Exhibit of the week
Art and Love in Renaissance Italy
Metropolitan Museum of Art
New York
Through Feb. 16

“Who knew Renaissance Italy was so … raunchy?” said Barbara Hoffman in the New York Post. The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s new exhibition about love, marriage, childbirth, and sex shows us the earthy side of many artists we typically associate with celestial religious subjects. It turns out that “the same artists who were painting Madonnas were also drawing concupiscent cupids, flagrantly sexy figs, and streetwalkers with lift-the-flap skirts.” Art and Love in Renaissance Italy, which “celebrates the secular,” contains masterpieces by Botticelli, Titian, and Raphael, but the fun comes from more humble quarters. Try not to be surprised by the red-painted rooms toward the middle of the show, filled with “erotica such as a recently discovered Parmigianino print of a very excited young man.”

The Renaissance pornography certainly can be eye-opening, said John Zeaman in the Bergen County, N.J., Record. Yet most of this exhibition is dedicated to matrimony, childbirth, and other more mundane events. “Marriages were often business matters back then,” and the best families commissioned remarkable objects to celebrate such alliances. Colorful maiolica pottery, “Venetian glassware, finely crafted wedding rings, painted bridal chests,” and marriage portraits abound. Interestingly, not all of these works express unalloyed enthusiasm for eternal wedlock. “Some—perhaps lighthearted gifts—depicted love’s painful and tempestuous side, such as the Plate With a Love Argument, in which a woman has tied a man to a tree and threatens him with a knife.”

This exhibition proves you can learn as much about a culture from its everyday objects as from its artistic masterpieces, said Roberta Smith in The New York Times. “Every object, art or otherwise, is a kind of text about the context that produced it.” A first-class painting such as Fra Filippo Lippi’s Portrait of a Woman With a Man at a Casement (1435–36) finds uncertainty and anxiety in what should have been a happy wedding portrait. But even pottery pieces that verge on folk art in their simplicity present a complex view of Renaissance wedlock. “In the status-conscious, highly regulated, and self-aware hothouse of Renaissance Italy,” marriage and childbirth were key occasions to show off. “The proceedings here seem riddled with the anxieties of proud parents and nervous new couples.” That only makes the moments of pure painterly joy that shine through in such works as Titian’s Venus Blindfolding Cupid all the more exhilarating.