Twenty Objects for Twenty Years: Marriage Chest, Florence, c.1430-50

Large, lavishly decorated wedding chests, today called cassoni, were important pieces of furniture, and played a part in the marriage rituals of the elite in renaissance Italy.  They were traditionally commissioned by the bride’s father as part of the dowry, and contained what we would think of as her trousseau, although in the second half of the fifteenth century they were increasingly provided by the bridegroom; they were often carried in procession through the streets from the bride’s family home to that of her husband, conspicuous indicators of status and family prestige.  Typically they were made in pairs (although the Ferrarese princess Isabella d’Este had thirteen painted cassoni made for her marriage to the Marquis of Mantua in 1490), and were used for storage.  They were sumptuously decorated, invariably with gilding, and often with imagery appropriate to the context of marriage.  In an era when homes, even those of the elite, were comparatively sparsely furnished, and when furniture itself was generally quite simple, they would have been the most splendid and distinctive pieces in the newly-weds’ room or camera, a semi-private domestic space which was not only where the couple slept, but was also used for entertaining.  They were therefore important vehicles for display, reminders of family alliances and family wealth.  

Marriage Chest, Florence, c.1430-50

Cassone, c.1430-1460, Poplar and walnut, joined and nailed, decorated with modelling in gesso and gilding.  Medieval and Renaissance, room 64, case 15, Mus Ref: 8974-1863 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

This particular chest was probably made in Florence around 1430-1450, as is suggested by the fashions worn by the extravagantly dressed figures depicted on its front panel.  This is made of gesso, applied to the wooden surface of the chest itself in a raised relief technique called pastiglia, to which gold leaf was applied; glazes of red, green and blue paint were applied over the gilding, to embellish the costumes.  Its glittering three-dimensional surfaces must have looked splendid in an interior lit by firelight, candles or torches.  Unlike many cassoni, which depict narratives from romance or mythology showcasing female virtues, it depicts a contemporary wedding scene.  Two groups of figures – men on the left, led by the bridegroom, and women on the right, led by the bride, who wears her hair uncovered in a long plait, a sign of maidenhood – converge on a pair of musicians playing a lute and a harp, instruments associated with love.  Some of the costumes are adorned with emblems, such as the dragon on that of the woman immediately behind the bride, probably her mother, or the chained leopards on the livery of the groom’s attendants.  Such personal devices or imprese, like the extravagant costumes they adorn, were associated with courtly life, which the elite merchant class, even in republican Florence, sought to emulate.  It has not, however, been possible to identify the original owners of the chest, either from these imprese or from the now illegible coats of arms (presumably ‘his and hers’) held by the pairs of angels on the base.

Marriage chests were treasured heirlooms: even after the style of their decoration became outmoded, and more sophisticated forms of furniture evolved, it seems that they were often kept – albeit perhaps in attics – because of their associations with a family’s past.  This helps to explain why so many survive today, although very few remain intact.  The demand amongst nineteenth-century collectors for renaissance art in general and for cassoni in particular, led to the widespread cannibalisation of these ancient objects by savvy dealers.  Many – perhaps damaged by wear and tear – were sawn up and remade, with elements of ‘reproductions’ renaissance carpentry made by skilled woodworkers in Florence, often gaining a set of grandiose claw feet which conform more to nineteenth-century ideas of what renaissance furniture should look like, than to fifteenth-century reality.  The V&A chest is among the infinitesimally small number (estimated by one scholar to be fewer than six) to have escaped this process, and still preserves its simple step-like base that we know was usual in this period.

Cassone Panel c1460

Panel from a Cassone , c.1460, Gilt poplar wood, with gilt moulded gesso decoration, painted with various painted glazes.  Medieval and Renaissance, room 64, case 2, Mus Ref: 21-1869 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Some chests, rather than being refashioned by dealers, were simply sawn up into easily saleable parts that could be displayed like pictures.  In the V&A, the panel depicting a wedding ceremony displayed near our marriage chest in the Medieval and Renaissance Galleries may well be the surviving front panel of its pair; it depicts the bride and groom exchanging rings (on the left), approached by a procession of musicians and figures bearing gifts.