The scenes displayed are taken from Medieval romances and Classical mythology. Initially they were mounted upon two large chests used by the powerful ruling Lombard family, the Visconti, on their visits to the Certosa of Pavia. The stories represented include: the Golden Eagle (Il Pecorone) by Giovanni Forentino (1378); the tale of Mattabruna (an old French Romance); Jason and the Golden Fleece; the story of Pyramus and Thisbe; and the story of Hero and Leander. These chests were among the most ambitious works created by the bone and ivory carvers workshop, headed by the Florentine entrepreneur, Baldassare degli Embriachi.
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Title:Cabinet frontal with panels from two Embriachi caskets
Artist:Baldassare degli Embriachi (Italian, active 1390–1409) (Workshop)
Geography:Made in Florence, Italy
Medium:Bone and Certosina (inlays of stained woods, bone and horn) with traces of gilding
Dimensions:Overall: 81 3/4 × 70 7/8 × 3 3/8 in. (207.7 × 180 × 8.5 cm) Other ((a) central panel): 67 1/8 × 70 7/8 × 3 3/8 in. (170.5 × 180 × 8.5 cm) Other ((b) pediment): 14 5/8 × 68 3/4 × 3 1/4 in. (37.2 × 174.6 × 8.2 cm)
Credit Line:Gift of J. Pierpont Morgan, 1917
Accession Number:17.190.490a, b
This cabinet frontal is composed of wood overlaid with carved cow or horse bones and marquetry. While the carved bone panels date to the early fifteenth century, the current order of the carvings and assembly within a cabinet frontal is later. The carvings were originally attached to a pair of monumental bone boxes purchased by the Certosa (Carthusian monastery) de Pavia around 1400 for the use of Giangaleazzo Visconti of Milan and his wife Caterina during their visits to the monastery. A document from the Certosa dated to 1409 states that the boxes were kept in the monastery’s guesthouse and that the monks were at that time still in the process of paying the luxury- merchant Baldassare degli Embriachi the astronomical sum of 1000 gold florins for the boxes. These two boxes remained in the guesthouse until the middle of the eighteenth century, when they were broken up and reinstalled as an "ivory cabinet." This first version of the cabinet remained in the monastic guesthouse until 1782, when the monastery’s last abbot, Benedetto, received it as a part of his pension upon the monastery’s suppression under Napoleon. He later had the panels arranged into a portable library cabinet. In 1805, Gaetano Cattaneo, Director of the Mint of Milan, rearranged the panels to make them suitable as a gift to Empress Josephine of France. A late nineteenth-century photograph of the assemblage after it entered the renowned Cagnola Collection in 1865 preserves this instantiation of the frontal. The photograph shows four hinged, vertical panels in broad wooden frames surmounted by a fifth horizontal panel adorned with eight octograms within alla certosina marquetry. At some point after this photograph was taken, a fourth intervention saw the frontal take its current form. The metal hardware was removed, the wooden borders around the four vertical panels narrowed, the narrow panel transformed into a base, and a triangular pediment was added to display the two octograms lost in the re-sizing process.
The complex history of reconstruction and recombination has obscured the original composition, but comparison to contemporary chests by the workshop of Embriachi and his north Italian competitors allows their general characteristics to be summarized. The boxes were likely rectangular and long. They generally rose from a base of bone moldings into sides bearing narrative carvings and were capped with a cornice and a pyramidal lid. The friezes of toothed leaves with putti on the two right panels bear strong stylistic and iconographic resemblance to the moldings on other Embriachi boxes (see for example, Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien, Kunstkammer, 112), while those on the left match the base of the triptych that Baldassarre’s workshop made for the Certosa di Pavia. A description of the boxes published in 1786 demonstrates that the fleur de lis borders are likewise original, and with the dentil friezes they likely formed frames for indented panels of narrative carving. If these two boxes followed the general characteristics of other Embriachi boxes, patterned marquetry similar to the modern marquetry that adorns the frontal would have formed bands around the top, bottom, and narrative panels on the sides.
The order of the narrative panels appears to have become confused across the multiple reinstallations. The panels in the first two vertical rows represent the story of the Golden Eagle, and the third row the story of Heylas and the Swan Princes. Both of these stories were reinterpreted by several authors in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, and a copious modern scholarship attempts to find a specific literary origin for the present composition. The fourth row appears to be a grab bag of various others. The majority appears to be composed of detached fragments of Heylas story, and the reason Gaetano Cattaneo and other nineteenth-century restorers excluded them from the primary narrative arc in the third row is unclear. The octagram panels show the personification of Temperance, plus narratives from Greek mythology including Helen and Paris of Troy, the story of Pyramus and Thisbe, Helen of Troy wrestling with her brothers, and the tale of Hero and Leander.
The personification of Temperance and the story of Jason in the first register of the fourth row likely derive from another Embriachi box, demonstrating that eighteenth and nineteenth-century artisans gathered elements from a large body of fragmentary Embriachi boxes when they arranged modern displays of medieval artworks. Comparison between the Jason fragments and a surviving box in the Victoria & Albert Museum (inv. 4304:1-1857) correspond in iconography and detail and suggest that these eight elements (along with three others from the same cycle mixed into the narrative of the Golden Eagle and Heylas) survive from a twenty-four panel cycle on an octagonal box with a pyramidal lid. A further panel once associated with the Certosa fragments and visible in the photograph of the Cagnola collection photograph resurfaced at the June 30, 2021 auction of Pierre Bergé & Associés. It displays three further fragments of the current Jason cycle, sections of the fleur de lis friezes from the Certosa de Pavia boxes, and the complete narrative cycle from a third octagonal box depicting the Judgement of Paris (for an identical surviving box, see Victoria and Albert Museum inv. A.19-1952). Tellingly, trapezoidal bone panels depicting the virtues, including Temperance, surmount both the octagonal Jason and Judgement of Paris boxes at the Victoria and Albert Museum. Comparison to these personifications demonstrate that the representation of Temperance on the current panel is also a fragment of a box top. Another archival photo demonstrates that the anonymous "restorer" produced a second detatched panel to display fragments of a four-sided box from the Workshop of the Nailed Figures, three elements depicting the Story of Susanna, and further strips of the fleur de lis frieze from the Certosa boxes. This suggests that the "restorer" of the Certosa boxes called upon fragments of no fewer than five boxes to produce the present composition.
While the Certosa di Pavia carvings are singular by virtue of their monumentality and high quality, its nearly unique association with written texts that name its producer makes it a critical object for the study of Embriachi carving broadly. Comparable boxes, triptychs, and large-scale altarpieces made of carved bone survive in abundance from fourteenth and fifteenth century northern Italy, but few are still associated with documentary records that allow secure attribution to a specific workshop. Using the 1409 receipt paying Baldassare degli Embriachi for the two Certosa boxes, historian Diego Sant'Ambrogio coined the term "Embriachi carving" to characterize late fourteenth and early fifteenth century Italian bone carvings of this type. Along with the altarpiece still preserved in Pavia, this group of carvings therefore serves as the type-specimen for Embriachi carving and the point of comparison for the attribution of other carvings to this or the related "Nailed Coffer" and "Story of Susanna" workshops.
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Paul Williamson and Glyn Davies, Medieval Ivory Carvings, 1200-1550, Vol. 2 (London: Victoria & Albert Museum, 2014), pp. 750-861.
Catalogue Entry by Scott Miller, Andrew W. Mellon Curatorial and Research Collections Specialist, Department of Medieval Art and The Cloisters, 2020–2022.
From the Certosa (Charter House) of Pavia (Lombardy); Gaetano Cattaneo ; Benedetto Torodorò(1782–ca.1805); Giovanni Battista Cagnola(1865–ca. 1895), Milan (sold 1912?); J. Pierpont Morgan (American), London and New York (1912–1913)
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