Thursday, September 3, 2009

Over Her Wed Body: On Gifting And Countergifting

Fig. 1. The Botticelli Workshop - The Story of Nastagio degli Onesti (first episode), c. 1483

'Patrician marriages in northern Renaissance Italy were convoluted, expensive, protracted, and intensely bureaucratic affairs. They entailed an obligatory series of public meetings and ritual celebrations, at which deals were struck, vows were made, and, most importantly, gifts were exchanged in order to advance not only the union of the bride- and groom-to-be, but also the desired alliance of their respective clans. Christiane Klapisch-Zuber’s description of the Renaissance road to matrimony as both a ‘nuptial scenario’ and a ‘network of exchanges based on gift and countergift’ aptly characterises it as a strategic fusion of social and commercial rites: i.e. as a zesty concoction of theatre and business. ‘It was’, she writes, a ‘symbolic process by which new relationships were established between lineages.’ Symbolism of a more explicit - and problematic - kind is discernible in images that adorn the larger of these endowments, cassoni and spalliere. For instance, “exemplary” narratives valorising the ‘quiet suffering’ of women do more than simply exhort their female viewers to wifely virtue. They also implicitly validate the husband’s lawfully inscribed right to ‘assert [his] power over the whole of the conjugal estate’, including the gifts “given” to his bride as part of their betrothal negotiations and marriage ceremonies - and, more disturbingly, over the silent (read: silenced) body of the bride herself.'

Lucio Crispino (from Over Her Wed Body: The Importance of Gift Giving in Italian Renaissance Marriage Rituals)