SPLENDOURS OF A MANTUAN PALAZZO
A. Drummond, 'Marriage and Murder: Two Wedding Chests with Representations of Judith', The Art Journal of the National Gallery of Victoria, 53, 2014;
L. Faeson, Cassoni Italiani, St Petersburg, 1983, nos. 183-192;
J. Focarino (ed.), Furniture in The Frick Collection, Princeton, 1992, vol. V. Furniture, Italian & French, pp. 34-44;
T. Geissler, 'Discoveries on a Pair of Cassoni' V&A Conservation Journal, no. 55 (Spring), 2007;
A. Gonzalez-Palacios, Il mobile in Liguria, Genova 1996, pp. 30-37;
J. von Henneberg, Two Renaissance Cassoni for Cosimo I De’ Medici in the Victoria and Albert Museum’, Mitteilungen des Kunsthistorischen Institutes in Florenz, 35, 1991, pp. 115-132;
W. Koeppe, The Robert Lehman Collection, Decorative Arts, New York, 2012, vol. XV., pp. 198-199;
P. Lurati, Doni nuziali del rinascimento nelle collezioni svizzere, Locarno, 2007 pp. 168-170;
C. Paolini, At Home in Renaissance Italy (Chests), exhibition catalogue, V&A Publications, London, 2006, pp. 120-121;
A. Pedrini, Il mobilio: Gli ambienti et le Decorazioni del Rinascimento in Italia, secoli XV e XVI,Genoa, 1969, fig. 229.
Splendours of a Mantuan Palazzo is the title of the private collection which is being sold in the auction of Old Master Sculpture and Works of Art in London on 5th July 2016. These exceptional cassoni are one of the main highlights from this collection which includes important bronzes and maiolica. For more details see Sothebys.com.
The cassoni offered here are superior examples amongst a small group which share much in terms of decoration and quality. Most of these are held by the best museums and private collections in the world. All are characterised by a similar architectural structure, clearly inspired by the sarcophagi of the Antique and feature an iconographic decorative scheme. All depict episodes in the history of Rome from Plutarch's Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans, mythological stories or subjects from the Old Testament. The narrative, heroic moments from the life of Julius Caesar, depicted on the pair offered here is important. It gives us a sense of the family or individual who commissioned these high status objects. A patron keen to demonstrate an understanding of a glorious period in Roman history and with the wealth to utilise an exemplary workshop.
Professor Alvar Gonzàles-Palacios identified and studied this group of cassoni which all have finely executed relief carved panels and an imposing carved figure to the corner of each front (Alvar Gonzàles-Palacios, Il Mobile in Liguria, Genova, 1996, pp. 30-37). He focused on the pair in the Palazzo Reale di Torino, stressing the close relationship with these and a design by Perino del Vaga (1501-1547) in the Witt Collection at the Courtauld Institute, London (fig.1). This drawing is a very interesting link with the cassoni offered here. We see in del Vaga’s drawing the schematics for a grand cassone with a central cartouche for an armorial supported by cherubs between panels carved in high relief with figures to each corner raised on a gadrooned cushion carved base. There is also the suggestion of paw feet for supports alongside sphinxes (fig.1). Also discussed is an example in the Carmen Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection on loan to the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid. This has similar carving, employs the same techniques in construction and much in the del Vaga drawing appears realised. This group all share finely executed relief carved panels and an imposing figure to the corners of each front.
For a pair which relate extremely closely see those in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London (formerly on loan to the National Gallery, London) these appear to be from the same workshop and are illustrated and discussed by Claudio Paolini (Ajmar-Wolleheim & Dennis (ed.), At Home in Renaissance Italy, London, 2006, pp. 120-121 one is reproduced here (fig.2). The finely carved panels to the front also feature a gilt-ground on which episodes from the 'history' of Rome are depicted, in this instance Romulus and Remus, figures also discussed in Plutarch's Lives. These scenes are also divided and framed by bead and reel moulding. Josephine von Henneberg discusses this pair at length (Josephine von Henneberg, Two Renaissance Cassoni for Cosimo I De’ Medici in the Victoria and Albert Museum’, Mitteilungen des Kunsthistorischen Institutes in Florenz, 35, 1991, pp. 115-132). Von Henneberg proposes they were a commission for Cosimo l de’ Medici (1518-1574) to commemorate his new title of Duke of Florence and Siena ascribing the design to the Sienese artist Bartolomeo Neroni known as Il Riccio (1500-1571). This, like the del Vaga design, is fascinating and was discovered by von Henneberg in the Vatican Library Rome, it is exciting in that it relates not only very closely to the pair in the V&A but those offered here. It too features three clearly defined architectural ‘fields’ to the front, the central of which contains a scrolled cartouche. Moulded details also relate, with gadrooned, reeded and leaf carved borders to the lid and a boldly carved gadrooned cushion frieze to the base (fig.3).
The use of carved figures to the corners is interesting and as mentioned above is one of the important unifying stylistic factors of the group. Their exact symbolism though is not fully determined and they appear carved in various guises, that of guards, captives, cherubs and other figures variously described but all ultimately derived from the statuary of the Antique and Renaissance. The best known of these standing sculptures are the set of eight ‘captives’ depicted on the Arch of Constantine, Dacian prisoners from Trajan’s campaign (von Henneberg, op. cit., p. 119-122). In the instance of the cassoni offered, these Dacian captives like the panels they stand beside, celebrate the history of Rome and reference the architecture of the Antique.
Whilst the coat of arms is yet to be identified it can be assumed it represents a powerful and wealthy patron, the cassoni in the V&A, most probably from the same workshop, support this as they feature the arms of the Medici family. Cassoni were often thought to be marriage and dowry chests, although this cannot be the case exclusively, but it can be said that the acquisition or commission of such important pieces, such as the offered pair, would have been to commemorate or herald a significant occasion.
Other cassoni worthy of comparison in addition to those discussed above include:
i. An example with the coat of arms of the Colonna family of Rome, with panels depicting the life of Marcus Aurelius, from the Contini Bonaccossi Collection, in the Uffizi, Florence;
ii. An example with a coat of arms which relates to the Berlingeri family of Siena with panels depicting the Life of Scipio Africanus, from the Lehman Collection, in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York;
iii. A pair depicting episodes from the story of Judith in the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne;
iv. Two examples depicting episodes from the story of Solomon and episodes from the life of Julius Caesar in the Hermitage, St. Petersburg;
v. An example with a coat of arms of the del Cinque family of Rome, with panels depicting episodes from the story of Moses and Abraham in the Columbia Museum of Art, South Carolina;
vi. A pair with a coat of arms for the Crivelli family of Milan, with panels depicting episodes from the life of Julius Caesar in the Frick Collection, New York;
Sotheby's would like to thank Dr Simone Chiarugi, leading conservator of Italian furniture, for his kind assistance in cataloguing this lot.
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