Florentine School(?), ca. 1410, Desco da Parto

Artist Florentine School(?), ca. 1410
Title Desco da Parto with the Amorous Hunt
Date ca. 1410
Medium Tempera and gold on panel
Dimensions 48.4 × 50.2 cm (19 × 19 3/4 in.)
Credit Line Gift of Hannah D. and Louis M. Rabinowitz
Inv. No. 1959.15.8
View in Collection

E. and A. Silberman Galleries, New York, by 1943; Hannah D. and Louis M. Rabinowitz (1887–1957), Sands Point, Long Island, N.Y., 1943


The panel, of a horizontal grain, has been thinned to less than 8 millimeters, marouflaged, and cradled. Its dodecagonal format appears to be original. Three parallel splits originate from the right edges of the panel at 14, 20, and 41 centimeters from the bottom edge; the lowest of these has provoked considerable paint loss, but the upper two do not significantly interrupt the painted surface. The painting was partially cleaned in 1972, revealing the extent of losses along the lowest split in the panel and smaller losses scattered throughout the water of the pond at the bottom of the composition, in the neck of the white horse at the right, and in the collar of the horse’s rider and the head of the hawk perched on her hand. It also revealed remarkably little abrasion in the paint surface, which retains many of its original glazes and some of the prominent impasto in the blood of the stag at the center and the white highlights on the rim of the fountain above it. Green pigments throughout the picture have oxidized to brown, but all of the finely applied mordant gilt decoration is intact.


This panel is among the earliest extant examples of a desco da parto, a so-called birth tray used to carry gifts and food to new mothers in their private chambers. Fewer than eighty such objects from the late fourteenth to the early sixteenth century survive, most of them produced in Florence and later in Siena, where they are frequently listed among other domestic furnishings in the inventories of patrician and wealthier middle-class households.1 Made to commemorate the birth of a first-born child or as auguries of love and fertility for newlyweds, the trays were painted with a wide range of subject matter, from the straightforward depiction of birth scenes to biblical and allegorical subjects drawn from a variety of classical and contemporary literary sources whose precise meaning has often eluded the modern viewer. Judging from the few examples that survive intact, earlier trays were painted on both sides and usually had a gilt frame or molding. Given its date, it may be assumed that the Yale desco, which is missing its original frame and painted back, conformed to such models.

In contrast to other birth trays, the decoration of which is usually confined to a single episode or narrative easily accommodated to the limitations of the round format, the decoration of the Yale desco is distinguished by a variety of individual, seemingly unrelated vignettes that are arranged over the picture field in a manner closely reminiscent of the horror vacui of Late Gothic illuminated manuscripts. The circular composition revolves around the slaying of a stag by three beautifully dressed, blond young women in the center of a rocky landscape, with a pond in the foreground and woods in the back. To the left of the main action is another group of three similarly characterized young huntresses, two of them ready with bow and arrow and a third holding a falcon. On a different plane directly above them are two young women engaged in conversation. Before the woods is a young man carrying off a mildly protesting young maiden. The head of another maiden peeks out from the treetops in the woods, where two lovers are engaged in an amorous exchange. To the right is a square trough with running water, identifiable as a rustically depicted Fountain of Love; behind it is a young woman with blond tresses who is being addressed by another unidentified female. Separated from them by a rocky outcrop is a hunting party composed of a couple on horseback and their two servants, one of whom is carrying their catch—a hare dangling from a stick held over his shoulder. The riders and servants appear oblivious to the events unfolding before them. The gentleman’s attention is turned toward his female companion as he places a loving arm around her shoulder. She carries a hawk in her right hand. The genteel, courtly atmosphere of the image, despite the brutality of the hunt, is underscored by the elegant clothing and elaborate headdresses of the female protagonists, which mirror early fifteenth-century fashion, and by the precious treatment of decorative details and gold highlights still visible in the less abraded parts of the composition.

The most cogent interpretation of the subject of the Yale desco was first put forward by Paul Watson in his 1970 dissertation on cassone panels, later elaborated into his 1979 volume on the theme of the Garden of Love in early Renaissance art.2 According to Watson, who traced the development of this motif in Tuscan art of the early Renaissance, the Yale desco falls into a group of coffers, chests, and birth trays that fuse the amatory symbol of the Fountain of Love with the erotic theme of the allegorical love hunt, or caccia d’amore. As noted by literary critics, the hunt as a metaphor for love’s pursuit, already familiar to those acquainted with classical authors such as Ovid and Virgil, was popularized by troubadour lyrics and other forms of sung poetry in the thirteenth century and would have been understood by most Renaissance audiences.3 Watson, however, referred specifically to the influence of a popular poetic genre known as caccia that was developed in Italy during the fourteenth century, in which the verses were set to music, “effectively mimicking the hurly-burly of the hunt” and highlighting its erotic connotations.4 An anonymous lyric, for example, relates how a man, having followed a hunting party through a forest, comes across a young maiden; excited by the clamor of the hounds, he embraces her and, “crushing her proud spirit,” carries her off into the woods.5 On another level, classical poetry and its interpretations by Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio, in particular, are used by Watson to explain many, if not all, of the details in the Yale desco. The brutal treatment of the stag might recall Virgil’s Aeneid, in which Dido’s burning passion is likened to the way a deer, wounded by a shepherd, wanders the countryside with the shaft still clinging to its side, but it is also a symbol of masculine torments, according to Petrarch’s poetic interpretation. In killing the stag, the ladies at the center of the Yale composition put an end to the agony of the animal’s flight and, in so doing, assuage his passion. Epitomizing the “witty play on modes of courtship and acceptance” that characterize Yale’s allegorical hunt, Watson pointed out, is the apparently mundane detail of the fisherman casting his hook in the body of water in the foreground.6 The twelfth-century French author Andreas Capellanus, whose work was certainly known to Boccaccio, began his treatise on love, De arte honesta amandi, by describing the etymology of the Latin word for amor in fishing terms: “Love gets its name from the word for hook, which means ‘to capture’ or ‘to be captured.’ . . . Just as the fisherman tries to attract fishes by his bait and to capture them on his crooked hook, so the man who is a captive of love tries to attract another person by his allurements.”7 Capellanus’s analogy to fishing was presumably indebted to Ovid, whose advice to his male readers in the Art of Love, Watson concluded, almost serves as an epigraph to the present image: “She will not come floating down to you through the tenuous air, she must be sought, the girl whose glance approves. Well knows the hunter where to spread his nets for the stag, well knows he in what glen the boar with gnashing teeth abides; familiar are the copses to fowlers, and he who holds the hook is aware in what waters many fish are swimming; you too, who seek the object of lasting passion, learn first what places the maidens haunt.”8

Watson’s impressive and, at times, dizzying display of literary sources goes far to explain the allegorical content of the Yale desco and has been embraced by all subsequent scholarship. His interpretation, however, does not sufficiently account for the multiple layers of meaning implicit in every iconographic detail of the composition. The motif of the falcon-bearing figures, for example, goes beyond the theme of the hunt as a metaphor for sensual love, desire, or even the lover and his beloved.9 The emphasis on erotic love and female beauty conveyed by the comeliness of the huntresses—who recall images of Diana’s nymphs—is perhaps reinforced by the possibility that one of the two mysterious female figures standing on the left of the composition may represent the goddess of love, Venus. Clad in a brilliant red dress with a revealing neckline, she provides a marked contrast to the other more demurely attired maidens who populate the image. Her right arm is placed protectively around her young interlocutor—perhaps the new bride—as she points up with her left hand, to either the sky or the abduction scene above them. In his Genealogia deorum, Boccaccio described in great detail an image of a Venus magna, the planetary and celestial Venus who implanted desire in mankind, leading to friendship and conjugal bliss.10 It is within this broader context, tied to notions of enduring love and marriage beyond simple courtship, that the Yale desco should perhaps be considered. The relevance of such images for contemporary audiences, it is safe to infer, was tied less to specific literary sources than to an accumulation of cultural reference points, embedded in the medieval imagination but less obvious to modern eyes. The repetition of compositional motifs, like those of the young huntresses, in other birth trays with stories of Diana and her nymphs and the reuse of genre elements, like that of the hunting couple on horseback, suggest that these, and presumably other iconographic details, had instantly recognizable connotations that could be adapted by artists to different contexts.11

Most recent authors have concurred with Everett Fahy’s and Miklós Boskovits’s attribution of the Yale desco to the so-called Master of Charles III of Durazzo, named after the subject on a chest in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (fig. 1), and placed its execution around 1420, during the last phase of the artist’s activity.12 The forty or so paintings currently gathered around the artist’s name, however, do not constitute a stylistically homogeneous group and reflect noticeably different levels of artistic proficiency. The discrepancy is evident in the contrasts between the Yale birth tray and a cassone panel also in the Yale University Art Gallery’s collection that was attributed to the same master by Fahy but is, in fact, distinguished by an altogether more advanced spatial sensibility.13 Comparisons with the Metropolitan Museum cassone, with its robust, coarse figural types, are equally unpersuasive. The basic formal distinctions between these two works are such that they cannot be accounted for by presumed different phases in the Master’s development. Similar contrasts may be drawn between the Yale desco and other birth trays generally assigned to the Master of Charles III of Durazzo, which on their own constitute an eclectic mix. The exquisite elegance of the Yale figures and their elongated, slender proportions, as well as the nuanced execution of small details, like the diaphanous veil worn by the character here identified as Venus, seem to relegate this desco to a category of its own among extant examples. Its miniaturistic qualities and rarefied courtly atmosphere, perfectly attuned to the decorative concerns of the International Gothic, might suggest an origin outside Florence, although there is insufficient evidence about the production of such objects outside Tuscany at present to support any firm conclusions. —PP

Fig. 1. Master of Charles III of Durazzo, The Conquest of Naples by Charles of Durazzo, 1381–82. Tempera and gold on panel, 49.2 × 128.9 cm (19 3/8 × 50 3/4 in.). Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Rogers Fund, 1906, 07.120.1

Published References

, 19–20; , 53; , 20–21, 54; , 135–37, no. 93, fig. 93; , 77–81, 159, 161–62, 166–67, 281–82, no. 20, pl. 19; , 601; , 159; , 93–95, 105, pl. 78; , 165; , 47n14; , 95; , 23, 72–73, no. 5; , 77–78, 82, 209, 224–26, no. 19, fig. 90


  1. The chief source of information on such objects are the records of the Florentine Magistrato dei Pupilli, the government agency that inventoried and processed the estates of deceased citizens for the protection and guardianship of minor heirs. The earliest inventory dates from 1382. See , 141. These and other inventories are published in the most recent study of deschi da parto; see , 125–58. See also , 59–89; and . For an insightful and balanced assessment of the last two volumes, which take radically different approaches to the study of these objects, see , 151–56. ↩︎

  2. ; and . ↩︎

  3. See , 531–45. ↩︎

  4. , 94. ↩︎

  5. , xii; cited by , 94, 157n10. ↩︎

  6. , 162. ↩︎

  7. Andreas Capellanus, De arte honesta amandi 1.3; cited by , 95, 157–58n15. ↩︎

  8. Ovid, Art of Love 1.43–50; cited by , 95, 158n16. ↩︎

  9. , 158. ↩︎

  10. , 191–92. For Boccaccio’s distinction between the different aspects of Venus, see , 65–88. ↩︎

  11. For a similar arrangement of young huntresses, see the desco with the story of Diana and Actaeon in the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, inv. no. 78.78, https://www.famsf.org/artworks/childbirth-tray-desco-da-parto-obverse-diana-and-actaeon-reverse-justice. A couple on horseback accompanied by a servant on foot carrying their catch is also included in a desco with episodes from Boccaccio’s Teseida in the Caramoor Foundation, Katonah, N.Y. ↩︎

  12. Everett Fahy, typescript list of “Master of the Siege of Taranto” (also known as Master of Charles III of Durazzo), July 13, 1983, Frick Art Reference Library, New York; and . ↩︎

  13. Inv. no. 1943.218, https://artgallery.yale.edu/collections/objects/45019. ↩︎

Fig. 1. Master of Charles III of Durazzo, The Conquest of Naples by Charles of Durazzo, 1381–82. Tempera and gold on panel, 49.2 × 128.9 cm (19 3/8 × 50 3/4 in.). Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Rogers Fund, 1906, 07.120.1