Cassone (chest), pair with 1975.1.1940, Walnut, carved and partially gilded; coniferous wood., Italian (Rome or Siena?)

Cassone (chest), pair with 1975.1.1940

mid-16th century (with 19th-century additions)
Italian (Rome or Siena?)
Walnut, carved and partially gilded; coniferous wood.
H. 87.6 cm, W. 1.7 m, D. 61 cm
Credit Line:
Robert Lehman Collection, 1975
Accession Number:
On view at The Met Fifth Avenue in Gallery 962
This chest represents the illustrated narrative type of cassoni. All the raised parts were once gilded, and this decoration has been partly preserved, albeit with retouching. Despite the loss of the apron ornament it is evident that the cassone forms a pair or originates from an ensemble that was made in the same workshop. Robert Lehman did not acquire both chests simultaneously but was able to later reunite them. The elaborately carved panels in high relief frame the central cartouche featuring the coat of arms of the Doria and the arms of the Gagliardi families between standing nude putti.(1) The upright pointed crescent as a mark of cadency indicated that a second-born son of the Doria married a daughter of the Gagliardi family. As branches of both noble families lived in various provinces, the exact occasion remains unidentified. The presence of the arms of one family on both chests at first may come as a surprise. The important role of the cassone in the wedding ceremony led to the rapid development of the type as an artistic showpiece demonstrating the patron’s social status and dynastic ambitions. As cassoni were made for the most part in pairs as bridal chests, the arms of both the bride and the groom were applied. However, at times, marriages were conducted within different branches of the same family, resulting in the occurrence of virtually identical insignia on two chests.(2) A similar case may be observed in a pair of cassoni in the Frick Collection, New York.(3) During the Renaissance there was often little time between betrothal and wedding, as many marriages were expressions of political alliances to strengthen family bonds. Workshops often labored hurriedly to provide cassoni on schedule. The chests were sent by the groom to the bride’s house to be filled and were then returned in an extravagant procession that demonstrated the wealth of its owners. The dowries in high aristocratic unions might fill several cassoni. Isabella d’Este (1474 – 1539) brought no fewer than thirteen chests on her trip from Ferrara to Mantua in 1490 to meet her future husband.(4) The rather restricted betrothal period led some workshops to employ practices with specialized artisans in order to economize time. The discrepancy of the quality of the carving of various parts and their artistic composition documents the involvement of several individuals. It is possible that a workshop could buy the narrative scene panels, which demonstrate a more sophisticated level of artistic accomplishment than the ornamental framework and carcase, from sculptors specifically trained to translate the drawings of artists, often famous, into the wood medium. The themes of the carved reliefs, related to those of paintings, would have been familiar to the humanist collector and would stimulate social conversation with guests on such topics as Plutarch or Ovid.(5) 1975.1.1940 likely evokes a subject regarding the end of ancient Roman paganism. Emperor Galerius Maximinus, one of the great idolaters in Roman history, was joint emperor with Constantine the Great, the first Roman emperor to adopt Christianity.(6) The Late Gothic and Renaissance periods were particularly attuned to Maximinus, as Saint Catherine of Alexandria was among his most venerated victims, and the story as transmitted in The Golden Legend was popular.(7) Maximinus had many idols reinstalled and temples repaired, as seen on the left panel illustrating a group of Roman nobles bearing offerings to a naked idol statue on a pedestal in front of a monumental architectural structure. The scene on the right depicts the enthroned Constantine receiving gifts from the early Christians. This theme of the new religion triumphing over the past is supported by the illustrations after Ovid (Met. 1.452ff.) that show the unwilling nymph Daphne pursued by Apollo. She turns into a bay laurel tree with her arms transforming into branches that turn away from Apollo in disgust, thus representing the victory of chastity over sexual temptation.(8) The opposite side depicts Diana’s brother, Apollo, alarmed that his sister might break her vow never to marry and worried that there might be a romance between her and Orion. The identification of the scene remains speculative, however, as no directly related drawings or etchings stating the subject have been documented. This cassone depicts Apollo (on the left) and Diana (on the right) slaying the sons and daughters of Niobe, queen of Thebes, as a punishment for her arrogance — another scene taken from Ovid. On the left side of the chest stands Apollo, with bow and arrow and Eros, and on the right side panel is Jason slaying the dragon guarding the Golden Fleece. The multitude of similar panels mounted on cassoni warrants further investigation into the various Renaissance artisans and the later imitators and conservators who worked on these chests. A closely related pair of cassoni in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, was probably made for Cosimo I de’ Medici after he assumed the title of duke of Florence and Siena, following the victory at the battle of Marciano in 1554 and his triumphal entry that followed the conquest of Siena. The design for those cassoni is attributed to the artist Bartolomeo Neroni, who worked mainly in Siena.(9)

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. 203-05.

1. I am grateful to Michelangelo Lupo for his assistance in verifying the coat of arms.
2. Koeppe, Wolfram. c Review of The Frick Collection: An Illustrated Catalogue, vol. 5, Furniture: Italian and French, and vol. 6, Furniture and Gilt Bronzes: French, edited by Joseph Focarino. Studies in the Decorative Arts 2, no. 1, 1994 (Fall), p. 115.
3. DuBon, David. “Renaissance Furniture: Sixteenth-Century Italian and French.” In The Frick Collection: An Illustrated Catalogue, vol. 5, Furniture: Italian and French, edited by Joseph Focarino, pp. 3 – 183. New York, 1992, p. 14.
4. Kisluk-Grosheide, Danielle O., Wolfram Koeppe, and William Rieder. European Furniture in The Metropolitan Museum of Art: Highlights of the Collection. New York, 2006, p. 21.
5. See Plutarch. The Lives of the Nobel Grecians and Romans. Translated by John H. Dryden. Revised by Arthur Hugh Clough. Modern Library of the World's Best Books. New York, 1932 (ed.).
6. Foxe, John. The Acts and Monuments of the Church, Containing the History and Sufferings of the Martyrs. . . . New ed. Edited by Michael Hobart Seymour. New York, 1855 (ed.), p. 58.
7. See, for example, Thurman, Christa C. Mayer. The Robert Lehman Collection. Vol. 14, European Textiles. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 2001, fig. 18.9. The scene also occurs in similar form on several cassoni that DuBon has discussed at great length. See DuBon 1992, pp. 45 – 55, especially p. 54.
8. Ovid, Metamorphoses 1:452ff.; Hall, James. Dictionary of Subjects and Symbols in Art. New York, 1974. [Reprint ed., 1979.], s.v. “Apollo and Daphne.” Other chests depicting this scene are in the Speed Art Museum, Louisville, Kentucky (Comstock 1951, ill. p. 135) and the Frick Collection, New York (DuBon 1992, p. 16).
9. Henneberg, Josephine von. “Two Renaissance Cassoni for Cosimo i de’Medici in the Victoria and Albert Museum.” Mitteilungen des Kunsthistorischen Institutes in Florenz 35, 1991, no. 1, pp. 115 – 32; Geissler, Thomas. “Discoveries on a Pair of Cassoni.” V&A Conservation Journal, no. 55 (Spring), 2007.
[French & Company, New York]; acquired by William Randolph Hearst through French & Company in March 1926; [Gimbel Brothers, New York].