The unusual shape of this picture is the first clue to its purpose, and the lively literary story painted upon it, the second. It was probably made as a commemorative but also functional household object, known as a birth tray or desco da parto. Such trays were given as gifts to celebrate a pregnancy or the birth of a child and would have been used to bring food and gifts to the expectant mother. In the centre of the image, a woman with three feathers in her hat is carried on the shoulders of a young man towards a boat moored at the island. The woman is the beautiful Helen, wife of the Greek king Menelaus captured by the Trojan prince, Paris. He awaits, dressed in armour, by the boat. According to the author of this particular version of the story, popular in Strozzi’s time, this was the moment the pair fell in love. Strozzi, who also painted manuscript illuminations, has included lots of small details – the boats in the sea, flowers on the lawn, and the little child fleeing the scene – to delight his client.
The unusual shape of this picture is the first clue to its function. X-ray images have shown that it has been cut down: it was originally larger and more elaborate with 12 sides. Panels of this shape were made as trays called deschi da parte. They were given as gifts to pregnant women and used to bring offerings into her chamber or room during her pregnancy. Sometimes they were given to celebrate the birth of a child. Research has shown that almost half of Florentine families owned a desco da parto. Their popularity shows how important childbirth was in Renaissance Italy when many children did not survive into adulthood. The reverse of such trays were often personalised with the family’s coat of arms. This one has been thinned down and the reverse painted over and so we cannot know who the original owner was but it was probably, like Zanobi Strozzi himself, someone from a Florentine family.
Birth trays were commonly decorated with secular imagery drawn from ancient mythology or literature. The popularity of these subjects reflected the increasing knowledge and study of ancient texts and art that characterised the Renaissance period. Here we see the abduction of Helen, the wife of the Spartan king Menelaus, by the Trojan prince, Paris: the action that sparked the Trojan War. This story was recounted in several versions including, most famously, in the Iliad, by the ancient Greek poet Homer. This image is probably based on a translation of a text by Dares Phrygius that tells the Trojan side of the story, a version that was popular in this period. Phrygius stresses that Helen’s capture was welcome, since she fell in love with Paris at first sight, making it an appropriate subject for a birth tray.
Helen, with three feathers in her hat, is at the centre of the scene on the shoulders of a young blonde man. Paris, in the meantime, also blonde and dressed in armour with red ties, waits to take Helen on to the large boat moored nearby. Three other women are also seized – two within the temple itself while another appears to embrace her captor.
Phrygius' version set the abduction at the Temple of Apollo on the Greek island of Cythera, a backdrop that allowed Strozzi to embellish the picture with delightful details. Boats with billowing sails fill the sea; fortified hillside towns encircle the slopes of the mountainous island across the water. The architecture of the temple is similar to that of a Florentine palace belonging to the Rucellai family which was built at about the same time that this tray was painted – the only hint that it is a temple is the statuette of the deity on a column at its centre. A little boy, perhaps a reminder of the child in whose honour the tray was given, darts across the flowery lawn away from the chaos inside the temple. The charm of these details reflects Strozzi’s main occupation as a manuscript illuminator; the small scale of book decorations inviting such attention to detail.
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