25 June 2013

Love, sex and family wealth in Florence

Two years ago the topic of Italian marriage chests had mesmerised me in this blog. In noble families, marriage in Renaissance Italy involved huge expense by both sides. The parents were obliged to buy costly furniture, clothes and jewels for the young couple, and amongst the most expensive object was a beautifully crafted and painted wedding cassone. This chest was used to store blankets or perhaps clothes at the foot of the marital bed. But more importantly, guests were entertained and family discussions were held in the same space. As the cassone provided the backdrop to the life of the family, the painted decorations on the top and sides of the cassone were carefully chosen, providing both entertainment and instruction.

Cassone, 1460
tournament scene, painted on the front panel
National Gallery London
Tempera on panel, 38 x 130 cm 

As with all furniture, the cassone changed slightly with each generation. By the late C15th, a new classicising taste became very popular across Italy so we would expect cassoni to be carved and gilded, with painted panels, fluted corner pilasters, friezes and cornices.

A delightful panel from a 15th century Italian cassone was on display at the Biennale des Antiquaires at the Grand Palais, Paris in Sept 2012. Presented by Moretti Fine Art, the panel showed some sort of detailed and colourful battle scene, expensively presented and very wide. 

I was alerted to this cassone by Country Life magazine of 5th Sept 2012. The arts jour­­n­alist recorded that the panel had been part of the Earl of Crawford’s estate for generations, until it finally went to public auction in London in 1946. Did the 27th Earl of Crawford need a quick burst of cash? Did he keep the cassone and only sell the front panel? In 1946 the auction house believed the “classical battle scene was in the manner of the Master of the Cassone”. When the same panel was sold again in 1979, it had been re-identified as by “the Master of the Anghiari Battle”.
Left half of battle panel (above)
 Right half of battle panel (below)
Florentine cassone panel, 
45 x 160 cm, 15th century 
Moretti Fine Art.

By the time this cassone was painted, the era of painting courtly romance or religious themes had largely passed; cultivated families were more likely to select classical mythology or historical themes. However I would love to know why war was thought to be an appropriate theme for a young couple. Surely the sight of deadly weapons and battle horses would have been a sexual turn-off!

Gallery president Fabrizio Moretti believed the battle scenes on this panel showed the Roman army clashing with the forces of a rival city-state, perhaps Venice. The martial theme, Moretti believed, implied that the cassone was commissioned by a bride for her groom. It proved the virility of her beloved.

For a cassone theme more related to marriage, see a chest that is in the V&A’s Medievaland Renaissance Galleries. The curators say that marriage chests were normally made in pairs. They were emblazoned with the coats of arms of both families and often decorated with the wedding procession on the front panel. This cassone was made from Central Italian poplar and walnut, joined and nailed, and decorated with modelling in gesso and gilding. The figures were depicted in Burg­undian fashions, which were much in vogue in Florence between 1440-50. This chest was bought in 1863, from an English or Italian dealer in Italy who in 1869 sold the V&A the front panel of what could once have been its pair. This item is a rare example of a surviving cassone that retains its original plinth base.

cassone 1445-50
wedding procession on the front panel
V&A London

My favourite image on top panel of this cassone was where the groom placed the ring on his bride’s finger in the presence of a city dignitary in a red cloak and hat. Clearly the wedding was a secular event which took place in the gardens… and not a priest in sight! On the plinth, the artist painted two pairs of angels holding up the coat of arts of the newly married couple.


None of the museums suggests an origin for decorative cassone art. But consider the suggestion from Early Renaissance Painting in Italy that artist Paolo Uccello (1397-1475) may have been the inspiration. Uccello was best known for the three panels in his famous Battle of San Romano (1438-55), painted for the Medici Palace. The paintings were intended as wall decorations and as such resembled tapestries: Uccello was only interested in creating a small box-like space for the action, since he ended the background with a tapestry-like composition of men and animals. His main concern was with the rhythmic arrangement of the elements of the composition across the surface, an emphasis which he underlined with a repetition of arcs and circles. Uccello's focus on the decorative and linear aspects of painting had a significant impact on the cassone painters of Florence. So, I imagine, did his dates.


Student of History said...

Last time you showed a Courtauld cassone with high panelled back. Beautiful art, beautiful piece of furniture.

Tampa Bay Times said...

"The Triumph of Marriage," an exhibition at the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota Florida, illuminates that message as it was played out in 15th century Tuscany.

The themes on cassoni were often allegories or stories taken from writers such as Petrarch that illustrated duty to marriage. Cupid, the naughty meddler, is shown on several panels as a vanquished miscreant stripped of his power, subdued by a virtuous Chastity or Venus. All were daily reminders that for women, temptation doesn't pay.

Feb 21, 2009

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, I always remember seeing a number of cassoni on display at the Cleveland Museum of Art, and just checked their website to see what decorative themes they sported. It seems that a wide variety was available--battles, baroque carvings, races, religious scenes, and mythological scenes. Here is a link to a CMA cassone panel with warriors:


I don't know how these were displayed, but perhaps they were relatively public, and so some non-intimate decorations were considered appropriate for these wedding chests.

Hels said...


That is true. I loved that high panelled back!

The art on all the cassone is almost always beautiful, but sometimes the craftsmanship by the woodworker is superb and sometimes it is less so. The V&A cassoni, for example, was not the most refined piece of furniture I have ever seen.

Hels said...

Tampa Bay

I would love to have seen that exhibition. I will look for the catalogue, perhaps in the Ringling Museum's bookshop. Thank you.

Hels said...


I will have a look at Cleveland's cassone by date, to see if their themes changed in some systematic way over the 15th century.

Thanks for the reference.. I would not have found them myself.