This pair of nineteenth-century cassoni embodies the taste and estimation for Italian Renaissance furniture in Europe as well as the United States. The quality of carving and the design reflect the particular efforts of Italian artisans to emulate the “Golden Age of the Renaissance” and to put forth innovations that could compete with the products of that era. The goal of the Early Italian Renaissance revival was primarily to reflect the splendor of a lost period of political importance and artistic grandeur. This aim was closely associated with the region’s struggle for a unified nation. It was not before 1861 that a Kingdom of Italy was proclaimed, albeit without two cultural centers of paramount importance: Venetia was added in 1866 and the “Eternal City” with the Papal States in 1870. Rome and its ancient roots held a distinctive allure that has never fallen out of fashion. As Rosanna Pavoni pointed out: “By the time Italy had developed its obsession with neo-Renaissance in the 1870s, collectors and scholars in the rest of Europe had been excited by Renaissance taste and style for several decades. The Renaissance was then promptly reconceptualized, in a forced alignment with the accepted historical version of its birth and development, and its help enlisted in the search for an Italian national identity. Thus the italianità of the Renaissance was proclaimed.”(1) In particular, excavations in Rome during the Early Renaissance uncovered spoils of Egyptian origin that had decorated ancient imperial Rome and found new appreciation in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Apropos of this fascination with ancient Egypt are the red granite sphinxes of ancient Roman manufacture that Pope Clement VII (r. 1523 – 34) had installed in the Belvedere Statue Court to carry a sarcophagus repurposed as a fountain.(2) Also representative is the tomb of Angelo Cesi (ca. 1554 – 60) in the Cesi Chapel in Santa Maria della Pace in Rome where a sarcophagus is supported by two massive white marble sphinxes.(3) Regarded as an ancient symbol of power and vigilance and as a repository of female wisdom,(4) the sphinx was deemed a befitting form to support chests and their valued contents. Nineteenth- and early twentieth-century collectors in New York found these objects with Egyptianizing motifs especially appealing. William H. Vanderbilt financed the installation of Cleopatra’s Needle (or Pompey’s Pillar), a red granite Egyptian obelisk in Central Park, and the Metropolitan Museum collaborated with Howard Carter’s highly publicized excavation of the royal tomb of Tutankhamen.(5) In addition, influential collector J. Pierpont Morgan admired ancient ruins and colossal architecture in Rome while acquiring treasury objects from a range of periods.(6) Nothing is known about the origin of the present two chests, and there is a lack of documentary evidence. The sarcophagus shape and turbulent acanthus decoration closely follow Renaissance designs, however.(7) The excellent craftsmanship attests to the abilities of Italian master carvers in the nineteenth century. There is a long tradition of such woodworking: Italian firms like the Fratelli Mora in Milan evolved out of workshops that were founded during the ancient regime. A Giovanni Mora is documented as ébéniste in 1785; masters such as Egisto Gajani (1832 – 1890) and Luigi Frulini (1839 –1897) were based in Florence; and the gifted Pietro Giusti (1822 – 1878) of Siena worked in Tuscany.(8) In 1998, The Metropolitan Museum of Art acquired a casket that Giusti had created to celebrate the voting urn in the town hall of Siena.(9) A similar model was shown at the London International Exhibition of 1862. Other Italian carvers emigrated and continued the high standard of woodworking and craftsmanship in other parts of the world. Although early in date, the possibility that the present chests were made in the United States cannot be ruled out. Apropos of the period, the influential firm of Addison Mizner, Mizner Industries Inc., in Palm Beach, Florida, stated in a brochure the range of furnishings that were available: “Because of the great variety, [it] is impossible to show all of the [neo-Renaissance] products of the Mizner Industries in a catalogue. . . . If you fail to find what you want, Mizner Industries can make it.”(10)
Catalogue entry from: Wolfram Koeppe. The Robert Lehman Collection. Decorative Arts, Vol. XV. Wolfram Koeppe, et al. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art in association with Princeton University Press, 2012, pp. 206-07.
1. Pavoni, Rosanna. Ed. Reviving the Renaissance: The Use and Abuse of the Past in Nineteenth-Century Italian Art and Decoration. Cambridge Studies in Italian History and Culture. Cambridge, 1997, p. i.
2. Curran, Brian. The Egyptian Renaissance: The Afterlife of Ancient Egypt in Early Modern Italy. Chicago, 2007, pp. 199 – 200, fig. 71 (view of the Belvedere Statue Court in a drawing by Maarten van Heemskerck, ca. 1535).
3. Ibid., pp. 219 – 21, figs. 84 – 86.
4. Hall, James. Dictionary of Subjects and Symbols in Art. New York, 1974. [Reprint ed., 1979.], s.v. “Sphinx.”
5. Heckscher, Morrison H. “The Metropolitan Museum of Art: An Architectural History.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, n.s., 53, no. 1, 1995(Summer), p. 43 and fig. 58. See also Lythgoe, Albert M. “The Egyptian Expedition, 1922 –1923.” Bulletin of The Metropolitan Museum of Art 18, no. 12, 1923 (December), pt. 2, pp. 3 – 5; Mace, Arthur C. “Work at the Tomb of Tutenkhamon.” Bulletin of The Metropolitan Museum of Art 18, no. 12, 1923 (December), pt. 2, pp. 5 – 11.
6. Strouse, Jean. “J. Pierpont Morgan: Financier and Collector.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, n.s., 57, no. 3, 2000 (Winter).
7. See also Metropolitan Museum, 1975.1.1942. For similar works, see Faenson, Liubov. Ed. Italian Cassoni from the Art Collections of Soviet Museums. Leningrad, 1983, pls. 112 – 18. For a drawing with related designs, see Kisluk-Grosheide, Danielle O., Wolfram Koeppe, and William Rieder. European Furniture in The Metropolitan Museum of Art: Highlights of the Collection. New York, 2006, fig. 10 (Fig. 126.1 in the present volume).
8. See Metropolitan Museum, 1992.317, for an oval frame inscribed egisto gajani fece firenze 1870 (with new mirror glass; Gere, Charlotte. “European Decorative Arts at the World’s Fairs, 1850 –1900.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, n.s., 56, no. 3 (Winter 1998 – 99), p. 35).
9. Metropolitan Museum, 1998.19.
10. See Ferrazza, Roberta. Palazzo Davanzati e le collezioni di Elia Volpi. Florence, 1994, ill. no. 217; see also pp. 206 – 12 and ill. no. 216.