Tuesday, 3 March 2009

Love and Marriage in Renaissance Florence (Courtauld Gallery, London, 12 Feb-17 May 2009)

Now showing at the Courtauld Gallery in London is an exhibition dedicated to cassoni, or painted marriage chests. This is an area that has been the subject of much study in the last twenty or thirty years and cassoni have emerged as an extremely important aspect of domestic art in the Italian renaissance. A recent exhibition, curated by Cristelle Baskins, at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, centred on painted marriage chests and the catalogue is another important contribution to the field (Cristelle L. Baskins, Adrian W.B. Randolph, Jacqueline Marie Musachio and Alan Chong, The Triumph of Marriage: Painted Cassoni of the Renaissance (Pittsburgh: Periscope Publishing, 2008; ISBN: 9781943772867). This Courtauld exhibition, curated by Caroline Campbell, is an intimate affair, and that is very intentional. There are just ten items on display, all fitting (fairly) comfortably in a single room. The centrepiece is undoubtedly the famous Morelli chest, painted by Biagio di Antoinio (1446-1516), Jacopo del Sellaio (1441-93), and Zanobi di Domenico (active ca. 1464-74). These two imposing chests depict 'Camillus and the Gauls' and 'The Schoolmaster of Falerii', with two spalliere depicting Horatius Cocles and Mucius Scaevola and Lars Porsenna, respectively. These are the only cassoni to survive with their spalliere intact, so they are very important in thinking about how the cassone worked with its related items. While they are now almost attached to the cassoni Campbell asserts, I think quite correctly, that they would have been placed much higher up on the wall and she points to their rather low view-point as evidence. She also speculates that they may have formed a continuous panel. The viewer (Renaissance, modern) had their eye drawn both vertically and horizontally; the whole room was part of the effect, not just a framed item bracketed away from the rest of the room.

Another fascinating pair of panels are by Giovanni Toscani (around 1370/90-1430), depicting scenes from Boccaccio's Dec II 9, the story of Ginevra, Bernabò and Ambrogiuolo, dating to about 1425. This is an interesting one because only one of the panels (the first), now in the National Gallery of Scotland, was known in any detail. The other, in a Private Collection, has been brought together for this exhibition and it is great to see them together. The panels attest to the popularity of Boccaccio in the early fifteenth century, but what is even more interesting is the way that much of the story hinges on a trick involving a chest, and so the chest itself figures prominently in the first panel. Campbell makes some very interesting remarks about this panel, the way that Ginevra assumes a masculine role and how the artist chooses to depict her dressed as a man in the final scene even though the text explicitly states that she had changed into her feminine clothes. Ginevra is only shown twice as a woman, 'probably to mask the unusualness of her behaviour' (p. 86). There would be much to say about such a dynamic. In fact, Campbell wonders about the choice of Boccaccio as a source for the iconography and links the move away from Boccaccio, and love stories, about mid-century, to more martial themes to the change in commissioning patterns of painted marriage chests, when it became the responsibility of the groom's family rather than that of the bride.

One of the most stimulating aspects of this material was the attention that Campbell paid to the literary texts in the possession of Morelli, in particular a compendium associated with Morelli now in the Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale di Firenze (Pal. 359). 'The unassuming appearance, contents and lack of illustrations of this chapbook, purchased form "Zanobi Deleicha", make it very typical of surviving manuscripts of this type. Its contents mirror the core genres of stories depicted on cassone frontals: Roman poetry, contemporary Tuscan verse, ancient Greek, Roman, biblical and modern history. As such it provides a good framework for exploring the subjects depicted on cassoni and spalliere panels, and decoding their meanings.' (p. 34). This is good stuff and I intend to learn more.

Another pair of panels, by Lo Scheggia (1406-86) are exhibited, depicting 'The Journey of the Queen of Sheba' and 'The Meeting of Solomon and Sheba', both dating to around 1450. These are both in private collections and so it is a treat to see them exhibited. Another panel by a Florentine follower of Lo Scheggia, dating to around 1460, depicts 'The Siege of Carthage and the Continence of Scipio' (Courtauld P.1966.GP.129). There is another chest depicting the Battle of Pharsalus, in which Caesar defeats Pompey, by an unidentified artist, dating to around 1470-5 (Courtauld F. 1947.LF.3). The final pair of panels are in the collection of the Earl of Harewood at Harwood House, depicting 'The Rabe of the Sabine Women', and 'The Reconciliation of the Romans and the Sabines', dating to around 1480.

Go to the exhibition. And buy the catalogue: Caroline Campbell, with contributions by Grame Barraclough and Tilly Schmidt, Love and Marriage in Renaissance Florence: The Courtauld Wedding Chests (London: The Courtauld Gallery in association with Paul Holberton Publishing, 2009), ISBN: 9781903470916.


Hels said...

Buy TWO catalogues, now that you have mentioned both of them. We haven't had any cassone exhibition in Australia that I can remember, so I am grateful for your recommendations and for the link.

Harveer said...
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Bharat said...
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