Mastodon The Writing Desk: Special Guest Post by Deborah Swift, Author of The Poison Keeper

18 May 2021

Special Guest Post by Deborah Swift, Author of The Poison Keeper

Available on Amazon UK and Amazon US

Naples 1633: Giulia Tofana longs for more responsibility in her mother’s apothecary business, but Mamma has always been secretive and refuses to tell her the hidden keys to her success. But the day Mamma is arrested for the poisoning of the powerful Duke de Verdi, Giulia is shocked to uncover the darker side of her trade.

Of Dowries and Betrothals in Renaissance Naples 

Marriages in Naples in the 17th Century, like most of Europe, were bound by politics and lineages. The personal preferences of the young people were of no account; the main ambition of parents was to secure a wealthy and powerful allegiance within the same, or preferably higher, social rank. 

Often marriages were brokered between parties from different places, and so prospective brides had flattering portraits or miniatures painted that could be sent with an envoy to convince future parents in law of the woman’s beauty. Beauty was a commodity then as now.

Miniatures from Museum of Warsaw

The betrothal was a legally binding contract made by the fathers of the prospective bride and groom. Weirdly, it was not necessary for the two who were to be married to take part in the signing of the agreement or even to know anything about it. It could be made when both parties were very young, even as young as four years. To break a betrothal agreement carried penalties, and often if it was to be dissolved a financial penalty would be incurred.

Before 1563, when the Council of Trent changed the process of matrimony in Church, the only requirement for marriage was the mutual consent of the man and the woman. A religious ceremony was not mandatory and no-one official needed to witness the joining together of the couple, not even a priest. Weddings however were still elaborate ritualized affairs between families, involving processions and the exchange of vows and gifts.

Grooms, too, were expected to make a present of jewellery or a fine gown for the bride to wear at the wedding. Red was a very popular colour for brides. These so called ‘gifts’ were either paid for by borrowing from the woman’s dowry, or they remained the husband’s property. Husbands were apt to sell off their wives’ wedding dresses, as once they were married they were expected to be less showy and more soberly dressed. Their job by then was to provide heirs and keep the household running.Here are the gifts of Marco Parenti to his bride, Caterina Strozzi, as reported by her mother.

‘When she was betrothed he ordered a gown of crimson velvet for her made of silk and a surcoat of the same fabric, which is the most beautiful cloth in Florence. He had it made in his workshop. And he had a hat of feathers and pearls made for her [that] cost eighty florins, the cap underneath has two strings of pearls costing sixty florins or more. When she goes out, she’ll have more than four hundred florins on her back.’

(Translation in Art and Love in Renaissance Italy, exh. cat., ed. Andrea Bayer)

These gifts listed above were paid for from her own dowry. Often at the birth of a daughter, an amount of money was deposited in a dowry fund, the monte della doti, and then the accrued interest and original sum would be paid to the husband once the marriage had been proved to be consummated. Dowries were paid by the bride’s parents, and those with daughters of marriageable age often could not afford dowries for them all. Many daughters were sent to convents, as dowries for a ‘Bride of Christ’ were, as a rule, much cheaper.

The personal clothing and jewels of the dowry would be delivered in a marriage chest or ‘cassone.’ These were often made in matching pairs for bride and groom. Early in the Renaissance these cassoni had painted decoration, often of family heraldry or biblical scenes.Inside was a different matter. 

These were designed only to be seen in the bedchamber and showed more salacious scenes of nudes, or sometimes they were painted with patterns embellished with gold like the fabrics they contained This early example shows figures linked to courtly romances, including a lovers’ tryst by the fountain of love, a lady on horseback with a falcon on 'the hunt for love'.

With arranged marriages often being made between very young brides and older men, the risk of the marriage being an unhappy one was great. A man might marry a girl twenty or thirty years his junior if he still had not produced an heir from previous marriages. In such circumstances, calling on someone to speed the husband’s demise doesn’t seem to outlandish, and the epidemic of poisonings in Italy showed that poison had become the woman’s weapon of choice.

Deborah Swift
# # #

About the Author

Deborah Swift lives in North Lancashire on the edge of the Lake District and worked as a set and costume designer for theatre and TV. After gaining an MA in Creative Writing in 2007 Deborah now teach classes and courses in writing and provides editorial advice to writers and authors. Find out more at Deborah's website and follow her on Facebook and Twitter @swiftstory

1 comment:

  1. Thank you so much for hosting Deborah and her tour today!

    HF Virtual Book Tours


Thank you for commenting