Monday, October 31, 2011

Italian Hope Chests - The Cassone

With the re-birth of Tuttoricamo as a blog, they tell me that they will not be publishing some articles that I wrote for their old website, but they have no problem if I publish them here so that perhaps they can be of use to readers. The following is about Italian Hope Chests.

“The cassone—that most suggestive article of Italian furniture—was dressed with a flat cover of brocade or velvet or with a thin long cushion. In no case did the cover conceal the work which was lavished on the cassoni by their makers, for this chest was the especial pet of the decorator—the designer being sometimes the architect of the building.”
-- Renaissance Textiles, Antiques Digest, 1930.

The history of the Italian cassone (marriage casket, coffer or chest) dates back to ancient Roman times. Referred to often as forzieri before the 15th century, they often came in pairs and were a gift to the bride in which she could take her things to her new household without the personal wealth of her trousseau items being on public view. Traditionally she made a wedding procession through the streets of the city from her house to that of her groom, or in the case of foreign marriages, into the city of her betrothed as brides usually went to live in the family home of the groom. The cassoni soon became so richly ornamented that they themselves become symbols of the wealth of the bride’s trousseau and family and were considered some of the most precious pieces of household furniture.

Metal and velvet cassone in the Palazzo Davanzati, Florence.

Italian cassoni were often richly decorated with Intarsia (inlaid wood), gilded Pastiglia (reliefs of very fine gesso), painted, carved or a combination of all these types, sometimes even having ivory carvings or bronzework. The ornamentation being so precious that the cassoni were often dismantled in later centuries so that the panels could be used as wall decorations. Many painted wooden panels in today’s museums are actually the panels of cassoni (see below - painted cassoni panels). Generally ornamented on the front and the two ends, they were sometimes decorated on the back although this side was only seen in the bride’s procession to her new home. The inside of the lid too, was often decorated, both elaborately or simply and sometimes the inventory of the cassone’s contents was written on it. The cassoni were most often lined with fabric.

Early painted panels depicted notable women like Penthesilea, Hippolyta and Emilia; Dido, the warrior Camilla, the Sabine Women, Lucrezia of Rome and Verginia and other heroines from ancient history done with the idea of guiding the bride toward exemplary behaviour. Scenes and symbols representing fertility were also popular. Lorenzo de’Medici (1449 - 1492) records cassoni with ‘Petrarchan triumphs’ in his inventories signalling perhaps a move toward less morally instructive imagery. In fact, painting styles on the cassoni changed around 1440 from Gothic to Renaissance style.

Gilt cassone in the Museum Collezioni 
Comunali d’Arte, Bologna.

Sienese cassoni tended toward more romantic themes while the Florentine ones were “fiercely didactic”. In the Veneto, production was mainly in Verona and painted cassoni often had mythological stories painted on them. In the mid-15th century, Umbria and Northern Italy favoured complex scenes. Florence introduced a new style of Pastiglia at the end of the 1400s based on ancient sculpture, whereas previously Pastiglia patterns had imitated textiles or were repeating patterns. Milan favoured high-relief free-flowing foliage. By the early 16th century the overall trend was more toward lower-relief classical ornament. The mid 1500s saw change in the shape itself of the cassoni with raised lids and bulbous bases often with lion’s paws for feet. Bologna’s cassoni exhibited friezes with carved griffins, foliage and even Bucrania. While painted cassoni were popular in Florence, Venice preferred inlaid geometrical designs. In the Abruzzo, wooden cassoni were carved with sayings like: Onestà fa bella donna [Virtue makes a beautiful woman]. In Sardinia cassoni were traditionally carved wood, often varnished with opaque black with geometrical motifs – those which can also be found in their traditional rugs, tapestries and Filet lacework: florals, peacocks, doves, etc. Many Sardinian artisans still produce the cassoni today although in Sardinia they go by the name of cassapanca. Inputting “cassapanche sarde” into a Google search will amaze you!

Famous artists of the Renaissance like Paolo Uccello (c 1397 - 1475), Pinturicchio (c 1454 - 1513), Filippino Lippi (c 1457 - 1504), Masaccio (1401 - 1428) and his brother Scheggia (1406 - 1486), Benozzo Gozzoli (c 1421 - 1497), and Sandro Botticelli (c 1444 - 1510) and many others as well as countless minor artists were commissioned to paint cassoni. Several of today’s surviving cassoni panels have been attributed to the Florentine workshop of Apollonio di Giovanni (c 1416 - 1465) which specialized in work for private citizens. During this period, Florence was well-known for exceptionally magnificent cassoni.

Painted cassone in the Palazzo Davanzati, Florence.

Both Cennini (c 1370 - c 1440) and Vasari (1511 - 1574) mention cassoni in their written works. Cennini gives instruction on which methods to use when painting cassoni in his Il Libro dell’Arte (1437). Vasari notes in his The Lives of the Most Excellent Italian Painters, Sculptors, and Architects (1550) that the fronts and sides of the cassoni were depicted with fables from Ovid and other authors or stories by Greek and Latin historians and even love stories, jousts and similar fair. He also notes that the two family’s co-joined heraldry was also visible at the corners and elsewhere on the chests. Vasari recounts the famous artists of the previous centuries (one artist in particular, Dello Delli c 1404 - c 1470, painted quite a number of cassoni) who were not embarrassed to paint the cassoni as were the artists of his day signalling perhaps the period when ‘professional’ quality cassoni painting was in decline.

Italian cassoni were frequently made of various woods like pine, poplar and chestnut but largely of walnut. They tended to be larger than northern European and English marriage chests, ranging in size from 38 x 130 cm to 43 x 175.8 cm. Lower income families followed the tradition of the cassoni but while they were still large in size they were often unadorned.

The contents of the cassoni could be anything portable the bride chose to bring with her to the marriage but mainly consisted of clothing, embroidered linens – both household and personal, toiletries, sewing and embroidery implements and materials (often whole bolts of homespun fabrics), jewelry and perhaps a few books.

“Isabella d’Este arrived in Mantua as the bride of Francesco II Gonzaga in 1490. In her luggage she brought thirteen painted chests, and Ercole de’ Roberti, the Ferrarese artist who designed them, travelled with her.” (The Court of Ferrara & its Patronage, by Marianne Pade, Lene Waage Petersen, Daniela Quarta, 1990.) Today we tend to think of a single marriage chest per bride, but this was not always the case. The more wealthy the bride’s family, the higher the number of cassoni she brought with her.

In the mid-fifteenth century it became the groom’s family’s task to have the cassoni made and placed in readiness awaiting the bride and all her possessions in the newly outfitted nuptial chamber of their home. One of the motives behind this change in responsibility was Florentine sumptuary law restricting the pomp of wedding processions. Sometimes in the early 16th century a pair of cassoni might cost the wealthy as much as the sum of a skilled labourer’s entire year’s wages.

Cassone from Verona c. 1490 in the 
Poldi Pezzoli Museum, Milan.

Cassoni were important pieces of furniture and figure in some ancient texts. Leon Battista Alberti (1404 - 1472) has one of his protagonists in his Libri Della Famiglia (1433) use a cassone when making an example so that his wife will understand when he attempts to teach her how to manage his household. Cassoni feature in a few of the stories of The Decameron (composed between 1348 - 1353) by Giovanni Boccaccio (c 1313 - 1375) and one is even the key element in Filomena’s story (second day, ninth tale). The story would later inspire Florentine painter Giovanni di Francesco Toscani (c 1370 - c 1430) to depict it on two cassoni around 1425. Other stories from the Decameron were often subjects for painted cassoni some of which survive today in various museums.

With the changes in taste and views of marriage throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, the cassoni declined in importance and the quantity of decoration lessened. By the 19th century Renaissance cassoni were being dismantled and sold off in pieces to the new population of tourists on the Grand Tours of Europe – especially Britons and Americans who had money and an interest in bringing home souvenirs. The tradition of the cassone has trickled down through the centuries becoming all but lost in many parts of modern day Italy. Not since the 1950s has it been widely followed. Times have changed and for many of today’s Italian women, the cassone of their mother or grandmother has become their own in which they store trousseaux of magnificent embroideries and laces of the past and present for future generations. For some no family heirloom remains and they must hunt for a cassone to call their own in the antiques markets. A number of Renaissance cassoni survive today, scattered around the globe by the many collectors outside of Italy. Quite a few of the world’s museums proudly display these fine examples of Italian art which have guarded the most exquisite pieces of Italian embroidery and lace.

Books to check out:
At Home in Renaissance Italy by Marta Ajmar-Wollheim & Flora Dennis, 2006.
Cassone Painting, Humanism and Gender in Early Modern Italy by Cristelle Baskins, 1998.
Inside the Renaissance House by Elizabeth Currie, 2006.
The Triumph of Marriage: Painted Cassoni of the Renaissance by Cristelle Baskins, 2008.
Sumptuary Law in Italy 1200-1500 by Catherine Kovesi Killerby, 2002.

Further study:
Cassoni and the Decameron
Restoration of painted cassoni
 at the V&A
Cassoni at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London

Images of Cassoni online:
Many different types of cassoni
Painted cassone
Carved Sardinian cassone
Carved cassone
Intarsia cassone inlaid with ivory, walnut and ebony
Museum Les Arts Décoratifs, Paris - click on the image for a larger view of all three cassoni

Painted Cassoni panels:
Venus and Mars (Botticelli)
David and Goliath (Pesellino)
The Triumph of David (Pesellino)

Thank you to Stefania for the photo from the Poldi Pezzoli and to Elisabetta for the photo from the Collezioni Comunali d'Arte!


  1. Ma com'è interessante questo dettagliatissimo post sui cassoni. Ci sono molte famiglie che conosco che ancora usano i cassoni (non così raffinati però), posti ai piedi del letto matrimoniale ed in cui si ripongono le coperte dell'inverno. Purtroppo l'usanza si sta perdendo perché gli appartamenti sono diventati troppo piccoli!

  2. Jeanine che telepatia!
    Questa mattina ero a Perugia ed ho visitato la Galleria Nazionale Umbra ( Un museo splendido con un allestimento che valorizza a pieno l'arte umbra (ovviamente c'erano anche opere del Perugino).
    In una delle sale c'era il fronte di un cassone nuziale del primo quarto sec. XV dorato ... non sono riuscita a trovare una cartolina che lo raffigurasse da spedirti!

  3. Ciao Jeanine, anche da noi in Sardegna si usavano i cassoni fino a tempi molto recenti, pensa che mia suocera ne possedeva tre, purtroppo aveva 4 figli e a noi non ne è toccato. Erano belli con il lato frontale e talvolta anche i laterali scolpiti con i motivi tipici sardi: pavoncelle, soli ecc