Marriage in the Renaissance was rather different from what we now think of as a union between loving partners, preferably with a big party and lots of food. They did have the party and the food, but it was a lot less romantic. In early modern times, marriage was one of the most important social unions between families, and with the main purpose of producing an heir. Marriages in the upper classes were almost always arranged by families (who used specialized agents as intermediaries) and the young girl was kept out of the process until the "big day". An intimate exhibit at the Accademia Gallery in Florence on now till November 1 2010 explores the rituals and trappings of Renaissance weddings; on display are the specialized pieces of furniture associated with this union: cassoni, spalliere, and deschi da parto.
Last winter I wrote a post about the definition and function of the cassone (plural: cassoni, sometimes called forzieri), essentially a single or pair of decorated wooden boxes - about a foot or more long - that are processed along with the new couple into his family's home. Once there, they were used to contain practical things like linens and clothing. In the 15th century, these were painted with scenes generally meant to instruct the bride on her role; whatever mythological story is used to tell the story, the moral is pretty much always the same - she must remain chaste at all costs. On display in this exhibit are some of the best known examples from European museums (the Louvre, Accademia Carrara in Bergamo, Museo Correr in Venice, and of course Uffizi and Accademia) showing stories of Lucretia, Esther, Susanna and similarly virtuous ladies. A second category of marriage-related furniture is the spalliera, which is what the famous "Adimari 'cassone'" probably is. Spalliere are shoulder-height or higher painted or intarsiated wooden panels on the wall. While most middle class families had a pair of cassoni of some sort - even undecorated - spalliere were probably less common as they did not serve a really useful function other than some mild insulation.
The birth tray (or desco da parto), on the other hand, was considered very useful indeed. A circular piece of wood in a frame, it was decorated on one side often with a birth scene (the births of Jesus, Mary, or John the Baptist were good ones) and a family crest or a naked baby on the backside. Looking at images of naked babies like this was considered helpful in conceiving a child (especially a male one). So although the "birth tray" was, as its name makes it seem, used to serve food to new mothers, it was often given as a wedding gift in the hopes of quick heir production. The exhibit at the Accademia has on loan probably the most famous birth tray of all, the Triumph of Fame by Lo Scheggia (the artist also responsible for the Adimari panel) in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It's often reproduced as the prime example of birth trays because it's very high quality and was made for the union of the Medici and Tornabuoni families whose crests are united on the back. The cultural context of these spectacular objects are contextualized by reproductions of contemporary prints, projections and videos, as well as wall text that explains their function and the stories represented on each object. It's a small exhibit that is included in the price of admission, so don't just stop after seeing the David!
Virtù d'amore - Pittura nuziale nel Quattrocento fiorentino At the Accademia, with a section also at the Horne Museum The website and very nice hardcover catalogue are only in Italian, but the exhibition has wall text also in English.