A cursed match? Botticelli & the Purple Wedding

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Many A Song of Ice and Fire fans have a bone or two to pick with the Game of Thrones TV show. They feel the television show is adulterating the beloved novels. And, that’s fair. The television adaptation can be omissive and sometimes alters the original storyline. But it is worth pointing out that film is not an inferior medium to literature: film is not the ugly red-haired step-child of the literary world. Film conveys its artistic worth through different channels: costume, music, imagery, and even allusions to art. The show is not without artistic merit. As its recent performance at the Emmy’s demonstrates, the costume and set design are superb and employ symbols to amplify theme. There might even be an allusion to Botticelli’s The Banquet in Pine Forest in the Purple Wedding episode (“The Lion & The Rose”).

Perhaps not uncoincidentally, The Banquet in Pine Forest – and its historical context — captures some of the same themes and anxieties that plague weddings in Game of Thrones/ASOIAF.

During the Italian Renaissance, to celebrate his godson’s wedding, wealthy banking heir and man-about-town Lorenzo de Medici commissioned his friend artist extraordinaire Sandro Botticelli to create a painting. Curiously, Botticelli recreated the cursed lovers and violent wedding banquet from Giovanni Boccaccio’s “The Story of Nastagio degli Onesti” (from his novella The Decameron).

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All four panels of Sandro Botticelli’s The Banquet in Pine Forest. The first panel is in the upper left hand corner, the second in the upper right, the third in the lower left, and the fourth in the lower right.

In today’s world, giving a newly married couple images from a violent wedding would be seen as a bizarre ill-wish. In early fifteenth-century Florence, however,  such a painting may not have seemed so alien. Violence surrounding elite weddings was not uncommon. As powerful families merged, the atmosphere often became explosive. Lavish celebrations helped but did not necessarily completely defuse, the ill-will generated as families haggled over the dowry and other matters1 .

Worse, elite marriages changed the Florentine balance of power and sent out shock waves. Sometimes people feared the resulting new power structures and responded savagely. In 1415, Florence had to pass a statute that forbade throwing stones or garbage at the home of the couple. ((See “Weddings in the Italian Renaissance” by Deborah L. Krohn at the Met Museum. )) .

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© HBO.

In many ways, Joffrey and Margaery’s wedding captures some of the Florentine wedding malaise. And, if you look at the wedding from a historical perspective, it isn’t unexpected to see the forging of new uneasy alliances the Tyrell-Baratheon union wrought. Case in point: Littlefinger covertly withdraws his support of the Lannisters and sides with House Tyrell. And, after Joffrey’s death, Tyrion and Oberyn’s goals become aligned so they team up.

Given the thematic similarity between Joffrey’s wedding and the historical context of The Banquet in Pine Forest, perhaps it wouldn’t be surprising if Production Designer Deborah Riley and her crew decided to deliberately allude to the painting. If this seems far-fetched or unlikely, consider this: the art department would have easily found The Banquet in Pine Forest: it is the first painting that appears when you search for images of medieval wedding banquets.

Even if my theory that HBO deliberately structured “The Lion & the Rose” episode so as to make an allusion to The Banquet in Pine Forest is wrong, it’s still worth looking at the similarities between the episode and the history behind the painting to see what they reveal about history and the underlying themes in Game of Thrones.

The Literary Basis of Botticelli’s The Banquet in Pine Forest

In 1483, Botticelli created The Banquet in Pine Forest as an homage to “The Story of Nastagio degli Onesti,” one of a hundred tales in Giovanni Boccaccio’s The Decameron. A collection of novellas, not unlike Canterbury Tales, The Decameron captures the tales the characters — eight wealthy women and three men — tell each other to while away the time during the plague (the “Black Death”).

On the fifth day of their refuge, one of the party tells the grisly tale of the would-be bridegroom Nastagio degli Onesti.

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A miniature depicting the men and women telling tales for each other in The Decameron.

Nastagio is a nobleman in Ravenna (Italy), who inherited a vast fortune from his father and uncle. Nastagio falls in love with an exceptionally beautiful daughter of the far nobler Traversari family and showers her in pricey gifts. She, however, feels Nastagio is too lowly for her and spurns him.

Desperate to clear his head, Nastagio takes a vacation in the countryside where he witnesses a vicious curse play out, which mirrors his own situation, and parallels Ramsay’s hunt of the hapless Tansy.

Ramsay’s Hunt & the First Panel of The Banquet in Pine Forest

“The Lion & The Rose” episode opens with Ramsay and his bedwarmer Myranda gleefully running and laughing through the woods. The couple is hunting, a traditional medieval pastime. The prey isn’t a deer but rather a woman that Myranda fears Ramsay might one day hold dear, the pretty blonde Tansy. This horrible scene mirrors the first and second panel of The Banquet in Pine Forest.

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A “knight” (or knight- like figure) (Ramsay) and Myranda hunt Tansy – a might have been lover – through the woods. © HBO.

Ramsay and Myranda chase Tansy through the woods, led by Ramsay’s barking, snapping mastiffs. Myranda slows Tansy down by shooting arrows into her leg. Once Ramsay, Myranda, and the mastiffs corner Tansy, Ramsay commands the mastiffs to attack and, although off camera, presumably the dogs maul her, rip the flesh off her body, and devour her.)

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Tansy screaming. It is hard to tell in this image, but Tansy has blonde hair like the cursed woman in Botticelli’s painting and is wearing a torn white undergarment. © HBO.

It’s curious that the showrunners chose to make this strikingly disturbing scene the first in an episode about a wedding. Setting the mood for more violence to come? Perhaps. Admittedly, this is Game of Thrones so the wedding episode isn’t going to picture rainbows and fluffy kittens. Still it is worth noting that placing Ramsay’s hunt as the first scene echoes the opening sequence (first panel) of The Banquet in Pine Forest.

First and Second Panels: What Nastagio Witnesses in the Woods

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First Panel. Click image to enlarge.

The first panel of Boticelli’s The Banquet in Pine Forest depicts what Nastagio sees in the woods of Chiassi – a scene eerily similar to Ramsay’s hunt of Tansy.

After Nastagio wanders into the woods, much to his shock and horror, a sword-wielding knight on a white horse charges after a half-naked blonde woman, clad only in a gauzy wrap. The knight’s mastiffs pursue the woman.

In the far left corner of the painting, there are tents. This position represents the past: before the main events in the painting, Nastagio’s friends (shown at the tent) advise him to leave town for a while to clear his mind.

Second Panel

Botticelli’s second panel show the dogs catching the woman. They bite her and tear her flesh. The knight dismounts, cuts out her heart and throws it to his dogs who gobble it up.

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In the second panel, the background image (closest to the lake) shows the recent path in which the knight is chasing the woman. The foreground shows the knight cutting out her heart and innards. The right-corner foreground image shows the dogs – possibly in the future – eating the woman’s innards.

Outraged, Nastagio confronts the knight and demands an explanation. The knight explains to Nastagio that he loved a woman who rejected him and he reacted by killing himself. When the woman died, the pair were punished for their respective sins: he was cursed to pursue and kill her over and over again each Friday for as many years as the number of months she spurned him.

The Third and Fourth Panels: The Wedding Banquets

After witnessing the barbaric punishment of the damned couple, Nastagio invites his (unrequited) beloved and her family to a banquet on that very spot so they can witness what happens to arrogant women.

As the noblewoman and her family dine, the infernal scene plays out before their eyes. The damned woman flees through the banquet with the charging knight charging after her. Startled diners jump out in alarm and dishes fly everywhere. The knight’s dogs maul the woman and then he dismounts, rips out the heart of the woman he once loved and feeds it to his dogs.

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Third Panel

The pine trees may be a visual trope or pun: “to pine away” for someone with whom you have unrequited love.2

The panicked Traversari daughter – fearing she would suffer the same fate as the cursed maiden — immediately consents to marry Nastagio.

This panel (and the fourth panel) resemble the wedding banquet in “The Lion & the Rose” in terms of the outdoor setting, the pine trees, the color scheme, the constructed screen with the family crests, as shown in the following images:

Pine Trees

The resemblance between the trees in the painting and on the show are particularly striking. Did Production Designer Deb Riley go out of her way to find them? HBO filmed the sequence in Parc Gradac in Dubrovnik, Croatia.

It is worth noting that Joffrey’s wedding banquet in A Storm of Swords takes place indoors and at dusk. This means that the show’s outdoor, daytime banquet is a deliberate departure from the novel.

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Similar Screens

Note the screen behind the dinners in the third panel. Although it isn’t identical to the screen behind the head table at the Purple Wedding, it does share some elements.
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Both Botticelli’s screen and the Purple Wedding screen appear to have golden circles.

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Three Sigils

On top of the screen, three sigils appear. This is similar to the three sigils that appear for House Tyrell on top of the screen at the Purple Wedding. Interestingly, however, the art department decided to make all the Purple Wedding sigils the same: the rose of House Tyrell dominates.
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three-sigils

Knight on Horseback Wielding Sword While Guests Seated at Dinner

Although the dwarf jousting match was already in the wedding in A Storm of Swords, it does still result in the appearance of a knight during dinner — and one that foreshadows violence.

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 The Fourth Panel

The fourth panel of Botticelli’s painting displays the elaborate wedding banquet when Nastagio marries his beloved. Like the third panel, the fourth panel shares some design elements with the Purple Wedding sets.

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Fourth Panel

Arches

The guests at the Purple Wedding feast on lengthwise tables beneath fabric arches that echo the arch shape of the columns in the fourth panel.

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Waiters in Red Uniforms

The waiter uniforms in Game of Thrones have more of a Middle Eastern or Asian feel to them than the ones in the fourth panel, which are quite medieval with their short tunics and tights. Still, both uniforms are primarily red or red tones.

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Fountain

Both the fourth panel and the Purple wedding have a golden fountain at their center.

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Serving Dishes

Both the fourth panel and the Purple Wedding have gold serving dishes, which isn’t unusual for a medieval or medieval-esque period, but note the beaded pattern work on the edges of both dishes.  You can see when you compare the dishes in the second panel and on the head table at the Purple Wedding. The dishes that spill in the second panel when the alarmed guests jump up in horror as the knight pursues the cursed woman are very similar to the goblet on the head table.

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gold-plates

This doesn’t necessarily mean that the set designer purposefully imitated the dish design to reinforce the allusion. Rather,  they may have made the look of The Banquet in Pine Forest their starting point or default (“when in doubt, go with…”) look and overlaid Westerosi, Grecian, and Asian influences on the images in the painting.

Likewise, the waiters in both the fourth panel and the Purple Wedding both carry fluted platters.

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Although there are similar visual elements, that alone might not indicate the show is deliberately alluding to the Botticelli’s painting. Deborah Riley and her crew might have just decided to borrow some visual elements from the disturbing panels. But, opening the episode with a horrific hunt of a girl makes it seem possible that this might be a deliberate allusion.

What does it mean artistically when a television adaptation invokes literary and artistic allusions that were not present in the original literary text? Does it distort the original meaning of the work? Does it amplify the original theme of the work by taking it in a slightly new direction? In this case, I’d argue the latter.

If the show is deliberately alluding to The Banquet in Pine Forest, and consequently, “The Story of Nastagio degli Onesti,” it amplifies and reinforces the dangerous nature of Westerosi alliances. It also links the violent weddings in the A Song of Ice and Fire series to the violent weddings in medieval and Renaissance Italy. This is in turn reminds us that the medieval weddings aren’t a fairy-tale ending but rather an ending to fairy tales.

 

All Game of Thrones images are copyright HBO.

  1. See “Weddings in the Italian Renaissance” by Deborah L. Krohn at the Met Museum. []
  2. As pointed out in C. Olsen, “Gross expenditure: Botticelli’s Nastagio degli Onesti panels” Art History Volume 15, Issue 2, June 1992 p. 147 []

Jamie Adair is the editor of History Behind Game of Thrones, a website about the history behind George RR Martin's "A Song of Ice and Fire" novels and the hit TV show, "Game of Thrones."

6 Comments

  • Reply September 23, 2014

    Jun

    You’ve convinced me, no doubt the TV art designer consulted this and likely other medieval wedding scenes in their research for the Purple Wedding. What intrigues me is the connection between wedding and death, to which the Italians were/are very attuned. I remember my reaction upon reading this story in Decameron and being blown away by it.

  • Reply September 24, 2014

    Watcher on the Couch

    You are quite right Jaime, the similarities between the Purple Wedding and the series of paintings you cite are marked. Sometimes two persons can have similar ideas co-incidentally. There was a crime series “Taggart” based in Scotland that aired in the 1980s in the UK and in one of the stories the crime victim turned out to be a teacher who had been peddling drugs to kids. That was years before Walter White was even thought of – and the teacher in “Taggart” was a body and did not feature in person in the story. I doubt that the writer of “Breaking Bad” had even heard of it – so the long arm of co-incidence can occur sometimes. All in all, I tend to think the likenesses between the Botticelli panels and the Purple Wedding are definite that it is highly likely the panels did inspire the Purple Wedding decor.

    • Reply September 24, 2014

      Jamie Adair

      Well, lol, I’m not completely convinced that the painting did inspire the sets for the wedding, but I do think it is quite possible. More than anything, I have to admit I was looking for a chance to discuss Botticelli’s wild painting. I just can’t get over the painting and its social context. I mean – wow! Power shifts. People throwing stones at newlyweds. What a completely different world. And, seeing violence in a painting about weddings is shocking.

  • Reply September 24, 2014

    Watcher on the Couch

    I seem to have made clunky mistakes on my most recent posts both here and on the Brunhild thread which need amending. I should have said that the similarities between the painting and the Purple Wedding were strong rather than ‘definite’.

    It’s interesting that the painting depicts scenes from one of the tales in Boccaccio’s “Decameron”. From memory, when studying at school we learned that the medieval English poet, Geoffrey Chaucer is believed to have derived inspiration from the “Decameron” to have written his own collection of stories, “The Canterbury Tales”. One of the component tales “The Knight’s Tale” is said to be based on Boccaccio’s “Teseida” though Chaucer focuses on the courtly love aspect. He usually “sent up” courtly love but in “The Canterbury Tales” the tales match the teller, so the serious treatment of courtly love matches the character of the “verray parfit gentle knight”.

  • Reply April 5, 2015

    rosswittenham

    One thing that really got me, the screens behind Joff clearly show the Lannister ‘L’. Shouldn’t that be the Baratheon ‘B’? Or is the family slowly weeding out that symbolism altogether?

    • Reply April 7, 2015

      Jamie Adair

      Sharp eye! I hadn’t noticed that.

      –POSSIBLE SPOILER ALERT —
      [spoiler title="TV Spoiler"]If I remember correctly from the books, for Tommen’s wedding, somebody (Cersei?) wanted to use the Lannister bridal cape and not the Baratheon one. I believe Olenna Tyrell insisted they use the Baratheon cape. I might be mixing this up though and maybe it was Joffrey’s wedding. [/spoiler]

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