As is typical of such boxes, which would have been prized by humanists and connoisseurs as studiolo objects, the present casket is adorned with all'antica grotesques and classical motifs. The frieze running along the front side shows a battle scene, which can possibly be identified as the Battle of Cannae in which Hannibal was defeated by Scipio Africanus, broadly inspired after a medallion by the Master of Coriolanus (de Winter, op. cit., fig. 49). The reverse frieze shows the Triumph of Caesar, taken from Mantegna's painting series of the subject in the Royal Collection at Hampton Court (inv. no. 403958; in the 16th century the cycle remained in the Ducal Palace, Mantua, and was widely known through prints). At the right side is a charming scene with Elephants carrying aviaries and birds in flight (possibly taken from Mantegna's Triumph series or perhaps referring to Hannibal crossing the Alps). On the left side is an unidentified scene of a female prisoner walking before horsemen. Each of these scenes of Roman history is bonded together by twin personifications of Rome on the lid, respectively emblazoned with the famous acronym of the Republic: SPQR.
Ancient Roman subjects are a common theme running through much of the published corpus of pastiglia caskets. Rather than indicating that the coffers were made in Rome, the use of this subject matter underlines the fact that such caskets were designed to appeal to the Renaissance fascination with the classical past. In fact, de Winter argues that the caskets are most likely to have been made in Northeastern Italy, as one of the surviving examples bears the shield of Bernard Cles, Bishop of Trent. He concludes that Venice, with its many humanist patrons, is likely to have been the principal centre of production. The Serenissima was, by the early 16th century, famed for the production of luxury goods, as well as for its printing industry; the motifs adorning pastiglia caskets will undoubtedly have been derived from Renaissance prints. The city was also known for the production of white lead, which forms the basis of the pastiglia mouldings, and its environs for alder, the wood used for the carcass of at least one example.
Of the seven workshops identified by de Winter, the pastiglia decoration adorning the present caskets compares with boxes attributed to the Workshop of the Roman Triumphs and the Workshop of Moral and Love Themes. It is particularly close in style to the former, not merely because of the subjects, but also because of the use of the undulating vine with trefoil leaves above and peas or grapes below; this is near-identical to that seen on a casket in the Musée de la Renaissance, Ecouen (inv. no. CL21341). The layering of the figures into relief and the perspectival extension of the ground (seemingly resembling a dado) is also close. The sphynxes are found an another casket attributed to the Workshop again at Ecouen (inv. no. ECL21343). Note also, on this casket, the fact that, as in the present example, the sides and top of the box are stippled, but not the domed sides of the lid. The shape of this particular box is also broadly comparable with the present example. However, there are also similarities with the Workshop of the Moral and Love themes, particularly the stocky figures, some of which appear to be in Renaissance dress, as well as the sheer proliferation of adornment, and the multiple mouldings. Compare with the example with a frieze of the Torment of Atilius Regulus in the Victoria and Albert Museum (inv. no. 1565-1855). The musician on the left side of the casket corresponds closely with another in a box attributed to the Workshop in the Victoria and Albert Museum (inv. no. 5625-1859).
A near-identical facsimile of the present casket exists in the former collections of the Earls of Warwick at Warwick Castle. However, in the Warwick casket the decoration is carved from bone or ivory, clearly after a prototype, which must be identified as the present casket.
Pastiglia caskets were used to contain small semi-precious and studiolo objects, such as seals and coins. The depiction of many scenes from famous classical romantic myths suggests that they were used as engagement gifts. Above all they express the Renaissance fascination with all things Antique.
The pastiglia decoration on these caskets is moulded into forms which are then glued to the surface. The applied forms are made of 87% white lead mixed with sulphate and a binder. It is believed that the small moulds used to make the individual parts were made of metal rather than wood or clay. The exterior wood surface, usually alder, is prepared with a thin layer of gesso which is then punched to varying degrees of elaboration before the addition of red bole and gold leaf. This was followed by the application of the figures and decoration.
P. M. de Winter, 'A little-known creation of Renaissance Decorative Arts: The white lead Pastiglia Box', Saggi e Memorie di storia dell'arte, 14, 1984, pp. 9-131; Pastiglia Boxes: Hidden Treasures of the Italian Renaissance from the Collections of Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Antica, Rome, exh. cat. Lowe Art Museum, Miami, 2002; M. Ajmar-Wollheim and F. Dennis (eds.), At Home in Renaissance Italy, London, 2006, p.108, cat. 153
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