Making Pre-Modern History Public: David and Goliath

Every historian knows the challenge of bringing history to the public. However, these challenges bring with them exciting possibilities. Public History takes as its raison d’etre the belief that people – communities, individuals, social groups – can and should engage with historical forces at work in their lives. There is (I find) a belief of empowerment, of bringing to light lost silences and new nuances in local and national narratives.

However, this vision becomes complicated when the grids of time and space are enlarged. When one studies pre-modern, non-American societies, can he or she go about the task of public history? Ostensibly, those publics are long dead. In a world (and a field) that largely sees the United States as its frame of reference, looking to a distant past – whether it be Han China or 8th-century Gaul – seems eclectically antiquarian at best, and puffed-up navel-gazing at worst. Unto temporal remoteness is added the hurdle of geographical remoteness. Outside of daily news, the rest of the globe is a distant other, mindfully shoved aside to deal with our day-to-day lives. How much more so the distant past, which cannot even shout for our attention! Adding further to these difficulties, these artifacts are housed within art museums where visitors are predisposed and preconditioned to engage with the objects for their aesthetic qualities than their historical qualities.

For a historian of these periods, these problems are disturbing. Disturbing not only because a student of earlier epochs becomes naturally inclined towards towards vindication and justification of his or her inquiry. However, what might warrant larger concern is a certain insularity of thought amongst peers. The frame of reference and intellectual language amongst students of history can run the risk of of ossification with too few alternative voices. The goal of this article (the first I hope in a longer series) is to broaden awareness of such issues by demonstrating the ways in which pre-modern culture – material, textual, and otherwise – can engage with publics, and provide a meaningful voice within historical discourse on a variety of issues. The existence of pre-modern material, textual, and intellectual culture still provides templates and paradigms for contemporary society. They should not be ignored; rather they should be used to help us understand our own place in the world.

As a historian who focuses on medieval Europe, I can not raise a claim to universality in my research. However, I will show how one particular example of material culture can fit into broader historical themes and can provoke some sort of historical cognizance within an audience.

Desco del Parto (Birth Tray); Florence, ca. 1440. LUMA Martin D'Arcy, S.J. Collection, 1998-01. Photo by the author.

Loyola University Museum of Art (LUMA) has in its possession a rare and interesting artifact of material culture. The object is called a desco del parto, or a birth tray. Immediately the name conjures up strange or unsavory images. However, this belies its quotidian function. In fifteenth-century Italy, a pregnant mother would be served treats from the desco in her bedchamber. Once the child was born, the desco was hung inside the house as decoration. Currently, only 88 of these pieces are known to have survived from the Renaissance period. Thus, LUMA not only has a historically-priceless piece of material culture, but can capitalize on engaging the public with history in excitingly different ways.

The large sixteen-sided tray has as its principal focus a colorful series of scenes and battles within. These scenes depict a story familiar to those who know their Bible: David and Goliath. The story, of a young youth overcoming a fearsome giant, has so much resonance that it has found its way through art, popular culture, and language throughout the centuries (e.g. any number of court cases are routinely described as “David and Goliath” affairs). Unlike most depictions we are familiar with, the characters are attired in contemporary late-medieval garb. David, red-haired and ruddy, wears fashionable Renaissance red hose. The towering Goliath wears armor that suggests Milan, Florence’s hated enemy throughout the later Middle Ages. All of the narrative happens concurrently, making the depiction temporally unstable but rich in energy and movement. No one will deny that it is a “nice piece of art.” The important question to ask is “What does the desco tell us about the society that made it? Does this broaden our own understanding of the past and of ourselves?” As a public historian and a medieval historian these two questions are at the front of my mind whenever visitors come to the museum, or when I receive questions through email.

When I get the chance to talk about the desco, I emphasize two key points:

1) The desco itself celebrates and valorizes birth in a time of unstable population decline.

While the practical purpose of the desco is to hold food for the pregnant mother, the fact that it is in its original context for a pregnant woman is worth noting. The first outbreak of the bubonic plague, or Black Death, reached Italy and the rest of Europe in 1348. In the following years, the population across Europe would drop drastically. The resulting loss of people created particular anxiety amongst the Italian city-states, whose smallness made them particularly vulnerable. For Florence in particular, birth was celebrated as a way for women to contribute not only to the prosperity of their household, but to the good of the Republic. Much in the same way that governments today offer incentives for family-building (especially so in countries with negative population growth), late-medieval states saw social stability and family growth as vitally intertwined.

The gift links the woman’s action of giving birth with the larger struggles of her family’s survival and the survival of her nation. It also reminds her by its very presence of her duty as mother to (hopefully many) children. Thus, the object reaffirms sexual and gender relations within society, particular among the mercantile classes who would have commissioned these pieces.

Detail of Judith with the head of Holofernes. Judith was a Jewish widow who infiltrated an invading Assyrian camp planning to destroy her village. After seducing the general of the army, she cuts off his head in his tent while he lay passed out in a drunken stupor. Judith's violent act was taken by Florentines to be emblematic the zeal and patriotism women should feel towards their homeland. Judith's chastity after her ordeal was also praised as a model of widowhood. The image of meekness and submissiveness that a proper woman should display was thus reinforced by her sexual abstinence but complicated by her forcefully masculine act of murder.

2) The transition of the desco as a practical object (tray) to a decorative object embodied a shift of emphasis on the child’s education and development as a proper republican citizen.

Proponents of Renaissance humanism believed that art should be both aesthetically beautiful and morally instructive. Common convention, as scholar Paola Tinagli explained, put “history and history painting as exemplum virtutis.” The Bible and classical literature were the common intellectual and cultural language of the time. These stories formed a type of core curriculum for the humanist program. The goal, in the words of 15th-century humanist Giovanni Dominici in his book Regola del Governo di Cura Familiae (Rules Concerning the Governance and Care of the Family), was to bring up sons “in order to be useful [to the Republic.]”

The story of David had particular resonance for Florence, where the desco is presumably from. Florence, despite being a relatively aggressive and imperial republic, conceptualized itself as a small David fending off larger the Goliaths of monarchical Europe. Florence was the bastion of liberty and republicanism against the forces of tyranny and monarchy. The Grand Duchy of Milan, Florence’s greatest imperial rival, represented everything Florentines hated and feared. Considering the numerous wars of expansion between the two powers, societal elites felt it of the utmost importance to instill civic duty into all of its citizens. This education assumed that the formative years of childhood were crucial to this enterprise.

Donatello's David; ca. 1440s. Youthful, confident, dominating, and erotic: a (controversial for its time) symbol of the Republic.

David’s slaying of Goliath was seen (per Tinagli) as an “act of civic courage.” Women had their own role models: taken from classical mythology or history like Daphne or Lucretia, as well as biblical heroines such as Esther and Judith. Anna Drummond points out that such examples encourage the mental formation of the exemplary Renaissance woman, noted for her humility, submissiveness, and chaste domesticity” and in the case of Judith, brave civic-mindedness. The scenes, in the words of Jacqueline Musacchio, provided “a narrative worthy of emulation.”

The desco, by prominent display within a middle-class or upper middle-class household, would have stood to provide a role model for the young boys growing up. David, who is commended by King Saul in the piece (atop a train of curiously-rendered elephants), would later become king of Israel himself. This may subtly imply that courage and civic bravery would lead to social and political gains for the young men.

Its constant presence in the home reinforced mnemonically the expected roles of men and women within fifteenth-century Florentine society (i.e., women as mothers, and men as political actors). Thus the desco reflects a deeply Florentine conception of the world, its values, and ideals. However, after some historical research, this conception does not appear so impenetrable so as not to allow for any new insights.

In Conclusion:

Through this piece we may pose several questions to the public:

1) We immediately confront distinct dissimilarities between rituals surrounding childbirth in late-medieval Florence with our own contemporary practice. However, further discussion with patrons and visitors bridges this gap when one reflects (for example) upon contemporary practices of bridal and baby showers for prospective wives and mothers. These gifts have in their roots in far older practices, and it proves useful to reflect on the origins and development of these apparently innocuous examples of gift-giving. Childbirth is almost a universally-celebrated phenomenon in western societies (to say nothing of non-Western societies), and a wider view into the rituals surrounding childbirth provides grounds for further reflection of our own attitudes and beliefs about this basic and necessary biological event. What objects, events, attitudes, and rituals do we associate with childbirth, and why? What are they meant to achieve?

2) We can reflect on prevailing attitudes over gender and how particular societal needs and concerns frame gender roles. The particular needs of a post-Plague mercantile elite created the desci del parto, along with the cultural baggage attached to them. I have tried to encourage visitors to reflect on the societal practices which we sometimes fully and unconsciously participate in. One particular example can be through early gendered separation, such as the seemingly-obvious pink-for-girls and blue-for-boys. The piece shows us a view of masculinity (and implicit femininity) that, while recognizable, are not immediately congruent with our own views. It is worth exploring for both the historian and the public how these views come out of the slow processes of societal, economic, and demographic change. The desco forces us to contend with its difference and the possible historical insights for the audience should not be ignored.

3) Perhaps most importantly, we see the role art can play in society, shaping public consciousness and creating a common cultural language and heritage for its members. This is a mixture of the previous points. The audience becomes aware of how art and visual representation play a crucial role in identity formation and the historical process. We link our identity with common familial, local, and national symbols, from paintings, symbols, flags, and architecture. The bald eagle, the neo-classical colonnade, the Red, White, and Blue – objects, buildings, and images associated with these objects have direct parallels with David and Goliath and the Florentine Republic and its wealth of national, propagandist, and intellectual culture.

U.S. Capitol Building, Washington D.C. Art, especially government-sponsored art, contains within in it the power to mold ideas and impart ideals. Austerity, order, and continuity with a classical tradition - these views resonated equally among our Founding Fathers and their predecessors in Renaissance Italy. Exploring the tensions and ambiguities in such programs is the task of any serious historian.

I hope to engage multiple publics, whether they be visitors coming to the museum to see its pieces in person or readers of this blog who shall (hopefully) add to public dialog. It is unkind to dismiss these inquiries as inapplicable or esoteric. The core issues of the desco: human relationships, the role of the state in identity formation, and how ideas create objects create ideas – all of these are issues that we struggle with now in the present. Those of us who study a non-American past seem eminently prepared – especially in an age where we speak of multiple shifting identities, communities, frames of reference, and viewpoints – to contribute to public history. A large and foreign nation, with ways similar yet alien to our own, can help us expand our own ideas about the present and our own relationships within society. That nation is the our collective past, of whom we are its heirs: to its own cultural legacies, idiosyncrasies, and tensions. The complexities of human experience call for the active engagement and participation of all historians across its spectrum. This article is only one small and isolated example. With some nurturing, it may grow and bear much fruit. The least we can do is much indeed, if we as historians can bring to society a fuller understanding of itself.


Works cited:

Drummond, Anna. “The Meek And Mighty Bride: Representations of Esther, Old Testament Queen of Persia, on Fifteenth-Century Italian Marriage Furniture.”

Musacchio, Jacqueline. “The Rape of the Sabine Women on Quattrocento Marriage-panels.” Marriage in Italy: 1300-1650. Ed. Trevor Dean and K.J.P. Lowe. Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Tinagli, Paola. Women in Italian Renaissance Art: Gender, Representation and Identity. Manchester University Press, 1997.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s