Sunday, 22 May 2016

Cassone: a medieval italian marriage chest

Cassoni were medieval (and renaissance) painted marriage chests. They were luxury goods that were painted and decorated in specialized workshops. The marriage chests were made in pairs and were paraded through the streets (from the home of the bride to that of the husband) to celebrate the wedding between wealthy families. Such marriage processions displayed the family’s power and they were sometimes criticized for being decadent and immodest. The wedding parades were banned in Florence in the 1460s. The paintings on the wedding chest often featured historical subjects, moral tales or allegories thereby showing the sophistication and status of their owners. Over centuries, the paintings on the fronts were often removed and sold to art collectors. The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, the Netherlands has several of those cassoni, as well as some frontal paintings belonging to now destroyed marriage chests.

Two large painted front panels from a cassone. Photos Rijksmuseum Amsterdam, the Netherlands. 
Top: The Persian ruler Darius marches to the battle of Issus against Alexander the Great, workshop of Apollonio di Giovanni, Florence, c. 1450-1455. height 48.5 cm × width 141.5 cm. Inv. nr. SK-A-3999.
Below: General Horatius Cocles defends the Sublician bridge against the Etruscans, c. 1450. height 40 cm × width 128 cm. Note that the drapery of the horse in the midst bears the same heraldic sign as shown on some other cassoni. Inv. nr.  SK-A-3302.

Two panels from an original pair of cassoni painted by Francesco Pesellino around 1450. Above: Triumph of Love, Chasticity and Death. 45.4 x 157.4 cm. Below: Triumph of Fame, Time and Eternity. 42.4 x 158.1 cm. Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston, MA, USA.

The chests were not only luxury but also used practically to store household goods, such as clothing, linens and valuables. The cassoni can be divided into four basic shapes: (1) rectangular; (2) with a rounded front; (3) rectangular with a stepped lid; and (4) heavily sculpted. Those with a rounded front I like most and seem to be among the earliest examples of these chests. Types 3 and 4 were more late renaissance types. The Rijksmuseum has three of the rounded cassoni (and some others), though only one is on display in the museum. This prompted me to search on internet on other examples of these rounded marriage chests.

A type 1 cassone from the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam with very intricate intarsia inlays of ivory, walnut and ebony (certosina technique). Venice, 1500. height 57.0 cm × width 123.0 cm × depth 50.0 cm. Inv nr. BK-16629. Photo Rijksmuseum Amsterdam, the Netherlands.


Type 1 cassone dating from 1485-1500 made from walnut and maple. height 78.5 cm × width 184.5 cm × depth 67 cm. Rijksmuseum Amsterdam, Inv. nr. BK-16872.Photo Rijksmuseum Amsterdam, the Netherlands.
A type 3 cassone with a tournament scene depicting among others the Spinelli and Tanagli families. Florence, c 1460. heigth 38 cm x width 130 cm, National Gallery, London, UK.

The rounded cassone on display in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.  Inv. Nr. BK-16627.
Photo Rijksmuseum Amsterdam, the Netherlands.

The cassone that is on display in the Rijksmuseum is made of poplar and painted with heraldic signs in squares. It was constructed in the second half of the 15th century. On the left and the right of the front is a coat of arms with a ladder crowned with four lilies.  The sides of the chest do not have iron handles, like the other two Amsterdam cassoni. Height 56 cm, width 156 cm  and depth 49 cm.

 The lid of the cassone is painted in a single colour and  made up of several boards.

(left) Also the back is plain coloured.  The overlapping part of the lid serves as a stop for the hinge.
The lock for the cassone is completely hidden inside. Only the keyhole and some nails on the lid can be seen on the outside.

 A closer look at the feet of the cassone.

 The front of the Rijksmuseum cassone.

The side of the Rijksmuseum cassone.

Next are two other rounded cassoni from the Rijksmuseum that are not on display.

Painted cassone made of poplar between 1400-1500. The front of the chest is painted with the heraldic females Fortitudo, Justitia, Temperantia and Prudentia seated between Corinthian pillars. Height 53.5 cm, width 144 cm and depth 44.5 cm. In. nr. BK 16628, not on display. Photo Rijksmuseum Amsterdam, the Netherlands.

Cassone made of painted poplar, made between 1500-1600. The front has arabesques in grisaille on a blue background. Height 58 cm , width 133 cm, depth 46.5 cm. Inv. nr. BK 16873, not on display. Photo Rijksmuseum Amsterdam, the Netherlands.

A similar cassone to the one on display in the Rijksmuseum is found in the Victoria and Albert museum in London, UK. However, this one is more lavishly painted, including the lid. Box and lid were first covered in cloth and then with gesso, before being painted in tempera with the Gonzaga and Montefeltro coat of arms and a series of personal emblems or imprese, including the letter 'A', a censer and flames, arranged in heraldic quarterings. The censer and red flames on a white background or ‘flames of love’ were the symbol of the Compagna della Calza, an order of knights based in Venice, to which Guidobaldo’s illustrious father Frederico (1422–1482) had belonged. The flames of love are also found on the Amsterdam cassone (and on the cassone panel SK-A-3302; the second photo of this post). The heraldic quartering are also shown on the sides, which do not have handles. The cassone was made around 1488 for the occasion of the marriage of Elizabetta Gonzaga, brother of Marchesa Francesco Gonzaga, to Guidobaldo da Montefeltro. An inventory of Elisabetta’s corredo trousseau, compiled around the 25th February 1488, lists 20 chests, 10 gilded, 10 painted with heraldic arms/devices. Chests with this distinctive shape were often strapped to the backs of mules or used as household furnishings. The married couple’s life involved much travel and even a brief spell in exile following the sacking of Urbino in 1502.

The front of the cassone from the V&A museum. Height: 55 cm, Width: 147.5 cm, Depth: 44.5 cm, Weight: 20 kg.

What is very nice of the photos of the Victoria and Albert museum is that the cassone is shown on all side, including the inside and the opened lid.

The backside is also not decorated.

The sides of the V&A cassone with the heraldic quarterings and without handles.

This painted cassone is from the Horne museum (Florence, Italy) dates from 1480 and  attributed to Lorenzo di Credi. The Rossi and Pitti families’ joined crest is painted within a grotesque decoration that features putti (chubby male children).

Cassone made of  wood with painted plaster decoration and traces of gilding. Made around 1500-1550 in central Italy. Height 45.1 cm. width 152.4 cm, depth 45.7 cm. Inv. Nr. 1914-243. Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, PA, USA.

A cassone from 1550 from the Horne Museum, Florence, Italy.

Cassone with the coat of arms and emblems of the Medici Family. Made in Florence, Italy, around 1450-1460 of poplar with painted decoration. Height 48.6 cm, width 160.8 cm, depth 48.9 cm.
Inv. nr. 1930-81-6. Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, PA, USA.

A cassone with the coat of arms of the Family Strozzi. Also the backside of the cassone is decorated, but only a plain motif. Made around 1400-1450. Wood and painted parchment, height 45 cm, width 160 cm, depth 47 cm. Carlotta Bruschi Collection, Florence, Italy.

Painted cassone in the Palazzo Davanzati, Florence, Italy. The Palazzo is furbished in a fourteenth century Italian style. Photo from the site mentioned in the photo.

A (small) religious casket in the form of a 'cassone' originating from Umbria, Italy around 1500. Made of painted wood with the representation of  'the Annunciation'. Photo from a Belgian antique dealer.


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