The Renaissance of Marriage in Fifteenth-Century Italy
The so-called renaissance of marriage has its origins in the ancient debates about whether celibacy was preferable to marriage. Fearing that demanding wives and children would undermine the philosopher's higher calling, the Cynics advocated celibacy, in opposition to Aristotle and Plato, who held that fertile marriages assured the survival of the polis. The Stoics, meanwhile, encouraged child-bearing marriages, considering celibacy unnatural. The early Church fathers, who preached the spiritual benefits of virginity and celibacy and became widely imitated models of asceticism, paved the way for Jerome's thundering condemnation of marriage and sex-driven conjugal relations. Although he believed the celibate life superior, Augustine conceded that marriage was legitimate and that conjugal relations for the purpose of procreation were licit. Augustine's teachings on the three pillars of marriage—fidelity, procreation, and sacramental indissolubility—became the cornerstone of Catholic marriage doctrine in the Middle Ages and beyond.
A thoroughly affirmative view of marriage reemerged in early Renaissance Florence, where the humanists, inspired by their Greco- Roman forebears, promoted the advantages of married life, robust families, and effective parenting. Moving beyond Florence, D'Elia presents the first comprehensive study of courtly wedding orations (epithalamia), a surprisingly neglected source, given that more than 300 of these orations have survived and given their potential to illuminate attitudes toward marriage and sexuality in fifteenth-century Italy. Modeled after ancient examples, wedding orations were composed and performed by humanists, such as Guarino Guarini, Ludovico Carbone, and Francesco Filelfo, in stylish Latin prose to celebrate courtly weddings at Ferrara, Milan, Rimini, and Naples. A chapter on extravagant weddings as political propaganda centers on the tropes employed by the orators to highlight the noble ancestry and virtues (magnificence, liberality, and clemency) of patron rulers. A second chapter foregrounds the orators' exaltation of [End Page 116] heteroeroticism, physical beauty, mutually fulfilling conjugal relations, and companionate marriage. A final chapter suggests that the campaign to desacralize celibacy waged in the Reformation owed a debt to Italian humanists.
The author's sure hand in rendering humanist Latin rhetoric falters when dealing with mundane matters. For example, the Dowry Fund of Florence (Monte delle doti) is mistakenly called a "savings bank" (29); the assertion that "all women had equal access to the law" in fifteenth- century Italy ignores ubiquitous legal restrictions that served to inhibit the ability of daughters, wives, and widows to act as independent legal persons (9); the assertion that condemnations of extravagant weddings were "generally limited to Tuscany" neglects the assaults on excessive nuptial expenses throughout Italy, including Ferrara, Milan, and Naples (45); and the link between population losses and the revival of wedding orations is raised but left unexamined. The failure to counterbalance the orators' credulity-straining rhetoric of marital bliss with a discussion of the prevalence of extramarital sex and illegitimate children fathered by princes adds up to a distorted picture of what D'Elia calls the "the culture of marriage and sex in Italian courts" (83). By concentrating almost exclusively on wedding orations, moreover, D'Elia exaggerates their uniqueness. An array of literary texts and visual artifacts—especially painted wedding chests studied intensively by art historians—attests to the pervasive classical treatment of elite marriages in the Italian Renaissance.
D'Elia's findings in the end are vitiated by a bias against celibacy, leading the author to conclude his liberatory account with Luther, a dedicated foe of the celibate ideal, whose knowledge of humanist arguments was at best tenuous. A nonteleological, yet probably more rewarding, approach would have led the author to extend his story to Italy during the Counter-Reformation, when the ideal and practice of virginity and celibacy were revitalized and the Church took unprecedented control over marriage rites.