Ilaria del Carretto- A Mother Memorialised in Marble (Part One)

ilaria tomb

Jacopo della Quercia, Tomb of Ilaria del Carretto, c.1406, St. Martin’s Cathedral, Lucca.

On the 8th of December 1405, Ilaria del Carretto- wife of Paolo Guinigi, Lord of Lucca- died in childbirth. As the mother of Paolo’s first-born son Ladislaus and daughter (named Ilaria after her mother), Ilaria is commemorated for her success in producing an heir by the commissioning of an extravagant tomb located in the Cathedral of St. Martin. Designed by Jacopo della Quercia, one of the foremost sculptors of the fifteenth century, the unique marble sarcophagus dedicated to Ilaria’s memory provides the art historian with a plethora of information about the role of court women in Renaissance Italy.

As Paolo’s second of four wives, it is interesting to question why Ilaria alone was honoured by this distinctive form of commemoration. Three of his wives, including Ilaria, provided their husbands with 8 children in total, 5 sons and 3 daughters. Paolo’s first wife, Maria Caterina di Valerano degli Antelminelli, died aged 12 in 1400 before the marriage was consummated. In 1403, Ilaria married Paolo and produced 2 children during her short life as his wife. Paolo’s third wife, Piacentina da Varano whom he married in the spring of 1407 gave birth to 5 children (4 boys and 1 girl). In 1420, Paolo wed his final wife, Iacopa Trinci who had 1 daughter and died during her second pregnancy. As can be clearly seen by the number of children, the wives of the Lord of Lucca attempted to fulfil their societal roles as women by giving birth to as many children as possible, even if it resulted in their deaths. Ilaria stood out among the wives by giving birth to Paolo’s first-born son and heir to his father’s name, wealth and position. Therefore Ilaria is commemorated posthumously for her contribution to the patriarchal lineage of her husband’s family. Paolo chose to honour Ilaria for her achievements and contribution to his family. The tomb serves as much as a statement about the importance of the Guinigi lineage and her role in its continuation as it was a commemorative monument to his deceased wife. This point is clearly evident when the elements which constitute the monument are examined including the Guinigi and Carretto coat of arms, the presence of the dog at Ilaria’s feet, Ilaria’s physical appearance and the putti who adorn the side panels of the sarcophagus.

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Detail of the Guinigi and Carretto Coat of Arms

Each of the decorative elements included by della Quercia on the monument were carefully chosen by the patron and artist for their inherent symbolism and ability to not only commemorate the deceased consort but also to emphasise to the audience the importance of the Guinigi family. The coat of arms located on the panel below the effigy’s head can be considered as the most obvious expression of this idea on the tomb. It combines the heraldic devices of both the Guinigi and Carretto. Due to the lack of an inscription (it is believed that an inscription did exist but was later removed and lost), the coat of arms is the only means by which the deceased can be identified. The presence of the darts of the Guinigi imprese marks Ilaria as Paolo’s wife and thus her identity as a woman is intrinsically linked to that of her husband’s. Combining the two families’ coat of arms also served to maintain friendly relations with the Carretto after Ilaria’s death. The Carretto were a powerful and influential family during this period, the creation of a strong political alliance was a key factor in Paolo’s decision to marry Ilaria. This need to stress the alliance between the Guinigi and Carretto explains the prominent inclusion of the two impresi in this manner by della Quercia.

The foliage decoration surrounding the coat of arms on both sides also warrants further investigation for its symbolic meaning to the contemporary audience. Allan Marquand describes this foliage as ‘florid gothic plants bearing seeded flowers’.[1] The inclusion of the abundant vegetation and its deliberate placement around the combined coat of arms refers to the fruitful union of Paolo and Ilaria. The seeded flowers represent Ilaria’s fertile nature and therefore focus on her reproductive role and the securing of her husband’s lineage.

ilaria and dog

cangnolinoDetails of the Effigy of Ilaria and her faithful companion

The dog depicted lying at his mistress’ feet is an element of the funerary monument which has not received as much attention as other components of the piece. The presence of the symbolically-charged cagnolino was not a feature commonly found on Italian funerary monuments of this period. Dogs were commonly depicted on monuments in Northern Europe such as the Netherlands and France.[2] The dog was regarded as a symbol of fidelity and in this case he looks up directly and attentively towards his mistress’ head. In della Quercia’s monument, the dog can be interpreted in a number of ways. Firstly, it acts as a sign of Ilaria’s unwavering fidelity to her husband, a key quality a married woman must possess in order to ensure the legitimacy of her children and the purity of the future generations of the Guinigi bloodline. Giorgio Vasari saw the dog as a symbol of conjugal love. Its inclusion on the monument can therefore be viewed as a visual demonstration of Paolo’s love for his deceased wife and his grief over her untimely death. The sculpted dog and its placement in relation to the effigy provides a third possible reading. The alertness of the dog with his gaze fixed firmly towards Ilaria’s head functioned as a means of directing the audience’s attention to her face, denoting the importance of the deceased who is remembered by this ostentatious marble memorial. Here, the dog acts as an eternal protector for Ilaria’s effigy, dutifully guarding this woman who remained faithful throughout her marriage.

Part Two of this post will be published by the end of the week- stay tuned!

[1] Allan Marquand, ‘The Tomb of Ilaria del Carretto’, American Journal of Archaeology, Vol. 19, No. 1 (Jan-Mar 1915), pp24-33, 31.

[2] Robert Munman, Sienese Renaissance Tomb Monuments, Vol. 205, American Philosophical Society: Memoirs of the American Philosophical Society, 1993, 72.

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