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Think Video & Review: Art & Love at the Kimbell

by Jerome Weeks 17 Mar 2009 7:23 AM

The Kimbell’s major new exhibition, Art & Love in Renaissance Italy, is not just a display of classic artworks. It aims to locate that art in the households, the bridal suites, even the belief systems of 15th-16th century Italians. Jerome Weeks reviews.


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In this episode of Think, Nancy Edwards, the Kimbell Art Museum‘s curator of European art, discusses the exhibition, Art & Love in Renaissance Italy, which she co-curated, and which will be seen only at the Kimbell and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Think airs Friday at 7:30 p.m. on KERA (Channel 13). It airs again Wednesday at 1:30 a.m.

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The first images we see in Art & Love in Renaissance Italy are betrothal paintings. These are portraits of couples, some at the moment they exchange vows.

Then, in the next gallery, we see delicate jewelry and dishware – you know, the wedding gifts. Then we get to cribs and ceramic plates celebrating the birth of children. You guessed it: These are the baby shower gifts.

It’s then – only then – that we come to the gallery devoted to lust, sex, passion.

So the sequence goes: Marriage. Home furnishings. Babies. Then sex. This seems a little odd.

Portrait of Messer Marsilio Cassotti and His Wife, Faustina, Lorenzo Lotto, oil on canvas, 1523

Of course, the Kimbell may simply have wanted to keep the naughty bits tucked away with the necessary warning signs. The artworks in the erotic gallery feature some sexually explicit images — notably, the extremely rare, remaining fragments of I modi, perhaps the most infamous book of its day, illustrated by Guilio Romano with poems (in the second edition) by Pietro Aretino. The reason only fragments and imitations by other artists exist (held by the British Museum) is that I modi was resolutely suppressed by the Vatican and other Roman authorities — not just for the acrobatic, Joy of Sex-like prints but for Aretino’s sixteen, scandalously satiric sonnets sometimes mocking the papal court  (I modi literally translates as “The Ways” or, more broadly, “The Sexual Positions”).

Why are these included? Well, “there is this aspect of love,’ says Nancy Edwards. This richly complex exhibition was curated by  Edwards of the Kimbell and Andrea Bayer of the Metropolitan Museum in New York.  The curators’ aim was to take the typical Renaissance masterworks we know — the sophisticated portraits of patrons or Biblical figures or naked goddesses — and situate them with homier, more day-to-day items of glassware or clothing. Or porn.

The Kimbell’s Nancy Edwards: “We tend to see things separated into high, low, different areas, and they weren’t separate things. Whenever society has rules, people find ways to get around it.”

Actually, the layout of the exhibition — from marriage to babies to sex — tells us what was important in the period.  This was the age of the Medici. What was important were the political and financial alliances of families. The marriages were arranged by merchants and noblemen, while the women involved were little more than children, 14 or 15 years old. You’ve seen those wedding rings designed as two clasped hands? The image was popular then, too, but it represented a handshake sealing a deal.

What was also important is the proper display of wealth. This was an extremely stratified society.They even had sumptuary laws, regulating who could wear what  and when. Italians adored red fabric, for instance; it’s everywhere in these paintings. The scarlet pigment was made from thousands of crushed insects (either the  cochineal from Poland or the kermes from around the Mediterranean), and it cost a fortune. What we’re looking at is basically Renaissance bling.

Finally, what’s all important in love and marriage was producing a male heir. Childbirth was dangerous then, so a wife who survived it and who also ensured the future of the family fortune with a son — that was cause for celebration. There’s only one painting by a female artist here; it’s Lavinia Fontana’s remarkable portrait – of a baby. This was the woman’s world.

Newborn baby in a crib, oil on canvas, 1583

So in all of this procreation and pragmatic deal-making, where does sensuality or  sex fit in? Well, that was reserved for when a man was alone with his mistress or a courtesan. That’s what much of the erotica is about — courtesans. Not surprisingly, at this time, Italy was renowned for its prostitutes. If you see a play by Shakespeare and it’s set in Italy, chances are, you’ll hear jokes about Italian prostitutes.

Art & Love is a chance to enjoy the lushness of a Titian oil or the very modern simplicity of a marble bust by Francesco Laurana (although research indicates that like the ancient Greek statues, Laurana’s lovely bust of Beatrice of Aragon was originally painted in bright colors). But it’s also a sociocultural history, a study of what wealthy Italians owned and wore – and believed. Regardless of the varying degrees of artistry, all of these different items promoted notions of fidelity, fertility and family loyalty. They admonished women to remain chaste and complained about how they were unfaithful anyway. Even the Italians home furnishings rhapsodized about love and babies.

When we see an exhibition like this, we’re often struck by the familiar: “Look, these are just like wedding gifts.” Yet sex, marriage and childbirth have not remained the same throughout history. The meanings we’ve attached to them have varied widely. Before 1563, a wedding didn’t even have to involve the church. That year, the Council of Trent finally regularized the marriage ceremony. So what we see is a network of folk traditions, financial drives, civic institutions, learned references to ancient Roman art – and real affection.

Love — so they say — is a many-splendored thing. It’s also the basis for a fresh look at what could have been a very familiar Renaissance.

Also worth noting: The impressive exhibition catalog is a knowledgeable and scholarly collection of essays, ranging over period works inside and outside the exhibition’s purview, examining such topics as “Profane Love: The Challenge of Sexuality” and “Picturing the Perfect Marriage.”