The art of birth

Flowers and chocolates are the most common gifts to new mommies. But.. imagine to receive a tray instead! A particular tray decorated by the most famous artist of the moment! This was the object that women, belonging to the wealthy families, used to receive after giving birth (and after having survived the birth), or as a wedding gift to encourage the couple to soon build a family. The practical purpose of these trays was to bring food and beverage to the woman still in bed after giving birth. The woman’s task, as we know, was to give birth to as many children as possible, and the main parents’ concern was to find a husband or a wife for their son or daughter, so to bring the lineage on to the next generations. Wife was often and therefore chosen among candidates considered suitable to give birth. This task might seem very easy.. but in fact it wasn’t at all! The mortality rates for infants and for women during birth were high, so that the big issue was not just having children, but to survive birth for women, and to reach adulthood for children. If we also consider all the plagues, as the terrible big plague of 1348, that killed huge percentage of the population, we cannot be surprised about how people then gave special importance to birth.

These trays, called “desco da parto” (literally: “round birth tray”) were painted with religious scenes involving the family (births, Holy Family..) or with scenes of everyday life, like children playing, as in this example by the artist named “Scheggia” preserved in the Davanzati House, as well as with emblems of the couple’s families. Giovanni di Ser Giovanni, also known as “Scheggia” (1406-1486) was the younger brother of Masaccio (Tommaso di Ser Giovanni), the first Florentine Renaissance painter. Giovanni, whose style was still medieval, had great success among the city families with this specific type of objects: this explains why a lot of these “deschi da parto”, along with other commissions related to weddings, are products of his workshop. This Florentine tradition, that dates back to the Middle Ages, was continued throughout the Renaissance and beyond, and this is the reason why we can now admire many round paintings in Florence: they were inspired by the famous “deschi da parto”. Despite the romantic idea that we all have of Renaissance, as a time of love and beauty, the truth is that these weddings had very little to do with romanticism: these men and women were often forced to marry someone that and their barely knew, in order to satisfy the interests of their families to maintain their social status and the relationships with other families. For women this meant having to live with the pressure of having children, and their entire life was devoted to this. They could not forget it, and these images were right there to prevent it!

Even though times have changed, between flowers, that have a short life, or chocolates, that have an even shorter life, and a fine, beautiful piece of art, that is forever.. the choice is quite easy! Or what would you prefer? ;-)