A birth tray or birth salver (Italian: desco da parto) was an important symbolic gift on the occasion of a successful birth in late medieval and Early Modern Florence and Siena. The surviving painted deschi represented in museum collections were commissioned by elite families, but inventories show that birth trays and other special birth objects like embroidered pillows were kept long after the successful birth in families of all classes: when Lorenzo de’ Medici died, the inventory shows that the desco da parto given by his father to his mother, Lucrezia Tornabuoni, at her lying-in, was hanging in his private quarters to the day of his death.
The desco da parto is a carrier, two-sided works painted in tondo by the greatest painters, produced on the occasion of the birth of the first child in the well-to-do families of the Italian Renaissance and part of the birth set.
It is one of the objects of everyday life during the Florentine Renaissance with the cassone, the decorated wedding chest, often by the same painters, and as much offered to the female element of the couple: to the bride who becomes wife of the couple then consecrated mother for the birth of her first child (primogenito).
A desco da parto need not be specially commissioned; they were produced in workshops in series for stock, often being personalised with a coat-of-arms when they were bought. There was a distinctive repertoire of iconography for the trays, the recto (top) sides sharing much with that for the painted cassone chests often used as gifts at marriage, but also with verso sides often showing scenes of mothers after childbirth or pin-up figures of boy toddlers, accompanied by the coats of arms of both parents. After being used as a tray in the post partum period they could be hung on a wall as a painting.
Infant mortality was highest during the crucial first days, when the mother might also succumb to childbed fever. A successful childbirth was lavishly celebrated. Sons would one day assert the family interests, whether in modest workshop or banking house; daughters would share the household’s work until they were married and would cement the exogamous ties that stabilized Tuscan family position at every social level. Painted childbirth trays began to appear about 1370, in the generation following the Black Death, when the tenuousness of life was more vivid than ever. In the fifteenth century, D.C. Ahl found, at least one appears in almost half of all inventories she surveyed.
A birth table is a round painted on both sides that during the Renaissance was offered as a ceremonial gift to the women of the most affluent families who had just given birth. It was used as a tray to bring food to the new mother, as long as she rested in bed.
The mother was expected to remain “lying in” enjoying a period of bed rest during a postpartum period of variable duration, but probably lasting at least a week. No fixed term of lying-in is recommended in Renaissance manuals on family life (unlike in some other cultures), but it appears from documentary records that the mother was rarely present at the baptism, in Italian cities usually held within a week of the birth at the local parish church, normally a few minutes walk from any house. During this period the mother and child were visited in the bedroom by family and female friends, and presented with presents. The tray, often covered with a protective cloth, was used for serving delicacies to the visitors, perhaps including some they had brought as presents: a maid brings a cloth-covered desco with two carafes of water and wine to fortify Saint Anne in Paolo Uccello’s fresco of the Birth of the Virgin (1436), in the Chapel of the Annunciation, Duomo of Prato,
Raiment might be ceremoniously brought into the specially-decorated bedchamber where the new mother lay: in a desco da parto by Masaccio of 1427, the tray and a covered cup are preceded by a pair of trumpeters flying banners with the Florentine gigli. In fact in patrician households the bed was often placed in a reception room for the occasion (if there was not one already in such a room, after the fashion of the French and Burgundian courts), and the mother lay there while receiving visits from her friends over several days.
Fashion on trays for women in childbirth was most common in Florence and Siena. It was turbulent, but short – at the beginning of the XVI century, the “desco da parto” was replaced by “tafferie da parto” – wooden painted cups that were presented to the woman in childbirth. Unlike trays, the images of the images on these bowls were exclusively religious. An outstanding specimen of such a subject is represented in the Uffizi Gallery, Florence is a bowl with the image of “John the Baptist”, made by Jacopo Pontormo. Later they began to use ceramic painted dishes, made in the technique of majolica.
A painted tray of the woman in labor appeared in the XIV century and was an important part of the celebrations of the birth of the child. The earliest painted tray dates back to 1370 years, but the first mention of “desko da parto” in archival documents refers to 1383 (it is found in one Florentine inventory list).
Probably, the fashion for painted trays for women in childbirth appeared soon after the “black death” – the plague epidemic that spread in Europe in the middle of the 14th century, and took away a quarter of the population. At that time, there were no maternity hospitals, and the birth took place at home. Birth was not taken by doctors, but by midwives. The percentage of deaths at childbirth was quite high, and the experiences associated with the forthcoming resolution of the burden were of a high intensity and religious color. In the people there were all sorts of prejudices associated with childbirth, and part of these prejudices was the ritual of donating trays for childbirth after successful birth. On it, the woman giving birth was solemnly presented with food and drink to bed after a successful resolution. The tray was ordered in advance, and was often asked by artists to depict any subjects or symbols that would contribute to the birth of a healthy child and luck in his future life. In Libro di Bottega, a book of the most famous workshop of Apollonio di Giovanni and Marco del Buono in the middle of the 15th century, eminent families ordered orders for trays for women in childbirth right after orders of wedding chests-kassones.
Some tight-fisted or simply scrupulous residents of Florence did not order new trays, but used trays of their relatives or bought second-hand from someone and asked to rewrite stories or only family coat of arms, which were often depicted on the reverse side of the tray. Such, for example, is a tray from the Victoria and Albert Museum “The Triumph of Love”, the front side of which was rewritten in the 1460s, and the reverse side after 1537. The most famous example of resale is a tray with the image of “The Triumph of Glory” (Metropolitan Museum, New York), which after the death of the owner, Lorenzo the Magnificent, was auctioned for 3 florins.
The trays were ordered not only by rich families of merchants and bankers, but also butchers, poor notaries, bakers, wool workers, etc. The researchers estimated that in the 15th century at least 40% of Florentine families had at least one such tray on their farm. Usually they were produced by those workshops that specialized in making various objects decorating the life of wealthy townspeople – chests of cassone, picture-bedroom, which were hung in the form of a frieze on the walls, painted backs for beds, painted caskets and boxes, etc. Because the demand for the trays were quite high, they standardized the themes and images in the workshops, using stencils – many customers did not order trays, but bought ready-made in the shop. Typically, the trays were painted by artist-specialists in applied art, but from time to time, such famous artists, high-class artists, such as, for example, Masaccio or Botticelli, did not disdain such earnings.
Some artists remain unidentified, and were clearly not of the first rank, but, given the significant names represented among the tiny proportion of survivors, it appears that many artists took an occasional break from larger projects to produce desci. The circular tondo shape in normal panel paintings, which became fashionable in the mid-fifteenth century in Florence, may have developed from the smaller desci.
For the painted trays made for the elite on these joyous occasions, in general, both sides of the tray are painted, the upper side (or recto) generally with a crowded figure scene, usually secular, such as a scene from classical myth or a suitable allegory. Scenes from the Old Testament or the Christian religious repertoire also appear in some cases. Birthing scenes were popular. These might be the Birth of the Virgin or that of Florence’s patron saint, John the Baptist, but only a halo or two distinguishes these from other scenes apparently showing a birth scene as a genre painting. A tray in the New York Historical Society shows a genre birthing scene but is closely copied from a drawing of the birth of John the Baptist by Lorenzo Monaco.
The subjects of the paintings were in the overwhelming part of the secular. From the Bible, with rare exceptions, only Old Testament (not Gospel) subjects were taken, such as. “Samson and Delilah,” or “Suzanne and the Elders.” The popular theme was “Triumphs” based on the poem of Petrarch, as well as stories from the works of Boccaccio. In the heyday of international Gothic art (that is, around 1400), popular Gothic stories “The Garden of Love” and “The Garden of Youth” were popular. On the trays often depicted the scene of childbirth – the interior with a bed on which the lying woman lies, and around help the helpers. In the middle of the XV century, the most popular were the ancient stories – “The Court of Paris”, “Diana and Acteon”, etc.
The diameter of the trays was usually in the range of 50-65 cm. They were carved from wood and painted with tempera. The simplest were octagonal, more complex 12 and 14 and 16 and coal. In the second quarter of the XV century began to spread round (it is believed that it was from them that such a form of the picture as tondo developed). The edges of the tray were supplied with a convex frame.
In all these the mother sits up in bed receiving gifts from a stream of female visitors, while at the front of the scene the child is washed or wrapped in swaddling by more women. In one male pageboys serve the guests. Another tray shows boys and men playing a local fighting game in the street (see gallery). The earliest painted illustration of a novella of Boccaccio is on a Florentine desco da parto with the arms of a Pisan family, made c. 1410 and in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The survivals include three allegorical scenes of the Triumph of Love, derived from Petrarch’s Triumphs, and one Triumph of Venus.
The underside or verso generally has a simpler and often less elevated subject, with fewer, larger figures, and usually includes heraldry, with the arms of both parents shown. Scenes with one or two naked boy toddlers, with the coats of arms of both parents at the sides, are especially popular. The arms of the mother’s family traditionally take the right hand side, but in some examples the arms have been changed by overpainting them. Inscriptions in the field or round the rim sometimes provide the date of the fortunate event, providing art historians with a useful fixed point. Like some other types of art, such as the “Otto prints”, desci were mostly expected to be decorated in what was considered to be feminine taste, although how the design was selected is unclear. In an example painted by Masaccio’s brother two boys wrestle, with certainly one and probably both using the hold of pulling on the other’s penis with one hand and hair with the other (see gallery).
In the Renaissance it was believed that the sights a pregnant woman saw affected her pregnancy and even what it produced – Martin Luther told the cautionary story of a woman frightened by a mouse in pregnancy, who then gave birth to a mouse. Manuals advised keeping images with a positive impact in the sight of pregnant women, and it is in this context that the recurrent naked boys, and the scenes showing the end of a successful childbirth, should be seen. This was also a factor in the display of images of the Virgin and Child, which were ubiquitous in bedrooms. Probably the desci were hung with the verso displayed during pregnancy, to promote the production of a similar healthy boy.
Workshops that produced deschi da parto were often also manuscript illuminators, as for example Bartolomeo di Fruosino, an illuminator who also produced panel paintings, and painters of the panels that were incorporated into the fronts and ends of quattrocento cassoni. Such a workshop was that of the “Master of the Adimari cassone”, now usually identified as Masaccio’s brother Giovanni di ser Giovanni Guidi (or “Lo Scheggia”, “the Splinter”), which also produced the desco da parto showing youths playing at civettino in an urban setting, in Palazzo Davanzati, Florence, and other examples. A divided verso showing two naked boys fighting realized $482,500 at auction in 2012.
The San Francisco Legion of Honor Museum has an example painted about 1400 by Lorenzo di Niccolo, a Florentine painter who was active from 1391 to 1412. The recto shows the story of Diana and Actaeon. Diana, goddess of hunting appears in the foreground clothed in a dark, broaded robe and carrying a falcon; at the right, her nymphs pursue a boar. At the top of the painting, Diana and her nymphs are bathing in a pool of water when the mortal Actaeon happens upon the naked goddess. For offending the virgin deity, Actaeon was transformed into a stag to be hunted down by his own dogs. His fate is illustrated on the left side, where hounds chase a deer. The reverse (verso) shows the allegorical figure of Justice with two family coats of arms while holding a scale and a sword.