Coffer, 15th century
Italy; Siena (?)
Walnut, leather, gesso, painted and gilded; Overall 8 1/8 x 24 13/16 x 7 15/16 in. (20.6 x 63 x 20.2 cm)
Inscribed: ONESSTÀ FA BELLA DONNA
Gift of George Blumenthal, 1914 (41.100.188)
Coffers such as this, called forzerini and cofanetti, were intended as betrothal gifts and held precious dowry objects such as cosmetics, combs, or sewing tools. The lively decoration includes knights and ladies, musicians, dancers, and putti, along with armorial medallions (left blank) and patterns of vines and tendrils, reminiscent of the imagery found in model books used by artists from the fourteenth century.
The lid of the coffer includes an inscription that reads: "Honesty [onestà; or virtue] makes a woman beautiful." The word used for virtue could also mean chastity, and the saying touches on several aspects of Renaissance thought. Onestà and beauty in a woman could be at war with each other—or they could reach harmony, as when Petrarch says of his beloved Laura: "Two great enemies, Bellezza and Onestà / has brought together with so much Concord, / That her holy soul felt rebellion no more."