L. Bandera, Il mobile Emiliano, Milan, 1972, p. 43, ill. 14
G. Colombo, L’arte del legno e del mobile in Italia, Busto Arsizio, 1981
G. Manni, Mobili in Emilia, Modena, 1987
This important cassone well illustrates the regeneration experienced in the decorative arts around the mid-15th century, when the humanistic ideals of civilization spread from Florence to the various corners of the Italian peninsula and across the Alps. With its main centres – Bologna, Ferrara, Rimini - bursting with intellectual ferment, and conveniently close to both Tuscany and Venice, Emilia soon came to be a fascinating crucible of cultural influences that were also mirrored in the sophisticated furniture of the period.
It was at this time that the local gentry started building residences that mirrored the aesthetics of the Renaissance; a turning point in this sense was the construction of the Tempio Malatestiano, the unfinished cathedral church of Rimini, by the architect Leon Battista Alberti (1404-1472). Furniture also quickly advanced to match this architectural complexity, and cassoni, then perhaps the most important part of a private house's fittings, are a palimpsest of this evolution.
Alberti’s influence is discernible in the architectural shape of the present cassone, inspired by Roman sarcophagi, with its geometric intarsia and pilasters that are also clear Tuscan derivations. Intriguingly, similar patterns are found in Piero della Francesca’s fresco of Sigismondo Pandolfo Malatesta before Saint Sigismund (1451) in the Tempio Malatestiano, while, on the other hand, the distinctive late-Gothic elements, namely the carved and gilt rosettes, are of Venetian origin, as are the “fregi alla damaschina” framing the panels.
The intarsia of stylised rosettes found on the lid and frieze has a notable parallel on an imposing credenza in the Castello di Monselice (ill. in G. Manni, op. cit., pp. 110-11). Probably made in Ferrara at the beginning of the 16th century, this is attributable to the De Marchi workshop.
The De Marchi family, originally from Crema, was active in the second half of the 15th century and specialised in exquisite intarsia. Their prestigious commissions included the furnishing of the Cappella Vaselli in the Church of San Petronio, Bologna (1495), but they were also active in Ferrara at the court of Este. A pair of cassoni, very similar to the present lot, was most probably executed by this workshop (cf. G. Manni, op. cit., p. 19) for Giovanni II Bentivoglio (1443-1508), the tyrant of Bologna from 1463-1506, with one now in that town’s Collezioni comunali d’arte (fig. 1), while one other cassone is in the City Art Museum, Saint Louis.
This remarkable piece is the testimony of a unique transitional moment in the history of decorative arts: as the Quattrocento develops, the tarsia is given greater scope, while less space is granted to the sculptural carving of panels or roundels that had proved so popular throughout the Middle Ages, and which now become smaller and smaller as, with the Renaissance, the former technique begins to triumph.
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