Smee can be reached at ssmee@globe.com.

THE TRIUMPH OF MARRIAGE Painted Cassoni of the Renaissance

At: Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, through Jan. 18. 617-566-1401, www.gardnermuseum.org

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