Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
January 5, 2000
Jacqueline Musacchio The Art and Ritual of Childbirth in Renaissance Italy Yale University Press, 1999. 228 pp.; 40 color ills.; 150 b/w ills. Cloth $55.00 (0300076290)

Jacqueline Marie Musacchio’s book on Renaissance childbirth and its imagery joins a growing bibliography on the domestic setting and function of art in Renaissance Italy. Peter Thornton’s survey of Renaissance interiors, Dora Thornton’s monograph on scholars’ studies, Cristelle Baskin’s analysis of heroine imagery on painted chests, Anne Barriault’s discussion of style in Tuscan painted wall panels, and other efforts have enriched our knowledge of the domestic environment, and of the place and function of art in homes. Much of this work is based on Florentine sources. Because Florentines were so meticulous in their record keeping, and because art had such a strong claim on the Florentine imagination, Musacchio has been able to compile abundant information on childbirth customs, the meaning of childbirth in the social word of urban Italy, and the art occasioned by the birth of children. She ties a survey of the visual record (primarily in the form of panel painting and ceramics) to a solid body of documentary material drawn from contemporary written inventories and from ricordanze— the books of private financial accounts and memoranda that survive in abundance, at least in Florence. Skillfully interweaving these primary materials and building on the contributions of other scholars, Musacchio brings new information and insight to her subject.

The core of the book consists first in a comprehensive discussion of the social customs and ideals attending childbirth, and second, in an analysis of painted birth trays and of majolica wares specifically associated with the childbirth ritual. A chapter on the importance of marriage, family, and continuity of the lineage through procreation sets the stage for focused discussion, in Chapter 2, of the variety of objects, more-or-less ephemeral, that attended or celebrated childbirth. Musacchio tells this story by unfolding the detailed written accounts of Ser Girolamo da Colle, who recorded much about his wife Caterina’s delivery of sons, Giovanni and Luigi, in 1473 and 1475. Comparative archival citations concerning other families, and appropriate images, not linked to any particular family but of the period, amplify this narrative. Although, as Musacchio points out, Ser Girolamo and Caterina were ordinary citizens of no special distinction, their actions epitomize the custom and usage of late quattrocento Florentines generally. Of particular interest is the abundance of things — cloths, clothes, gifts and foodstuffs — purchased in connection with the births of their sons.

The reader might wonder if Ser Girolamo and his wife would have celebrated the births of daughters with equal enthusiasm. Because Musacchio lays special emphasis in her book on issues of gender and rightly observes that childbirth rituals pertain above all to women, this is an important question that is not fully examined. The fact that Ser Girolamo bet thirty florins (a huge sum for his station in life) on the sex of his firstborn (he would immediately loose this sum — as he did — if the child were male, but win an eventual dowry of four hundred florins should the child be female), confirms a cultural pattern valuing boys above girls. It would be interesting to know whether the domestic images of childbirth in Tuscan Renaissance art that appear to celebrate with equal enthusiasm the birth of a girl — the Virgin, and a boy — St. John the Baptist, conform to a social norm or reverberate against more profound social inequities in the treatment of the sexes.

The third chapter deals with birth trays, the so-called deschi da parto long identified as a special kind of object celebrating childbirth. Typically circular or polygonal in form, with engaged moldings and narrative scenes or coats-of-arms front and back, these trays had special meaning in Renaissance Florence. Because the grand examples of this genre combine fine painting with deeply emblematic subject matter, painted wooden trays are a rich subject for investigation. Musacchio’s detailed analysis of the greatest of these, for example, the tray celebrating the birth of Lorenzo the Magnificent (now preserved in The Metropolitan Museum of Art) reviews the meaning of its imagery — fame for the newborn — and its fascinating later history (it was bought by Medici adherents at the sale of property after the fall of Lorenzo’s son Piero in 1494). Whereas mid-quattrocento Florentines knew what deschi da parto were, and were likely to know what the images on them meant, modern readers can now turn to this book for lucid explanation. But Musacchio has little to say about why Florence and her artists developed such an art form in the first place, and embellished it over approximately two centuries. There is merit in the observation that childbirth was important for populations reduced by plague, but if plague was widespread and recurrent throughout Italy during the Renaissance, why should these art forms evolve so elaborately and in such quantity in Florence, but not elsewhere?

Musacchio is very informative about the objects that supplanted the deschi da parto as celebratory birth gifts, namely suites of tin-glazed ceramics, or majolica, that fit together into combined, interlocking presentation units consisting of bowls, trays, and lids. Alas, these assemblages are now separated or fragmentary, and the constituent pieces tend to be scattered or lost in the abundance of sixteenth-century majolica pieces that do survive. Yet how powerful the images are in depicting the facts of childbirth! The illustrations in this chapter take the reader into birthing rooms as none of the fifteenth-century materials do. Whereas Lorenzo the Magnificent’s birth tray depicts the Petrarchan Triumph of Fame, a Casteldurante vessel in the Victoria and Albert Museum (fig. 106) shows the very moment of childbirth, with busy midwife and attendants. These vessels speak so much more directly to the physical experience of women giving birth than do the idealized, painted trays of an earlier generation, with their abstract expressions of hope for good fortune, or after-the-fact celebration of a successful birth.

A final chapter brings in the concept of mediation; that is, the idea that Renaissance images of childbirth, and the objects associated with childbirth, mediated between ideal and actual experience. Surely this is true, and Musacchio gives valuable examples. For example, the vision of Florentine domesticity represented by Ghirlandaio’s Birth of the Virgin in Santa Maria Novella constituted an idealized paradigm for female behavior. But the notion that the widespread Renaissance concern with childbirth imagery stems from the lingering effects or threat of the Black Death may be insufficient to explain the artistic forms and social phenomena that are Musacchio’s larger subject.

Jacqueline Musacchio’s book sets a new benchmark for a comprehensive, analytic discussion of Renaissance childbirth and its related imagery in Italy. Although she does not identify or list all surviving objects which by virtue of their type or imagery are relevant to the subject (and it would be helpful to know, for example, which eighty or so painted trays she considers to form the universe of surviving examples) the documentation drawn from contemporary written sources is very illuminating. The apparatus is useful and deserves special note because it includes a glossary of relevant Italian Renaissance terminology, and appendices transcribing all or parts of four Florentine documents: the inventory of Francesco Inghirrami’s estate (1471), a list of Antonio Castellani’s wedding expenses (1416); a list of things in a Frescobaldi confinement room (1529); and a record of supplies for a wetnurse (1417). The book design, typeface, paper, page layout, and reproduction quality are superb — as is to be expected from Yale University Press.

Kent Lydecker
The Metropolitan Museum of Art.