Lorenzo Lotto's humorous look at the burdensome yoke of marriage has long been recognised as representing Marsilio Cassotti slipping a wedding ring onto the finger of his bride (Figs. 1 and 9). Much has been made of the picture's nuptial imagery: the evergreen laurel branch symbolising both virtue and eternity and the sly pun on conjugal ties, as Cupid quite literally uses it to bind them together congiogo (with a yoke). (1) Yet, little attention has been paid to the bride's jewellery, although Lotto himself thought it important enough to mention in the account he drew up for his patron, Zanin Cassotti. For an artist whose emblematic portraits are often filled with a hybrid of pseudo-hieroglyphic, religious, mythological and hermetic symbols, it should come as no surprise that the bride's gold necklace and cameo hold a key to her identity--and to the picture's nuptial imagery.
Lotto signed and dated the picture in 1523. About a year later, he included it on an itemised list of five works that he had completed for Zanin Cassotti, a prominent wool merchant from Bergamo. (2) According to the account, the pictures were divided between Zanin's bedroom and those of his two sons, Zuan Maria and Marsilio. Family portraiture was obviously important to Zanin, who had his own likeness included in a Sacra Conversazione, together with Saints Julian, John the Baptist and Catherine. To decorate the room of his eldest son, Zuan Maria, he commissioned a Madonna and Child, which included portraits of his son and daughter-in-law, Laura Assonica, as well as their two young daughters Lucretia and Isabeta. (3) To celebrate his youngest son's marriage to Faustina Assonica in March 1523, Zanin commissioned a double portrait now in Madrid. (4)
The fact that the father-in-law, and not the groom, commissioned the marriage portrait finds a parallel in other contemporary works celebrating nuptial unions, such as Botticelli's allegorical frescoes for the Villa Tornabuoni. (5) In Lotto's account, the Madrid picture is listed as 'the painting with the portraits, that is Miser Marsilio and his wife with the little Cupid, taking into account the representation of those clothes of silk, caps [scufioti], and necklaces, 30 ducats'. (6) However, perhaps to flatter his patron or perhaps because he was in desperate need of cash and realised that Zanin's death was imminent, he slashed the price and entered a final estimate of 20 ducats in the margin of the account.
Throughout his career Lotto often reduced his prices, accepting less than what he considered his work to be worth. (7) His original evaluation for the portrait clearly took into consideration the care with which he had painted the couple's costumes--the voluminous sleeve of Faustina's sumptuous red silk gown, the intricate detail of their scufioti, and her pearl necklace with cameo, and gold chain. Scuffia were a type of soft, round cap particularly favoured in Brescia and Bergamo by both sexes. (8) The importation of these elaborately decorated hats from cities in the Veneto and beyond was strictly forbidden...