I have never understood why couples re-enact Italian Renaissance marriages for their wedding when a typical marriages was about as romantic as haggling with a used car salesman. They were long, expensive and often resulted with the poor bride stuck with a lemon. If you have ever had to plan a wedding or been stuck in a bridesmaid’s dress resembling a puffed pastry then you will feel for the poor darlings of Renaissance Italy. Here were the steps to tie the knot:
Informal inquiry was made usually by a sensale (the professional match maker of their day) or by relative or patron. The job of this intermediary was to determine how much money the girl's family could throw down and make sure she was not missing any limbs or other deal breakers.
The dowry is drawn up
Today, we start saving for college funds at an early age, but in the Renaissance, parents would start saving for a daughter’s wedding as soon as she popped out. For most aristocrats, the whole process could start in infancy and not be finalized until the girl was a teenager. The parents also needed time to come up with that much cash. By the 16th century, a noble girl’s dowry could be well over 1000 Florins. And then there were more extreme examples. Pope Alexander VI sent his daughter Lucrezia Borgia’s off into matrimonial bliss with Giovanni Sforza with a dowry of 31,000 ducats. By the time she was on huband #3 Alfonso d’Este, Alexander had to up the kitty to over 200,000 ducats. (Her reputation was getting a bit tarnished by then.)
Impalmare - The shaking of the hands
This step took place in a church between a mediating notary and representative from both families. This was the time to raise any objections because after it was done the couple was now legally bound to marry. Unfortunately, the bride was not present so she had little say.
The wooing begins
You might think those window scenes during Romeo and Juliet were a bunch of fluff, but typically the groom would begin his courtship below his bride’s window. After the impalmare, grooms would bring his bride presents usually in the form of jewelry and clothing. In turn, the bride would throw from her window to her groom tokens of her esteem such as scarves, flowers, fruits, nuts or chunks of salami. (2) The groom usually paid for her cassoni (wedding chest) and also sent some trinkets in the form of dresses, jewels and headdresses. During the marriage negotiations of Caterina Strozzi and Marco Parenti, he gave her a gown of crimson velvet and silk along with a garland of feathers and pearls which caused her venal mother to note that, “When she goes out she’ll have more than four hundred florins on her back. “ (3)
Sponsalia or sometimes called the Anellamento, Matrimonium or ring day
Now it was time for the big day. This ceremony typically took place in the bride’s house and was witnessed by family members from both sides. The couple wore their best clothes with red being the most popular color for brides. (Often the bridal dress was designed by the groom. )
You think grooms get bridal jitters today, you should have seen what those crazy Renaissance kids from Rome had to endure. During the ceremony, a big sharp sword was hung over the heads of the soon-to-be happy couple just so they wouldn't get any last minute indecisiveness. A notary would then ask the appropriate questions prescribed by the church and then the groom would take the right hand of woman and place nuptial ring on her third finger. (It was believed a major vein went from the third finger to the heart.) Gifts from the husband were then given to bride and his in-laws.
The couple was now considered man and wife….almost.
Nozze - The big party.
The shenanigans that followed the Sponsalia could last several days or even a week. The bride’s cassoni was carried through the streets to her husband’s house and placed in the couple’s bedroom. The bride was either carried through the streets or rode on a white palfrey to be formally welcome into her new home. If you lived in Rome, grain and vegetables were thrown out the window (much harder than rice if you get bonked on the head) and the public would heckle the groom with the old Renaissance version of “ball and chain” jokes.
The music, dancing and banquet that followed could be pretty lavish often involving over 300 guests. Eventually, the extravagance for the banquets got so out of control that sumptuary laws had to be enacted to control spending.
During the consummation a bride and groom would retire to their chambers while a notary recorded the event. This event didn’t always take place right after the Nozze. Sometimes, the bride continued to live in her father’s house, especially if the dowry had not been fully paid. For example, Cosa Guasconi's marriage took three years to be consummated because her groom, Paolo Niccolini was waiting for her dowry to be fully paid.
La messa del congiunto
After the consummation, men in Renaissance Italy could not just roll over and fall asleep. A religious ceremony had to be said after the deed was done in order to bless the union. So much for privacy.
Wheeeew. Writing this post has been exhausting, so you can imagine how tiring it must have been to be the bride and groom. Of course, If a young couple wanted to circumvent these steps and run away all they needed to make the marriage legal were two mutual consenting live bodies. Clandestine marriages were common enough that by 1563, the Council of Trent put into law the above required steps for a legal wedding thereby killing the last bit of romance in Renaissance Italy.
(1) p. 31 Biblioteca Italiana, Volume 9
(2) The Salami was a joke. I am just really hungry right now.
(3) (p. 31 Biblioteca Italiana, Volume 9 ).
Sources and Further Reading:
Macinghi Strozzi, Alessandra and Gregory, Heather. Biblioteca Italiana, Volume 9, University of California Press, 1997.
Dean, Trevor and Lowe K. J. P. Marriage in Italy, 1300-1650, Cambridge University Press, 2002.