Pictures of this size and shape – it has 12 sides – were known as deschi da parte (or birth trays), and were common in fifteenth-century Florence. Originally made to bring food to a woman during labour, they later became symbolic gifts to celebrate marriage or childbirth.
They were, like this one, lavishly decorated, usually with non-religious images. This painting illustrates a poem by the fourteenth-century Italian poet Petrarch, which describes ‘The Triumph of Love’. Love is represented as a naked, winged young man riding a chariot, ready to strike the crowd below with his arrows, which would make them fall in love.
Coats of arms decorate the reverse of the tray – those of the couple for whom it was made. The woman was a member of the del Zaccheria family. The heron that dominates the reverse might be a pun on her husband’s name, Arditi: ardea means heron in Italian.
Pictures of this size and shape – it has 12 sides – were called deschi da parte (or birth trays) and they were functional and decorative objects, not made to be hung on a wall. Originally used to bring food to women in labour, they eventually became symbolic gifts that may have celebrated marriage or childbirth or formed part of a woman’s dowry. These objects weren‘t just owned by wealthy families – inventories in Florence show that people from a broad range of social backgrounds had them.
Deschi da parte usually had a romantic subject and this one is the most romantic of all. The fantastical image has a literary source, a fourteenth-century Italian poem, ’The Triumph of Love‘, by the well-loved Florentine poet Petrarch. At the centre, a winged, naked figure stands on what looks like a carnival float, drawn by two horses ridden by Black page boys. He draws his bow and aims at the crowd behind; anyone struck by his arrows would fall in love. At each corner of the chariot are four small cherubic cupids also brandishing bows. The scene is very close to the words of the poem – the naked figure is described as a youth with ’bow in hand and arrows at his side/ No fear had he, nor armour wore, nor shield/ But on his shoulders he had two great wings…’.
The poem also mentions the woman riding on a man’s back as if he were a horse. The man is the ancient Greek philosopher, Aristotle, who fell in love with a woman called Phyllis. She made him take her for a ride on his back, and the humiliation of the wise philosopher was seen as proof of his love and of its power. To their right an almost-naked man sleeps while a woman cuts his hair with a pair of golden shears. This is a reference to the biblical story of Samson and Delilah. Delilah seduced the biblical hero Samson and, bribed by his enemies, cut off his long hair, the source of his strength.
The whole scene is framed symmetrically by little rocky hills and orange groves. In the distance we can see a hilly Tuscan town, which sets the events in the landscape familiar to its owners.
As this was an object which would be carried around, the underside (or reverse) is painted too. Pinned to a lemon and an orange tree are the coats of arms of the couple for whom it was made. In the centre, a bird, perhaps a heron, pecks at the ground in the meadow. The arms on the right with three red crescent moons belong to the del Zaccheria family, but it’s more difficult to identify the other. However, documents record that Apollonio di Giovanni and Marco del Buono made a painting for a woman called Tita, the daughter of Giovanni del Zaccheria, who married a man called Domenico Arditi. As they had already decorated a chest on the occasion of their marriage in 1453 they may also have been asked to make this in celebration of the birth of a child. The bird might be a pun on the name Arditi: ardea means heron in Italian.
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