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).
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. )) .
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.
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.
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.)
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
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
Both Botticelli’s screen and the Purple Wedding screen appear to have golden circles.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Both the fourth panel and the Purple wedding have a golden fountain at their center.
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.
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.
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.