Painted chests like this are called cassone (literally ‘a large chest’). They were made to celebrate a marriage and were often used to store a new bride’s dresses and linens. Cassone were in such high demand in Florence that painters like Apollonio di Giovanni had workshops specialising in their decoration.
They were usually placed in the camera, a room with beds that was also a social space. Such a setting invited fashionable subjects, including poetry, ancient history and contemporary civic events, valued by the educated elite who could afford such items. This one shows a jousting tournament: two rows of opposing jousters, separated by wooden arches, aim to push each other off their horses with lances. The rich and busy setting allowed the painter to include lots of detail in the costumes as well as gold leaf in the horses' harnesses.
This chest was substantially altered and restored in the nineteenth century to transform it into a more elaborate structure.
Painted chests were one of the most expensive items in a fifteenth-century Florentine household. Known as cassone (literally ‘a large chest’) they were made to celebrate marriage alliances. Initially they were ordered by the bride’s family and used to transport her dowry, and then to store her dresses and other linens. By the mid-fifteenth century they were ordered by the groom and formed part of the ensemble of furniture and paintings purchased for his rooms within his family’s palace upon his marriage.
The paintings on cassoni were not intended just to dazzle and entertain with their rich, decorative details but also to show off their patrons‘ intellect and culture. Popular themes were illustrations of ancient or contemporary poetry, classical mythology, ancient history and the Old Testament. Sometimes, as here, patrons chose scenes from contemporary life.
This picture shows a jousting tournament, known as an armeggeria. Noble families would put on tournaments like this to forge alliances or as shows of strength. Sometimes they made a show of impressing a particular young woman, and there are accounts of a festival-type atmosphere with floats representing the idea of the ’Triumph of Love‘. The use of such scenes on marriage chests was appropriate because of the romantic and chivalric ideas that were embedded in these tournaments – but actual marriage alliances were forged in private. The scene allows for plenty of quirky details, an abundance of colour, the display of coats of arms and the use of gold leaf for the horses’ intricate harnesses. The joust itself is divided by an arched structure which separates the riders who attempt to knock each other off their horses with lances. Curiously, one of the riders to the left has gilded wings; perhaps he has come as Amor, the winged god of love.
The building enclosing the scene on the far right is a church, perhaps the Florentine church of Santa Croce. In the arches above its doors we can see the coats of arms of the Florentine people (the red cross on a white background). Another, which looks like a pair of pincers, is also embroidered onto the capes of some of the jousters and appears on the textile just in front of the spectators‘ platform. It might be the emblem of the Tanagli family, whose name means pincer. The other prominent emblem shows a lion rampant (rearing up) on one side and shields on the other – similar to the coat of arms of the Spinelli family. These also appear on the chest itself, on either side of the main painted panel, and on the armour of a mounted knight and the cloak of his horse on a side panel on the left of the chest. It might be tempting to think that the devices represent the two families united by marriage, but it’s likely that they are later additions.
Some painters specialised in furniture painting, such as Apollonio di Giovanni. He had a large workshop; he accepted at least 170 commissions for marriage chests during the period of his collaboration with Marco del Buono. Most painters – even the most famous – would have painted furniture. Botticelli’s Venus and Mars for example, was probably intended for the furnishing of a chamber (a room that had beds, but which wasn’t exactly like a modern bedroom).
Very few of these painted chests remain intact and usually the paintings have been detached from the chests. The National Gallery’s two cassone (this, and The Story of the Schoolmaster of Falerii) are relatively rare survivals. However, they were heavily restored and renewed in the nineteenth-century. For example, this one includes side panels from another chest. The carved lion’s feet they rest on were added to make the cassone look grander and more elaborate than they did originally.
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