Two wedding chests

Wedding chest


c. 1480
carved wood,gesso pastiglia,gilding
47 x 167 x 47 cm
source of the artwork

Faenza, Convent of San Maglorio; after 1867: entered the Pinacoteca collections

short description

These two chests, which are identical in shape, size and decoration, are two rare surviving examples of luxury 15th century furniture. They are richly decorated in relief covered in gold leaf reproducing elegant plant tendrils very similar to those found on numerous Classical sarcophagi.

Chests were one of the chief items of domestic furniture in the Renaissance and were used to store clothing and linen, but also money and valuables such as jewellery and books. A custom dating back to the Middle Ages required that a bride be given a pair of chests on her wedding day to contain her trousseau, and indeed wealthier families often commissioned richly decorated chests for such occasions.

According to a local tradition, the Pinacoteca’s two wedding chests were given by Galeotto Manfredi, the lord of Faenza, to his lover Cassandra, a native of Ferrara, when she withdrew to live a cloistered life in Faenza in 1480 in the Convent of San Maglorio, which is where the chests were kept until 1867. We do not know who made the chests, but recent scholarship has suggested that they may be the work of Master Jacopo da Faenza, a skilled woodcarver who worked chiefly in Venice in the last quarter of the 15th century.

inventary n°
205, 206

These two chests, which are identical in shape, size and decoration, are two rare surviving examples of luxury 15th century furniture. They comprise an upper part in the shape of a rectangular parallelepiped and a lower part that is slightly rounded and tapers towards the bottom. Protruding cornices decorated with egg-and-dart or dentil motifs serve to connect the two sections. Both the front and the two shorter sides of each chest sport an elegant decorative motif in relief made of gilded gesso, depicting sinuous plant tendrils entwined with flowers, amphorae and a number of hybrid elements akin to dolphins. The whole sits on a blue ground with gilded threadlike decorations etched using a technique known as graffito. Similar reliefs are also found on the lids. Before World War II each chest rested on four lion’s claws, now lost (though they can be seen in Messeri-Calzi 1909, p. 137). Damaged during the war years, the two chests were restored in the immediate postwar period by Angelo Marocci (Tambini 2000, p. 216).

Chests were one of the chief items of domestic furniture in the Renaissance (for an overview of this kind of decorated furniture, see: Virtù d’amore. Pittura nuziale nel Quattrocento fiorentino, exhibition catalogue ed. C. Paolini, D. Parenti, L. Sebregondi, Florence 2010; and M. Vinco, Cassoni. Pittura profana del Rinascimento a Verona, Milan 2018). Used to store clothing and linen, but also money and valuables such as jewellery and books, they came in different shapes and sizes over the centuries according to the geographical area and period they were made in and to the financial means of the patron commissioning them. It was not until the 16th century that they began to be replaced by larger and more convenient cupboards. The term “cassone” (chest) was coined in the 16th century. Before that, these chests were known by other names such as “cofano” (coffer) or “forziere” (safe), as we can tell from the domestic inventories of the time.

It became customary in the Middle Ages to give a pair of chests to a bride on her wedding day (initially donated by her family, they later became the responsibility of that of her husband) for her to store her bridal trousseau. The chests were placed either at the foot of the bed or by the wall of the couple’s wedding chamber, often on low pedestals also known as “predellas”. For families of rank these wedding chests were a fully-fledged status symbol and they often spared no expense when having them made, commissioning chests of a monumental size from highly skilled artisans. The chests could be decorated in several different ways. They might be painted, clad in tooled leather, adorned with complex wooden inlay work or decorated with gilded and painted gesso. In certain specific areas such as Florence, Siena and Verona, painters’ workshops were tasked with producing panels with figured scenes for the front of the chest. The themes used in decorating these panels tended to range from chivalry (knights in combat, ladies of the court in procession or a hunt in the woods) to Classical literature, often of an allegorical or moral nature, and were almost invariably accompanied by the coats-of-arms of the couple’s respective families as a seal on the prestigious union of their two houses.

We also know of cases where such chests, known as “nuns’ chest”, were given to girls of good family when they took the veil to become “brides of Christ”. The two luxurious chests in the Pinacoteca di Faenza may well be examples of this practice.

They certainly came to the Pinacoteca from the Camaldulese Convent San Maglorio in Faenza. A local tradition maintains that they were given by Galeotto Manfredi, the lord of Faenza, to his lover Cassandra Pavoni, a native of Ferrara, when she withdrew to the cloister on his marriage to Francesca Bentivoglio, taking her vows in the Convent of San Maglorio in 1480 and remaining there until her death in 1513 (Malagola 1883, p. 382, note 2). While we have no conclusive evidence to bear out this legendary and rather illustrious origin, a date of 1480 for the two chests is absolutely plausible.

The chests’ elegant style deliberately harks back to that of Classical sarcophagi, which were often decorated with plant friezes. Such decoration, which was certainly not unusual in the second half of the 15th century, fully reflected the taste of the wealthy patrons of the day. The rediscovery of Classical art and culture, a typical feature of the Renaissance, was just beginning to have a profound impact on the manufacture of furnishings for aristocratic abodes at that time. Giorgio Vasari himself testifies to this when he tells us, in a chapter in the 1568 edition of his Lives of the Artists on the 15th century Florentine painter Dello Delli who specialised in decorating such chests, that “the citizens of those times used to have in their apartments great wooden chests in the form of a sarcophagus”.

We do not know the name of the artisan who made these two splendid chests. Antonio Messeri and Achille Calzi (1909, p. 573) detected a strong Tuscan influence in them, suggesting that they may have been made in the workshop of Benedetto da Maiano. Ennio Golfieri (1979, p. 112) thought that they were made by a Florentine craftsman, as did Sauro Casadei (1991, p. 40, n. 73) who, in his catalogue of Pinacoteca di Faenza, classifies them as “15th century Tuscan art”. Golfieri (1990, p. 18) subsequently detected a close affinity between the chests’ carved decoration and the decoration on the frame of a triptych painted by Giovanni Bellini in 1488 and now in the sacristy of the basilica of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari in Venice. The artisan responsible for the sophisticated frame was “Master Jacopo da Faenza”, who signed his name on the back of the piece of carpentry. This prompted Golfieri to argue that the two chests might also have been made by Master Jacopo “c. 1480” (Ibid.). While Anna Tambini initially found this attribution interesting, she argued that it did not rest on any decisive similarity (2000, p. 216), yet she agreed with Golfieri that the two chests may well have been the work of a craftsman from Faenza. Returning to the topic in 2009, however, she now found the attribution to Master Jacopo da Faenza convincing. In addition to highlighting the two chests’ decorative affinity with certain Venetian altarpiece frames made by Master Jacopo, she also detected a very close similarity with two other chests, possibly made in Venice: one now in the Bogdan and Varvara Khanenko Museum of Art in Kyiv (a number of details of which are reproduced in Tambini 2009, p. 212) and the other in the collection of the Kunstgewerbe Museum in Frankfurt.

S. Casadei, Pinacoteca di Faenza, Bologna 1991, p. 40, n0. 73

E. Golfieri, Guida della città di Faenza, Imola 1979, p. 112

E. Golfieri, Le arti plastiche a Faenza tra XIV e XV secolo, “Il nostro ambiente e la cultura”, 15, Faenza 1990, p. 18

C. Malagola, Di Sperindio, e delle cartiere, dei carrozzieri, armaioli, librai, fabbricatori e pittori di vetri in Faenza sotto Carlo e Galeotto Manfredi (1468-1488), in “Atti e memorie della R. Deputazione di storia patria per le province di Romagna”, Third Series, Vol. I, Bologna 1883, p. 382, note 2

A. Messeri, A. Calzi, Faenza nella storia e nell’arte, Faenza 1909, pp. 137, 184-185, 572-573

A. Tambini, Secolo XV. Artigianato faentino, Cassone da corredo in Caterina Sforza: una donna del Cinquecento. Storia e arte tra Medioevo e Rinascimento, exhibition catalogue (Imola 5 February – 21 May 2000), Imola 2000, pp. 215-216

A. Tambini, Il Rinascimento. Pittura, miniatura, artigianato, in Storia delle arti figurative a Faenza, vol. III, Faenza 2009, pp. 210-213

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written by
Piero Offidani