This month, our continuing series on a Bard Graduate Center seminar features:

Rites of Passage: Arts of Marriage and Childbirth in the Italian Renaissance

Like many Bard Graduate Center courses, Rites of Passage is inherently interdisciplinary. Drawing on a vast body of historical research, the seminar focuses on furniture, textiles, ceramics, jewelry and other objects created to commemorate or celebrate key rites of passage in early modern Italian life: marriage and childbirth. Objects made for and used during these events include some of the most intriguing and distinctive pieces of Renaissance decorative arts, such as ornamented wedding chests (cassoni) and birth trays (deschi da parto).

Weekly readings draw on the work of leading historians who have studied the demography and social history of Italy. Florence has been heavily represented in the scholarly record due to the survival of the most detailed census in any early modern city: the catasto taken between 1427 and 1429, not just for Florence proper but its larger territorial state. Yielding a fascinating picture of population and demography, this census has been the basis for a series of important studies. The seminar also makes use of legal records and literature to contextualize surviving objects.

Objects themselves are central to our inquiry. One class session is devoted to a close examination of an important wedding chest in the collection of the the Metropolitan Museum of Art. We will examine it in the gallery with conservators Mecka Baumeister, Silvia Centeno, and Pascale Patris, who will provide us with special headlamps and magnifying glasses to see the object through their highly-trained eyes. We will then move down to the Sherman Fairchild Center for Objects Conservation to study highly magnified x-rays and other kinds of scans taken as the cassone was dismantled and rebuilt during the recent conservation process. In the course of the session, the students will see how the conservators came to their conclusions, leading to a major historical re-evaluation of the cassone’s original configuration and subsequent history.

Another class will be held in the Met’s Antonio Ratti Textile Center. Here we will look closely at a group of textiles that were featured in the Met’s 2008 exhibition Art and Love in Renaissance Italy, to which I was privileged to contribute. This too is a special opportunity to see and study precious objects that are rarely on view in the galleries.

—Deborah L. Krohn, Associate Professor

Poplar wood, linen, polychromed and gilded gesso with panel painted in tempera and gold Dimensions: H. 39-1/2 x W. 77 x D. 32-7/8 in. (100.3 x 195.6 x 83.5 cm); Painted surface: 15 1/4 x 49 1/2 in. (38.7 x 125.7 cm) John Stewart Kennedy Fund, 1914; 14.39 The Metropolitan Museum of Art