The cassone (pl. cassoni) is a Renaissance marriage chest. Usually commissioned in twos, cassoni were important pieces of furniture in the Renaissance home, oftentimes the most expensive thing in the house. A cassone is an Italian chest large enough to normally be used directly from the
floor of a room. It needs no stand, table, or brace. On average, they measure roughly 1.5 meters across, .5 meters tall, and .5 meters deep and can weigh several hundred pounds when loaded. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, the cassone was typically a marriage chest, given to the bride and groom at the time of their wedding by the family of the bride. Often, the cassone will contain the bride’s dowry. Cassoni were traditionally made in pairs, and often were elaborately decorated, sometimes with the heraldry of the bride and the groom. The cassone itself was highly decorated. In the 15th century, they were most often painted, while heading into the 16th century, sculpted or intarsiated wood became the prefered medium. The painted cassoni had scenes from everyday life or from mythology, usually with a moral pointed at the bride. Other themes on the cassoni included battle scenes and themes from ancient mythology and literature.
Beginning in the early 15th century, and on through the end of the Renaissance, cassone leave their role as storage devices and enter the realm of high art. No longer executed by mere carpenters and joiners, cassone were made or decorated by painters recognized as experts in their own lifetimes, and revered as grand masters today. Made of only the finest woods, and decorated with hundreds of man-hours worth of master carving, cassone represented the height of opulence in home furnishings. Gilded with gold and carrying the wealth of merchant princes to the altar, cassone represent for us an attitude and a style that was uniquely the Italian Renaissance.
Art in Tuscany | Italian Renaissance Cassoni paintings
Love and Marriage in Renaissance Florence: The Courtauld Wedding Chests, 12 February – 17 May 2009, The Courtauld Institute of Art, Somerset House, Strand, London.
A marriage in 15th century Florence was not primarily about love or religion. Instead it was a dynastic alliance between powerful families.
To celebrate these marriages, pairs of great chests, lavishly decorated with precious metals and elaborate paintings, were commissioned. These items – now generally called cassoni – were often the most expensive of a whole suite of decorative objects commissioned to celebrate marriage alliances between powerful families. They were displayed in Florentine palaces and used to store precious items such as clothes and textiles.
The painted panels set into the wedding chests tell fascinating tales from ancient Greece, Rome and Palestine, as well as from Florentine literature and more recent history. These beautifully told stories were intended to entertain as well as to instruct husband and wife, their servants, children and visitors.
The exhibition Love and Marriage in Renaissance Florence: The Courtauld Wedding Chests is the first in the UK to explore this important and neglected art form of Renaissance Florence. The exhibition is focused around two of The Courtauld’s great treasures: the pair of chests ordered in 1472 by the Florentine Lorenzo Morelli to celebrate his marriage with Vaggia Nerli. These are the only pair of cassoni to be still displayed with their painted backboards (spalliere).The unusual survival of both the chests and their commissioning documents enables a full examination of this remarkable commission.
The Courtauld cassoni are displayed alongside other superb examples of chests and panels. Discover the stories behind these chests and gain rich insights into Florentine art and life at the height of the city’s glory.
Also on display are panels painted by Giovanni Toscani (act. 1423, d. 1430). One work depicts a story from Boccaccio's Decameron in three scenes.
The exhibition will reflect the extensive subject matter used in cassone painting. This included stories intended to divert and give pleasure to the husband and wife. But they often contained a strong moral message. For example, the pair of paintings by Giovanni Toscani reunited in the exhibition for the first time in over 150 years — represent a story from Boccaccio’s Decameron. For having accused Ginevra falsely of adultery, Ambrogiuolo was punished by being stung to death by bees. The stories chosen for other chests emphasised ideal virtues such as bravery, constancy, obedience and prudence; models which members of a patrician family might strive to emulate.
Art in Tuscany | Watch three short films about the exhibition
Virtu' d'Amore or Nuptial Art Exhibit, at La Galleria dell'Accademia in Florence
Galleria dell'Accademia, Florence | The virtues of love | Nuptial painting in XV century Florence
The bedroom was the fulcrum of the Renaissance home: the most intimate and protected place where the wedding was consumed, children were born, and one died. Spalliere/headboards like the so-called Cassone Adimari of the Galleria dell'Accademia, which occasions the exhibition, and the historiated panels of chests are extraordinary testimonies of the Florentine Renaissance home, high fashion, the celebration of festivities, the rituality that accompanied marriage, from engagement to the wife's entrance into her husband's house. Moreover, with the stories depicted, "nuptial painting" served the fundamental function of conveying messages of warning and encouragement to a couple to adopt a conduct considered as exemplary. This aspect helps us today to focus in on a mainstay of fifteenth-century Florentine culture: the role of the family and those of the husband and wife. Drawing on classical mythology, the Bible, historical episodes and contemporary literature, all of the facets of love are depicted, along with the ensuing duties: from love triumphant over adverse circumstances (The Marriage of Thetis and Peleus), to the virtues of obedience and abnegation that the woman must pursue (The Legend of Griselda from Boccaccio's Decameron), to the courage of the heroines Lucretia and Virginia, who choose death as source of redemption. An entire section illustrates the harmful consequences of love as sexual beguilement capable of totally subduing a man's will. We must not forget, however, that marriage meant first and foremost to give life to new progeny and perpetuate the family. Towards this end, the last section of the exhibition is dedicated to family pride, asserted in stories that recount the foundation of famous families like those of Aeneas and David or that, following the texts of Petrarch, celebrate the Triumphs of Fame, Time and Eternity. These images could also be painted on deschi da parto (birth salvers), which were tondos painted on both sides, offered as ceremonial gifts to women of the upper classes who had just given birth. A particularly famous one is the desco da parto realised on the occasion of the birth of Lorenzo the Magnificent (Triumph of Fame, New York, Metropolitan Museum). Finally, the exhibits feature works by illustrious painters like Botticelli (Story of Virginia Romana, Bergamo, Accademia Carrara), Filippino Lippi (Story of Lucretia, Florence, Galleria Palatina), and Pesellino (Stories of Susanna, Avignon, Musée du Petit Palais), which open an extraordinary view onto the Florentine workshops engaged in the production of these objects that enjoyed their greatest fortune precisely in the fifteenth century. The exhibition has been organised in collaboration with the Museo Horne of Florence which will present an itinerary valorising a consistent nucleus of painted chests (cassoni) from its collection which come from the original collection that belonged to Herbert Percy Horne, for the occasion joined by several works on exceptional loan from private collectors.
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