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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Nuptial Furnishings in the Italian Renaissance

The language of love and desire that radiates from the group of objects surveyed here parallels the rituals of betrothal and marriage described by anthropologists and historians. No one knows how many gift objects achieved the desired goals, but marriages engendered the creation of new furnishings and decoration that expressed the dynastic and political aspirations of the families that purchased or commissioned them.

After the terms of the marriage had been agreed upon publicly by members of both the bride’s and the groom’s family in the giuramento, a series of celebrations took place. The time between the contractual arrangement and the wedding itself allowed for the provision of the material trappings of marriage. Chief among these was the cassone or forziere—two terms found in contemporary documents for a large storage chest—often ornamented with panels painted with lively narratives such as the Conquest of Trebizond by Apollonio di Giovanni (14.39). Although chests associated with marriage are now commonly described as cassoni, recent archival research has suggested that inventories from the fifteenth century used the term forzieri da sposa, or betrothal chests, to refer to the chests commissioned in pairs for the dowry goods of the bride. The term cassone may refer to a subset of forzieri, specifically, to those shaped like antique sarcophagi. There were often three to six months between the giuramento and the anellamento (ring day) and consummation, when the couple went to live on their own. During this interval, a pair of cassoni and other painted or carved furnishings for the nuptial chamber, including spalliere (wainscoting panels), lettucci (daybeds), and lettiere (beds), sometimes hung with specially woven fine textiles, might be created.

As the wonderful Strozzi cassone (14.39) demonstrates, marriage chests could be elaborate creations that demanded the coordination of several different craftsmen: carpenters, gilders, painters, and perhaps locksmiths to provide the hardware. It took about a month to paint a cassone front, thus two months for two. The most important source for our knowledge of wedding chests—an account book known from a 1670 copy documenting an eighteen-year period in the workshop of Apollonio di Giovanni—has confirmed that they were indeed commissioned in pairs. Since so few cassoni have survived with their carpentry and gilding intact, it is difficult to draw conclusions about the process of construction, but we know from Vasari’s life of Dello Delli that painters such as Apollonio di Giovanni probably specialized in the creation of these panels.

Vasari tells us that many people owned cassoni, and not just the wealthiest. He reports that in addition to cassoni having the form of a sarcophagus, like the Strozzi chest, there were examples with various other types of covers. He also confirms what can be deduced from the panels known today: the subject matter for the painted fronts was secular rather than religious, with stories taken from classical or chivalric sources. Vasari also connects the creation of cassoni with the making of other furnishings, suggesting that they were viewed in the same light.

By the mid-sixteenth century, the fashion for interiors had evidently changed. Vasari speaks of the decoration on cassoni and other household objects as a thing of the past: “And that this is true can be seen up to our own day from some chests, chair-backs, and mouldings, besides many other things, in the apartments of the Magnificent Lorenze de’ Medici, the Elder, whereon there were painted—by the hand, not of common painters, but of excellent masters, and with judgment, invention, and marvellous art—all the jousts, tournaments, chases, festivals, and other spectacles that took place in his times. Of such things relics are still seen, not only in the palace and the old houses of the Medici, but in all the most noble houses in Florence; and there are men who, out of attachment to these ancient usages, truly magnificent and most honourable, have not displaced these things in favour of modern ornaments and usages.”

What of these other things, the lettucci, spalliere, and cornici? Lettucci were daybeds, precursors of modern-day couches, and may have included storage areas to hang clothing. Together with cassoni and spalliere, they would have been made for the camera, or nuptial chamber, often furnished about the time that a man married. When Vasari refers to spalliere, he is probably referring to wainscoting or moldings. Cornici were presumably wall-mounted decorations that were placed above eye level. Both cassone and spalliere panels are horizontal in format, but art historian Anne Barriault has argued that a clear distinction between the two can be made based on size as well as on stylistic grounds. She suggests further that spalliera panels, after the Italian term spalla (shoulder), are the ancestors of modern easel paintings created for domestic display. Scholars agree that spalliera panels, such as The Story of Cupid and Psyche by Jacopo del Sellaio or The Story of Joseph by Biagio d’Antonio (32.100.69), were not intended to be placed close to the floor on great chests or cassoni, but there is no consensus on just how high spalliere were to hang. The painted panels that viewers now experience in museums as individual works of art once functioned as elements in complex and dazzling interior ensembles that would have been fitting monuments to lasting dynastic alliances created through marriage.