Here I am baby
Oh, you’ve got the future in your hand
Signed, sealed, delivered, I’m yours
– Stevie Wonder, 1970
In the late 1400s, a woman who lived in Tuscany received two large wooden chests, or cassoni, as wedding gifts from her future husband. As a woman, whatever she thought of getting married or of the husband who had been chosen for her didn’t matter.
It’s unlikely she imagined that six-hundred years later, the chests would survive and be in the galleries of a major museum in a country that didn’t even exist when she was alive. Museums are full of objects that were once very personal to someone. It’s just as easy to walk by them as it is to wonder about that person. Her name and life story have been lost in time, but the important role that cassoni played for women during the Italian Renaissance is not. Taking a closer look at them allows something about her to matter now.
Cassoni, or large rectangular chests made in Italy from the 1300s to the 1500s, were a basic item of furniture. They were made in workshops collaboratively by carpenters, painters, gilders, and locksmiths. Each shop had a repertory of subjects and compositions.
Outside the home, cassoni were used as file cabinets, for storing documents in city government buildings, and for holding clerical vestments in churches.
The shape and size of cassoni ranged widely from simple storage boxes for shoes and books (casse) to grand trunks with locks (forzierre). Homes weren’t filled with furniture; if a nobleman lived in one home during the winter and another during the summer, his single set of furnishings, locks on doors, and window fittings were transported from one place to another. Furniture needed to multi-task.
At a time when chairs were reserved for important people and pillows scattered on the floor provided informal seating, cassoni doubled as back-rests.
Cassoni with flat lids also functioned as low tables, benches, and –
– makeshift beds.
Detail from an altarpiece predella showing a saint sleeping on a cassone, 1337-38; Bernardo Daddi; Galleria Comunale e Museo Civico, Prato, Italy
Textiles were so expensive that cassoni, lined with fabric or leather to protect their contents, secured linens used to make garments, bedding, wall hangings, and curtains under lock and key.
Around the mid-1400s, local aristocrats and wealthy merchants began to build increasingly larger and more architecturally sophisticated residences. As one of the most important pieces of furniture, cassoni mirrored these changes and became a venue for showing off a family’s wealth, prestige, power, and coat-of-arms.
As an alternative to painting the cassone itself, some artists specialized in creating paintings on wooden panels that could be attached to the front panel. Occasionally well-known artists, such as Botticelli, were commissioned to paint the front-piece panels; less prominent parts, such as the sides, were left to assistants.
The most popular subjects – scenes from racy novellas, allusions to the Garden of Love, and tales of love and fertility from Roman mythology – so incensed monk and reformer Girolamo Savonarola that he made an urgent appeal to Florentines to instead choose themes from the lives of the saints. (In 1497, Savonarola infamously ignited a Bonfire of the Vanities – mirrors, dresses, playing cards, musical instruments, books, artworks, and other “occasions of sin”.) Front-piece panels were removed and sold to art collectors as tastes changed or as the chests became worn and damaged.
This cassone panel painting depicts a story from the Roman poet Virgil’s Aeneid.
At center, the warrior-princess Camilla leads her female tribe in support of the Latins in their fight against the Trojans. Shown holding a bow, Camilla was eventually killed by Trojan allies.
In the background, Camilla’s death is avenged by the goddess Diana, who sent a nymph to slay the warrior who killed her.
Although heroic, chaste, and loyal, Camilla’s independent spirit was not considered to be “proper female behavior”.
Some workshops specialized in exquisite intarsia (inlaid wood of different colors) and marquetry (the inlay of veneers).
In Tuscany and Rome, where the influence of the ancient past was the strongest, artisans were inspired by the shape and decoration of ancient Roman sarcophagi (coffins). Cassoni took on the qualities of sculpture.
Lids were raised on banded steps of carved moldings. Edges were “gadrooned” with carved, continuous bands of curved, convex flutings (shallow grooves). Bases were raised on lion-paw feet. Densely packed twisting and turning three-dimensional figures told stories of triumphal marches and myths. Curved lines suggested that a cassone was swollen with contents.
To create the effect of three-dimensional sculpture, artisans covered the wood with pastiglia (a thick, paste-like material similar to plaster), which was then modeled or carved while it was still soft. High-relief elements (those that project so much from the background that they can be viewed from the side) were molded separately, attached, and then painted or gilded.
Gilding highlighted certain areas of carving and formed a background for the figures.
Griffins and other ancient motifs alluded to the upper-class taste of the family to whom the cassoni belonged.
The most ornate cassoni were those commissioned in pairs, together with other household furnishings, to celebrate the wedding of a daughter from a prominent family. A woman from the peasant class may have had the freedom to marry for love, but for a woman from a family with means and ambition, marriages formed networks of loyalties and obligations that directly impacted the economic prospects of families, communities, and society.
Male roles were defined by their social position or occupation.
Portrait of the Surgeon Gian Giacomo Bonamigo with His Son Giovanni Antonio, 1544; Lorenzo Lotto, Italian; Philadelphia Museum of Art, Cat, 196. Gian Giacomo Bonamigo was a surgeon who also ran a bath house in Treviso (near Venice). His expectations for his son’s future are shown by the surgical instruments he passes into the boy’s outstretched hand.
Women’s roles were defined by the honor they brought to the family as a daughter, wife, mother, or widow. An unmarried woman’s purity (virginity) reflected her family’s honor as a whole.
Portrait of a Lady, c 1500; Artist/maker unknown, active Lombardy, Italian; Philadelphia Museum of Art, Cat. 265. Objects, such as pearls, that appear in Italian Renaissance portraits refer to a woman’s faith and virginity, which reinforced her family’s wealth and social status.
Before the Council of Trent (1563) formalized the marriage process, all that was needed was the mutual consent between an unmarried man and an unmarried woman’s father; priests, witnesses, and ceremonies weren’t necessary. Partly to ensure a daughter’s virginity, brides were often much younger than the groom. Once a woman was deemed suitable, the groom and his father met the bride’s father to negotiate a legal agreement that specified her dowry (which eliminated a woman’s right to claim any inheritance from her father in the future), a payment schedule, and a wedding date.
Marriage Contract Specifying Dowry; Sicily 1590
Over the next 3 – 6 months, the groom and his family commissioned furniture to be made for his future home. Grooms decided how the cassoni would be decorated; themes usually related to the expected roles of husbands and wives. Our bride from Tuscany received a pair of cassoni that depicted a myth from Ovid’s Metamorphosis.
Pluto, the king of Underworld, and Jupiter, the god of sky and thunder, were brothers. When Pluto complained that he had no wife, Jupiter selected his own daughter (and Pluto’s niece), Proserpina. Jupiter knew that his wife, Ceres, the goddess of grain, harvests, and agriculture (and Pluto’s sister), would be unhappy with the arrangement, so, he and Pluto came up with a plan. (About the incest – gods needed to marry goddesses, choices were limited.)
Across two cassoni, the story is told from left to right.
While Proserpina was gathering flowers with her nymphs,
Pluto suddenly appeared, grabbed her from behind, and abducted her.
While attendants herald his success, Pluto transported Proserpina to the Underworld in his horse-drawn chariot.
The story continues on the second cassone.
In her dragon-yoked chariot, Proserpina’s mother, Ceres, searched the earth for her daughter. By neglecting her sacred tasks of giving grains to the world, crops died and people starved. Finally, Ceres appealed to Jupiter, who told her that Proserpina was now Pluto’s queen.
Ceres entered the Underworld to find a forest inhabited by satyrs (half-human and half-goat). One upends a cornucopia, a sign of the harvest, symbolizing that Ceres has no power here.
In the forest, Ceres spots a centaurides (female centaur; half-human and half-horse) who is being serenaded while nursing her child.
The rest of the story was well-known at the time. Jupiter and Pluto reached a compromise – Proserpina spent half of the year in the upper world and the other half in the lower. During the time that Proserpina resided with Pluto, Ceres missed her daughter so deeply that the earth turned cold. In spring, Ceres welcomed her daughter home with a carpet of flowers. While mother and daughter shared the summer together, the earth warmed, and crops grew. In the autumn, Ceres changed the colors of leaves to vibrant shades to ease Proserpina’s return to the Underworld. At the time, the story not only explained the changing seasons, it visualized what was expected of an ideal wife: beauty, virtue, purity, duty, and fertility.
Once the cassoni were completed, the workshop delivered them to the bride to fill with the agreed dowry goods. The wedding ceremony, in essence, involved a father handing his daughter to a husband and of the husband taking the woman into his house. Wedding celebrations for the wealthy sometimes continued several days and included parades, spectacles, performances, games, and meals. Finally, the wedding procession, which paraded the bride and her dowry-filled cassoni from her childhood home to her husband’s home, as an object being handed over from one owner to another, publicly ratified the marriage.
The coats-of-arms on the sides of our bride’s cassoni reminded onlookers that two families had been politically and economically allied.
Once in her husband’s home, the cassoni were placed in the main bedchamber, the center of a woman’s existence. Upper-class women were encouraged to live primarily indoors and not to linger at open windows or in the semi-public courtyard of the family house. It was time for her to attend to rituals about pre- and post-natal care. We’ll never know whether or not our bride had a happy, fulfilling life, or if she was in love, or was loved. Hopefully, her father chose wisely.
By the mid-1500s, furniture styles changed and cassoni became a thing of the past. Many were purchased by collectors and have found their way into museums. Objects reflect the culture of their time and are continually adapted to mirror the changes in people’s behavior and traditions. Our bride’s cassoni, like other objects in museum galleries that are seen out of their original context, risk becoming abstractions of their former owners stripped of the complexities of their time – unless we keep looking, wondering, learning, and thinking outside the box.
Which personal object would you chose to become part of museum’s collection six-hundred years from now? What story would you hope to tell?
Top image: Detail from The Venus of Urbino, 1538; Titian; Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy
Witthoft, Brucia. “Marriage Rituals and Marriage Chests in Quattrocento Florence.” Artibus Et Historiae, vol. 3, no. 5, 1982, pp. 43–59. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/1483143.