This and its companion panel are from the front of a chest (cassone) and show two episodes from an as yet unidentified story, or novella. In one, a youth is smitten by a maiden who appears at a window. In the other, they engage in an erotically charged game of chess (she is about to lose). Both were common themes in the amatory literature of the Renaissance. The figures’ bleached blond, frizzy hair was the height of fashion in fifteenth-century Siena. Liberale was a brilliant illuminator and worked on choirbooks in Siena between 1467 and 1476.
This charming picture and a companion (43.98.8) are fragments from the front of a cassone. A third fragment is in the Berenson Collection at the Harvard Center for Renaissance Studies in Florence. Technical examination demonstrates that the three fragments were unquestionably cut from a single, horizontal plank and formed a continuous scene, with the Berenson fragment between the other two (see Additional Images, fig. 1). The narrative is divided into two episodes, one set in front of a palace with a De Chirico-like view through two portals (one arched, the other rectangular), the other in an interior room seen through a screen of three columns. In the first episode, a bushy-haired, blond youth is seated on a pile of rocks, accompanied by three companions. Dressed in an elaborate, patterned gown, and gazing longingly at a maiden appearing at the palace window, he extends a hand towards her imploringly while, apparently in response, she raises her right hand as though gesturing for him to join her inside. The next episode is set in the interior of the palace. On the Berenson fragment a group of young men watch their companion finishing a game of chess with the maiden, who is observed by female companions. She appears to have lost—the pieces on the board are of one color—and she places one hand on the arm of the victor while coyly turning her head away, her gaze directed upwards. One of her companions looks on fixedly while another has an expression of distress. Although the elements of the story—the beloved appearing at the window and a chess match between two lovers—are found in a number of chivalric tales and novelle, all attempts to identify the specific literary source have failed. Before it was established that all three scenes formed a single cassone front and thus, contrary to what was sometimes expressed, illustrate a continuous narrative rather than complementary stories, attention focused mainly on identifying possible sources for the chess match. Most frequently suggested is the chivalric tale of Huon of Bordeaux, in which the young knight Huon, disguised as a servant to a minstrel, wins the right to sleep with the daughter of King Ivoryn by winning a chess match; she is distracted by his beauty and, by losing, spares his life. However, the tale contains no episode that matches the earlier scene of the woman appearing at the window and the suitor sitting on a pile of stones. Nonetheless, Simons (1993) has wondered whether a certain amount of poetic license might have been taken, since Huon was observed from a window earlier in the poem by another woman and after the chess game was observed from a window by the daughter of King Ivoryn. However, in both cases he is armed and in the latter departs on his horse. In other words, the dissimilarities with the episode shown would seem to exclude Huon as a possibility, especially as the youth seated on a rock seems likely to signify a sort of trial or penance performed for love. Simons (1993) has written about the erotic implication of the chess game. The motif of the lover first seeing his beloved at a window was also a topos in medieval chivalric literature. It occurs in a thirteenth-century canzone by Giacomino Pugliese (Ispendiente Stella d' albore) and was notably employed by Dante, who had a vision of Beatrice at a window in the Vita nuova (XXXV). It also occurs in Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini’s Story of Two Lovers, in which there is a description of the handsome Euryalus and his companions that is directly relevant to the figures on the cassone front. Euryalus is described as wearing clothes stamped with gold, and the youths are noted for their crimped hair and pale faces. Blond hair was especially prized in Siena (Saint Bernardino famously inveighed against the pervasive practice of bleaching hair in the sun, and Neroccio de’ Landi’s Portrait of a Lady in the National Gallery of Art, Washington, gives good evidence for this fashion). For the time being, then, all that can be said is that the cassone front incorporates stock motifs from chivalric literature and novellas. Weller (1940) was the first to note that the Berenson panel completed the left hand composition of the scene of chess playing, though the technical evidence he adduced was in part erroneous (he did not realize that the Chess Game is only cut on the left vertical edge and he therefore wrongly hypothesized additional figures on the right). Only following the acquisition of the fragment with a woman appearing at the window has it been possible to demonstrate definitively that all three fragments are from the same cassone front and did not belong to a companion chest or piece of furniture, as had sometimes been thought (Christiansen 1988). Cassoni were usually commissioned in pairs, but nothing survives from a putative companion of this cassone front. The damages the three fragments have sustained—especially the pitting and intentional scoring in some of the faces—is typical of cassone panels and rules out that the panel could have been intended for display high on a wall or above a cassapanca.
The initial, widespread attribution of the fragments to Francesco di Giorgio, already prevalent by 1928 (see Comstock), was first firmly rejected by Zeri (1950), who argued the case for them being by Girolamo da Cremona, to whom he also attributed a cassone panel in the Louvre showing the rape of Europa—also previously ascribed to Francesco di Giorgio—as well as an altarpiece in the church of Santa Francesca Romana in Rome. That these works are all by the same artist is universally accepted, but whether their author is to be identified with Liberale or another north Italian painter active in Siena, Girolamo da Cremona, has been the subject of much debate. Carlo del Bravo (1960 and 1967) made a case for Liberale. This attributional confusion can now be seen to be the reflection of the range of influences that shaped Liberale’s nine years of activity in Siena.
Although probably trained in Ferrara, possibly by Michele Pannonio (see L. Bellosi, in De Marchi 1993, pp. 59–61), in 1465 Liberale was working as an illuminator for the Olivetans in Verona. The following year he arrived in Tuscany to illuminate choir books for Monte Oliveto Maggiore, south of Siena. He was then engaged to work on the choir books for the cathedral of Siena, a task for which Girolamo da Cremona was also engaged in 1470. A young artist (he is referred to as "il giovanetto Lombardo" in a document of 1467), Liberale proved responsive to the most diverse stimuli, ranging from the conservative Sano di Pietro to the most progressive and innovative artists in the city: the sculptor Federighi and, above all, Francesco di Giorgio Martini. The artistic exchange with Francesco di Giorgio was reciprocal: Francesco’s altarpiece of the Coronation of the Virgin, painted in 1472–74 for the monastery of Monte Oliveto Maggiore, incorporates some of the most inventive ideas of Liberale, particularly in the upper area, in which an audaciously foreshortened figure of God the Father descends through spiraling clouds. So also, Liberale owed much to Francesco’s work—his sculpture as well as his paintings (see especially Bellosi, in De Marchi 1993, pp. 61–64; and De Marchi 1993, pp. 231–32, 300–304). It is possible that the cassone panels produced by Liberale during these years were the result of some sort of informal association (or compagnia) with Francesco. This would, for example, explain why some of the figurative reliefs in gilded gesso, such as those on a later cassone front in the Castel Vecchio, Verona, are so close in style to Francesco’s work. The other factor in understanding Liberale’s style during these years is Girolamo da Cremona, whose very different, Mantegnesque illuminations, with their carefully described interiors and more static compositions, also influenced Liberale (Girolamo left the city in 1474). Liberale’s work reaches a climax in the years around 1472, the date of his truly extraordinary altarpiece in the cathedral of Viterbo—a work that in its emphasis on artifice looks ahead to aspects of mid-sixteenth-century Mannerism. The artistic exchange Liberale had with these very different artists explains the confusion that has surrounded the attribution of the cassone panels, and we owe to Hans-Joachim Eberhart (1983) an exemplary analysis of the documents relating to the illuminations for the choir books, thereby providing a firm basis for understanding the character and contribution of Liberale and Girolamo. There is now no question that Liberale was responsible for the design of the cassoni. On the basis of detailed comparisons with documented illuminations, Eberhardt convincingly dates the Berenson-Metropolitan cassone front to 1473 (the illuminations are documented to the period of July to October). His comparisons extend beyond morphology to the particular palette of Liberale at this time, when he was working especially closely with Girolamo.
Salomon and Syson (2007) have hypothesized that the cassone panels are not by Liberale himself but by an independent Sienese painter who "clearly looked very closely at Liberale—and may have been provided with designs by him . . . [but who] remained, however, notably eclectic . . ." It is true that there is a notable difference in character between the more decoratively conceived cassone panels ascribed to Liberale and his more concentrated work in the miniatures and in two extremely fine predella panels in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, and the Gemäldegalerie, Berlin (for which, see De Marchi 1993, p. 244, cat. no. 39; and Salomon, in Salomon and Syson 2007, p. 156, cat. nos. 29–30). However, the same sort of distinction can be found in the cassone panels of Neroccio de’ Landi (compare, for example, Neroccio’s cassone panels in the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh with his predella panel with three scenes from the life of Saint Benedict in the Uffizi, Florence). The more rapid, abbreviated, and calligraphic manner of the cassone panels and the emphasis on lively poses and highly ornamented surfaces is almost certainly a response to their very different format and function. There is no notable dropping off in quality of invention. It is, moreover, important to remember that the cassone panels have come down to us in seriously compromised condition. An examination of the Metropolitan Museum’s two fragments with infrared reflectography (see Additional Images, fig. 2) reveals a resolute execution and richness of decoration as well as a quality of invention fully in accord with what we would expect of Liberale himself. The figures are described with great assurance and there are indications for the decoration of the costumes that either was not carried over in the painting or has been lost. Mordant gilding and shell gold, sometimes barely visible today, are used to create the elegant patterns on the fabrics, and white is used to define highlights of the faces in a fashion directly comparable to what is found in the Viterbo altarpiece. The very facts that the morphological features of the figures in the various cassone panels align so closely with what is found in Liberale’s documented illuminations and that the stylistic evolution found in the choir books can also be traced in the cassone panels make it extremely unlikely that Liberale merely provided designs that were then executed by another artist. [Keith Christiansen 2011]
Infrared examination reveals extensive underdrawing in both panels. The faces and hands were drawn with great precision and sureness of hand, using fluid black paint or ink applied with a brush. Most striking in the infrared reflectogram images are areas of foliate pattern in the costumes of the principal figures. These costumes were originally richly embellished with mordant gilding; the elaborate design seen in the infrared image was the underdrawn guide for the mordant. In the darks, the gilding was applied directly over the underdrawn pattern and then glazed with blue or purple; in normal light this pattern is now completely obscured by the darkening of the paint. In the light areas of the costumes the gilding was applied over pale, opaque paint (which obscures the underdrawn design); due to abrasion only fragments of gilding and the ochre-colored mordant survive. [Charlotte Hale 2011]
?Captain Alfred Loewenstein, Brussels and London (d. 1928); [Gimpel and Wildenstein, New York, by 1928–30]; Henry Wauters, Brussels (in 1932); sale, Sotheby's, London, April 9, 1986, no. 80, as by Francesco di Giorgio, Girolamo da Cremona, or Liberale da Verona, to Newhouse for MMA
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Painting in Renaissance Siena: 1420–1500," December 20, 1988–March 19, 1989, no. 57a.
London. National Gallery. "Renaissance Siena: Art for a City," October 24, 2007–January 13, 2008, no. 54 (as "An Encounter at a Window," by a Sienese painter close to Liberale da Verona and Francesco di Giorgio Martini).
Helen Comstock. "Francesco di Giorgio as Painter." International Studio 89 (April 1928), pp. 33–36, ill., as in the collection of Felix Wildenstein; attributes it to Francesco di Giorgio, calls it a companion to the Chess Players, and states that the subject must be taken from some unidentified contemporary romance.
F. Mason Perkins. "Three Paintings by Francesco di Giorgio." Art in America 16 (February 1928), pp. 68, 71, fig. 3, as in a private collection, New York; attributes it to Francesco di Giorgio; identifies it as a companion to the "The Chess Players" (MMA 43.98.8) and calls the two panels part of a cassone or other piece of furniture; cannot identify the subject.
Lilia Marri Martini. "San Bernardino e la donna: II—le ribalde." La Diana 5, no. 2 (1930), pp. 103–4, pl. 3, as in the Wildenstein collection, New York; as by Francesco di Giorgio.
Lionello Venturi. Pitture italiane in America. Milan, 1931, unpaginated, under pl. CCXXXIII.
Bernhard Berenson. Italian Pictures of the Renaissance. Oxford, 1932, p. 202, lists it as "Illustration of a Novel," by Francesco di Giorgio; as in the collection of Henry Wauters, Brussels.
Lionello Venturi. Italian Paintings in America. Vol. 2, Fifteenth Century Renaissance. New York, 1933, unpaginated, under pl. 305.
Selwyn Brinton. Francesco di Giorgio Martini of Siena. Vol. 1, London, 1934, p. 109.
Hans Tietze. Meisterwerke europäischer Malerei in Amerika. Vienna, 1935, p. 327, under no. 55 [English ed., "Masterpieces of European Painting in America," New York, 1939, p. 311, under no. 55], as in the Loewenstein collection, Brussels; calls it the pendant to the Chess Players, which he attributes to Francesco di Giorgio.
Bernhard Berenson. Pitture italiane del rinascimento. Milan, 1936, p. 174.
Raimond van Marle. The Development of the Italian Schools of Painting. Vol. 16, The Hague, 1937, p. 262, attributes it to Francesco di Giorgio.
Allen Weller. "A Reconstruction of Francesco di Giorgio's Chess Game." Art Quarterly 3 (Spring 1940), pp. 168, 171–72 n. 17, fig. 4, as whereabouts unknown; attributes it to Francesco di Giorgio and calls it a late work; identifies a fragment depicting a group of young men (Villa I Tatti, Florence) as having originally formed the left side of the Chess Players and associates this work with those two pictures; favors the story of Huon of Bordeaux as the source of the narrative for the Chess Players, but notes that this work does not seem to depict an episode from that story.
Allen Stuart Weller. Francesco di Giorgio, 1439–1501. Chicago, 1943, pp. 240–42, 258, fig. 98 [similar text to Ref. Weller 1940].
Helen Comstock. "The Connoisseur in America: Part of the Maitland F. Griggs Collection at the Metropolitan." Connoisseur 113 (June 1944), p. 107.
Roberto Papini. Francesco di Giorgio Architetto. Florence, 1946, vol. 1, pp. 54–55; vol. 2, fig. 8, attributes it to Francesco di Giorgio; as in the Wauters collection, Brussels.
John Pope-Hennessy. Sienese Quattrocento Painting. Oxford, 1947, p. 32, as in a Brussels collection; notes that it illustrates a scene from the same unidentified story as the Chess Players.
Harry B. Wehle. "The Chess Players by Francesco di Giorgio." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 5 (February 1947), p. 156, ill., attributes it to Francesco di Giorgio; states that it is probably from the same piece of furniture as the Chess Players, but that the two protagonists in this work are not to be identified with the couple playing chess.
Federico Zeri. "Una pala d'altare di Gerolamo da Cremona." Bollettino d'arte 35 (1950), pp. 39, 42 n. 10, attributes the three related pictures to Girolamo da Cremona.
Michel Laclotte. De Giotto à Bellini: les primitifs italiens dans les musées de France. Exh. cat., Orangerie des Tuileries. Paris, 1956, p. 61, under no. 86, calls it The Serenade; repeats Zeri's [see Ref. 1950] attribution of the three panels to Girolamo da Cremona.
Carlo Del Bravo. "Liberale a Siena." Paragone 11 (September 1960), p. 32, attributes the three related panels to Liberale da Verona and dates them about 1475.
Franco Russoli. La raccolta Berenson. Milan, 1962, unpaginated, under pl. LI.
Carlo Del Bravo. "Liberale in patria." Arte veneta 17 (1963), p. 41, compares the figures in the three related panels to Liberale da Verona's fresco in the Piazza delle Erbe, Verona, dating them to the end of Liberale's Sienese period.
Carlo Del Bravo. Liberale da Verona. Florence, 1967, pp. CXIV, CXVI, ill. p. CXVII.
Bernard Berenson. Italian Pictures of the Renaissance: Central Italian and North Italian Schools. London, 1968, vol. 1, pp. 140–41, 189–90, 210–11, connects it with the Chess Players and with the I Tatti panel, and lists all three works as by either Francesco di Giorgio, Liberale da Verona, or Girolamo da Cremona.
Burton B. Fredericksen. The Cassone Paintings of Francesco di Giorgio. Malibu, 1969, pp. 43–44, attributes the three related panels to Girolamo da Cremona.
Hans-Joachim Eberhardt inMaestri della pittura veronese. Ed. Pierpaolo Brugnoli. Verona, 1974, p. 110, lists it under works attributed to Liberale da Verona; calls it The Marriage Proposal.
Michel Laclotte and Élisabeth Mognetti. Peinture italienne. Paris, 1976, unpaginated, under no. 110.
John Pope-Hennessy and Keith Christiansen. "Secular Painting in 15th-Century Tuscany: Birth Trays, Cassone Panels, and Portraits." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 38 (Summer 1980), p. 53, fig. 46, attribute the Chess Players to Girolamo da Cremona and date it 1468–74; identify this work as "part of the same cassone or a companion piece," noting that "the protagonists are clearly the same as those who play chess".
Hans-Joachim Eberhardt. Die Miniaturen von Liberale da Verona, Girolamo da Cremona und Venturino da Milano in den Chorbüchern des Doms von Siena: Dokumentation - Attribution - Chronologie. PhD diss., Freie Universität, Berlin. Munich, 1983, p. 219 n. 253, dates the three panels 1473 or a little later; mentions attributions to Francesco di Giorgio, Girolamo da Cremona, and Liberale da Verona, but does not himself assign the works to a particular artist.
Paul F. Watson. "A Preliminary List of Subjects from Boccaccio in Italian Painting, 1400–1550." Studi sul Boccaccio 15 (1985–86), pp. 162–63, as by Girolamo da Cremona, whereabouts unknown; dates it about 1470; states that the subject is unidentified but may derive from the "Decameron".
Federico Zeri with the assistance of Elizabeth E. Gardner. Italian Paintings: A Catalogue of the Collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, North Italian School. New York, 1986, p. 26, state that it "is almost certainly from the same cassone" as the Chess Players, which they attribute to Girolamo da Cremona and date before 1472.
Michel Laclotte and Élisabeth Mognetti. Avignon, musée du Petit Palais: Peinture italienne. 3rd ed. Paris, 1987, p. 124, under no. 110.
Keith Christiansen inPainting in Renaissance Siena: 1420–1500. Exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 1988, pp. 291, 294–96, no. 57a, ill. (overall in color, reconstruction in black and white), attributes it to Liberale da Verona, but notes the influence of Girolamo da Cremona and especially of Francesco di Giorgio, suggesting that it may have been produced in Francesco's workshop; adds that technical analysis has established that the three panels originally formed a complete uninterrupted surface on the front of a cassone, depicting two consecutive episodes of the same story.
Andrea De Marchi inFrancesco di Giorgio e il Rinascimento a Siena, 1450–1500. Ed. Luciano Bellosi. Exh. cat., chiesa di Sant'Agostino, Siena. Milan, 1993, pp. 232, 243, as by Liberale.
Patricia Simons. "(Check)Mating the Grand Masters: The Gendered, Sexualized Politics of Chess in Renaissance Italy." Oxford Art Journal 16, no. 1 (1993), pp. 66–68, 73 nn. 75, 76, 82, fig. 7, discusses it as an illustration of the story of Huon of Bordeaux.
Michel Laclotte and Esther Moench. Peinture italienne: musée du Petit Palais Avignon. new ed. Paris, 2005, p. 119, under no. 119.
Xavier F. Salomon and Luke Syson inRenaissance Siena: Art for a City. Exh. cat., National Gallery. London, 2007, pp. 213, 215, no. 54, ill. p. 216 (color), date the three panels about 1475 and attribute them to an unknown Sienese painter close to Liberale da Verona and Francesco di Giorgio; assign a recently discovered cassone panel depicting "The Triumphal Procession of a Royal Conqueror" (Marquess of Northampton) to the same artist and date it slightly later, about 1475–80; state that the subject of the MMA and I Tatti panels is taken from an as yet unidentified Italian narrative based on French literature, noting that "the woman seen in a window by a handsome young man . . . is an episode in Piccolomini's much-read tale [Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini (later Pope Pius II), "Tale of Two Lovers"]—though he saw her by day, rather than, as here, by night or twilight; stars, now much abraded, in fact appear in the sky".
Adrian W. B. Randolph. Touching Objects: Intimate Experiences of Italian Fifteenth-Century Art. New Haven, 2014, pp. 91–92, 256 n. 49, fig. 39, notes that while the woman is objectified by her placement within the window frame, this site also offers her a stage on which to perform, contrasting her animated gestures with the passivity of the man; suggests that instead of depicting a specific scene from a romance, the three panels may "relate to the symbolic literature on chess that emerged in the late Middle Ages," citing Évrart de Conty (d. 1405), "Le livre des eschez amoureux moralisées" (Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris; published Montreal, 1993, ed. Françoise Guichard-Tesson and Bruno Roy).
Keith Christiansen in Carl Brandon Strehlke and Machtelt Brüggen Israëls. The Bernard and Mary Berenson Collection of European Paintings at I Tatti. Florence, 2015, pp. 361–2, 364–65, Companion A under pl. 50, fig. 50.1 (color, reconstruction), notes that Mattia Vinco has suggested that the three panels illustrate the story of "La châtelaine du vergy" (Italian version: "La dama del vergiù"), which includes a chess game played by a duchess and a young knight in a palace.
Old Masters: Evening Sale. Christie's, London. July 6, 2017, p. 77, fig. 1 (color), under no. 17.
A seventeenth-century northern Italian frame in a fine state of preservation.
The panel has been thinned to 5/16 in. (8mm) and cradled.