Leather box

Italian, Venice

Not on view

Sumptuously ornamented on every surface with all’antica figurative and decorative reliefs, this unique, immaculately preserved, exquisite box is one of the finest examples of the Italian art of leatherworking to have survived from the late fifteenth century.

The box was made using the cuir bouilli (boiled leather) technique. A process that today is still not thoroughly understood in which vegetable tanned cow hides were immersed in hot water until pliable and shaped over a form or a wooden core. The outline of the design was then incised (cut) on the front. Punches and other tools subsequently were used to stamp down or depress the background thereby raising the pattern of relief. While being worked, the leather has the malleability of wax. Heating and drying transform it into a light, sturdy, waterproof material that retains its shape and ornamentation and is extremely pleasing to handle, making it an ideally suited medium from which to make beautiful protective containers, sheaths, scabbards, shields, and cases for books.

In Renaissance Italy practitioners of cuir bouilli were called Maestri di Corami (masters of stamped leather) a title reflecting the esteem in which the profession was held. The inventiveness, planning, and technical skill required to fashion a superlative work like the box confirms how admirably the Maestri commanded a multi-step process analogous to that of acknowledged Renaissance designer-artists such as goldsmiths. Although it is known that Milan and Venice were major centers of production in late fifteenth-century Italy, little documentation regarding the Maestri di Corami has yet been uncovered.

The leather box’s remarkable imagery, style, and reproductive character place leatherworking among the emergent artistic industries in late fifteenth century Venice and its environs that include printed books, pastiglia boxes, small bronzes, enamel on copper vessels, and painted enamel glassware. Designed to be reproduced, customized, and sold to a wide audience, these objects reflected the refined cultural interests and domestic customs prevalent in the most sophisticated spheres of Renaissance society and especially in the Northern Italian courts.

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