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Art & artists

The cassone – the Renaissance ‘bottom drawer’

— June 2011

Article read level: Academic

Associated media

Francesco Pesellino, Triumphs of Love, Chastity and Death, around 1450. Tempera on wood, 45.4 x 157.4 cm.

The Triumph of Marriage: Painted Cassoni of the Renaissance

Cristelle Baskins et al.

Cassoni – Italian for 'large chests' – were used as richly decorated renaissance wedding accessories in which the bride would store her trousseau: clothes, towels, linen and perhaps a few devotional books.  They were commissioned by wealthy families, often in pairs, perhaps to signify the bride and groom, and up to the 1460s they would be transported through the streets to the bridegroom's house in a ceremonial transfer to the bride's new home.

This public parade in a festive atmosphere was in some respects a joyous celebration but it could all too often lead to competition, jealousy and resentment between families. The increasingly strict sumptuary laws of the second half of the 15th century in Florence, which were introduced to restrict ostentatious displays of wealth, ended this ritual of parades and encouraged families to keep their wedding celebrations more private.

Following the wedding celebrations, cassoni continued to be used as furniture, providing storage space for household goods. After this public display of largesse, however, it was not unknown for the bridegroom's family to pawn or even sell the cassoni.

Although cassoni could be decorated with wood carvings and coats of arms, from the late 14th century through to the mid 15th century artists were frequently commissioned to paint them with colourful narratives on three sides and sometimes under the lid.  Unrestricted by any formulae such as applied to contemporary religious art, patrons and artists were given a free hand in expression.  Often the narratives acted as commentaries on marriage, sexuality and family relationships.  They frequently linked marriage to history, humanist values and the roles appropriate to husband and wife, often alluding in particular to the expected behaviour of the wife, stressing wifely submission, faithfulness and chaste living. Many of the narratives depicted are from the works of the pioneer humanist writers Petrarch (1304–74) and Boccaccio (1313–75).  Some draw from ancient sources, others from the Bible, and a few depict contemporary scenes.

Triumph was a significant theme throughout Renaissance society, both in public and in private. There was a desire to portray the society and the individual as successful and worthy.  Many of the cassone paintings considered in this volume portray this theme, which is reflected in the title of the book and the exhibition that it accompanied in 2008–9 at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston and the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota. The triumph could be depicted in a variety of ways but parades and processions were particularly popular.

The procession of the bride and cassoni through the streets of Florence can be seen as a triumph: the triumph of the groom carrying away his bride, the triumph of the bridegroom's family shown in the display of the sumptuously decorated chests, the triumph of the union as a source of economic or political power.  In essence many of the depictions bear resemblances to the reliefs of triumphal processions on such ancient monuments as the Arch of Titus in Rome and so can be seen as a manifestation of the revival of ancient culture that characterized the Renaissance.

As time and tastes changed, the Renaissance interiors of which the cassoni formed a part were gradually dispersed.  By the 19thcentury many cassoni had been taken apart and sold to tourists.  Some were turned into the 'antique' style of furniture preferred by 19th-century buyers, for example by being gilded or given lion's paw feet.  Today's art historians often liase with furniture specialists to work out the component parts and dates of such 'hybrid' works.

As a coda to the in-depth essays contained in this volume, the final essay is on the topic of  the American discovery of cassoni and the efforts of pioneer collectors to display their purchases. The fascinating stories of the disappointments and challenges of these early pioneers make riveting reading, encouraging one to consider the Renaissance as the economic and political precursor to the 'Gilded Age America' of the collectors’ day.

Although certain cassone paintings can be attributed to individual artists, many cannot.  Cassone painters often produced collaborative works as part of a large workshop and thus remain anonymous.  The strict demarcation line between the fine and the decorative arts for much of the modern era meant that few cassone paintings have been on display in major exhibitions of Renaissance art. Nonetheless, the renewed interest in social history and the domestic interior has ensured that cassone painting receives more attention and research.  Such exhibitions and books as this one are positive results of this continuing process of opening up a fascinating and rewarding area.

The Triumph of Marriage: Painted Cassoni of the Renaissance  by Cristelle Baskins et al. is published by the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in association with Gutenberg Periscope Publishing Ltd. 2008. Distributed by Prestel Publishing. 182pp., 80 colour/10 mono illus. ISBN 978-1-934-772-86-7


Susan Grange
Independent art historian

Media credit: Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston

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