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Cassone

  • Place of origin:

    Venice (possibly, made)

  • Date:

    about 1460-80 (made)

  • Artist/Maker:

    Unknown

  • Materials and Techniques:

    Walnut, with inlay of bone, and other woods, including boxwood and possibly bog oak

  • Museum number:

    128-1892

  • Gallery location:

    Furniture, Room 133, The Dr Susan Weber Gallery, case BY7, shelf WALL

The practice of decorating wooden furniture wood with contrasting inlays was used by the craftsmen of Ancient Egypt. It continued to flourish during the Medieval period in Islamic cities such as Cairo and Damascus, where dense patterns were created using tiny inlaid pieces of bone or ivory and various woods. The technique seems to have been adopted in both Spain and Italy, particularly Venice, from about 1450, and was used on boxes and chests like this one. References in Italian 16th-century inventories to chests alla veneziana (in the Venetian style) may refer to this style of decoration. During the 19th-century it came to be known as alla certosina work, because it was thought that Carthusian monks specialised in the technique, though there is no good evidence of it.

Physical description

Summary description
Rectangular dovetailed chest with geometrical inlay on the front and sides, and both sides of the lid.

Design
The chest front appears to be panelled but these 'panels' are actually integral with the front board, and 'framed' by strips of walnut(?), about 5mm thick, which are inset (variously pegged and nailed) into a band excavated from the solid wood. The front shows 3 square panels containing a dense grid of six-petal flowers, each panel set within a wide border of six-pointed stars. What reads as the framework is decorated with a regular pattern of alternating large and small circles, and both 'muntins' display elongated plant stems with star shaped flowers rising from a hexagonal well.

On both sides of the chest, set within a zig-zag border with quarter circles at the corners, is a geometrical design of a central circle with interlace knot, surrrounded by interlacing semi-circles with stylised flower heads.

The outside of the lid has a narrow zig-zag border around the outside edge, and is divided into three sections of geometrical designs: a central chess board (8x8) with a border of triangles, set between two similar motifs: a circle with interlace knot, surrrounded by interlacing semi-circles with stylised flower heads, with quarter circles at the corners. The underside of the lid has a narrow zig-zag border around the outside edge and contains three large circular motifs: a six-pointed star with a central IH+ motif, within a border containing triangles, which is flanked by two similar motifs: a circle with interlace knot, surrrounded by interlacing semi-circles with stylised flower heads. In the gaps between the three circles are elaborate hexagonal motifs.

The back and bottom of the chest are plain.

Internally, on the right and left sides and along the front, runs an inlay frieze of 8-pointed stars above a zig-zag ribbon. Cut in the front board are grooves for a till at the right side, and a full-height partition (possibly containing small drawers) at the left. No internal elements survive.

Inlay decoration
All the inlay consists of individual pieces of bone or wood, inset into hollows (2.5 to 3mm deep) cut into the matrix wood. Where these are square or nearly square, the hollows are flat-bottomed, and where visible cut roughly, presumably with a narrow chisel. Where there is banding, the hollow is cut in a V-shape, presumably with a burin or V-blade chisel. As joted above, the framing strips around the front 'panels' are applied, and were presumably inlaid with individual tesserae before fixing.Applied strips marquetry run along the upper, inner edge of both sides.

Construction
The chest consists of single walnut(?) boards for the front, sides, lid and bottom (with replaced sections as described below). The front (a sawn board 30mm thick, now warped so that the joints have opened up at the centre) is dovetailed to the sides. The back, a replacement, consists of two planks, grained side to side, which are nailed to the sides (29mm thick on the right, about 27mm on the left) which must have been sawn along their back (vertical) edges, with 5 cut nails on each side. Notches have been cut into the ends, to give the appearance of dovetailing. The bottom, a single board of very wood-wormy walnut(?) is nailed up into the sides and front (CHECK) is also nailed to the back - would tell order or repairs). Along the back of the bottom a replacement strip 7.5cm deep has been added. At the bottom, along the front and sides of the chest (now missing on the left side) a narrow mitred strip of dark wood has been nailed?, apparently to conceal the thickness of the bottom, which may originally have sat within a low plinth as seen on some comparable chests.

The lid is held on two staple hinges. Although it appears to be original, it has been reversed front to back so that the design of the lid underside reads upside down when opened. Four staple hinges, presumed to be original survive along its front edge. Along the back edge of the lid, a replacement strip (5.2cm deep) has been added, and along its right side a replacement batten (2.4cm deep), which however leave the lid in its current form about 3cm shorter in depth, and 1cm shorter in width than it was originally.

Condition and modifications
The lid has been reversed front to back.
Many individual tesserae of inlay are missing.
A dark and very stubborn stain has been applied over the exterior.

Place of Origin

Venice (possibly, made)

Date

about 1460-80 (made)

Artist/maker

Unknown

Materials and Techniques

Walnut, with inlay of bone, and other woods, including boxwood and possibly bog oak

Dimensions

Height: 47 cm closed, Width: 122 cm, Depth: 47.5 cm, Height: 92 cm fully open, Depth: 50 cm fully open

Object history note

Bought for £54. 12. 9. (1440 lire) from Cav. Attilio Simonetti (Via Reale Palazzo Odescalchi, Rome), R/P 8407/1891: 'Wedding coffer of Certoza, 3 compartments in front (much worn, inlay missing from top & other parts)', along with two altar frontals and two pieces of ceramic.

H. 1 ft. 7 in., W. 3 ft. 11.75 in., D. 1 ft. 6.75 in. (H. 48 cm, W. 121 cm, D. 47. 6cm)

Minute paper by J. Armstrong 15.xii.1891 to Sir P.C.Owen: 'When in Rome I spent sometime in looking through the collection of Signor Simonetti and decided to take some of the things I saw...I have been expecting photographs of certain objects...these photographs have not come yet but I think it is time to report what was actually bought:
#3 A cassone or marriage coffer of walnut wood having three panels in the front. Panels and stiles are inlaid with ivory. This is much damaged and in the lid there is little or none of the ivory left but the design is there bothi inside and out. 1800 lire'
Simonetti responded 4.ii.1892, accepting the Museum's offer for the five pieces, noting [in the Museum's translation] 'I ought not to accept the price offered as it hardly reimburses my outlay, but for the pleasure of having business relations with your museum I accept...', indicating that he had bought these rather than inherited them.

Other V&A examples of the same type of chest are: 7223-1860, 7224-1860, 7822-1861

Historical context note

At the time of writing 20 comparable chests are known (many with a north Italian provenance), which appear to display the same essential features:
dimensions HWD: 46-49, 113-130, 47-54cm;
construction: dovetail construction in walnut (very close to other walnut chests strongly associated with NE Italy (Friuli-Veneto);
decorative technique: geometrical inlay in bone/ivory; smaller borders of rod-cut geometrical marquetry may also be found on the sides, the lid edges or underside, and around the interior of the chest as a frieze. Inlay materials used have not been studied consistently: rosewood, maple and fruitwood are said to have been used.
design: a solid front with 3 ‘panels’ divided by two muntins decorated with the distinctive motif of a tree of life growing from a well; fitted interior compartments; the iconography includes variations of: square ‘pavement’ of tiny star-shaped flowers, interlace circles, stars within circles, IHS sacred monogram (often within a six-pointed star), chess boards on the lid.

Variations among the group are:
Some sit on low plinths (of two principal forms), with similar inlay on the front and sides. Where these exist the inlay tends to be of similar quality to the chest itself, suggesting that the plinths are not later additions.
The front surface of the chest front is sometimes built up with applied (pegged) thicknesses of wood forming muntins and lower rail
The extent of interior fitted compartments varies
On the front ‘panels’ the central raised section has a sunken border; sometimes this is inlaid in the same manner as the ‘panels’, sometimes with rod-cut geometrical marquetry.

The evidence (such as it currently recorded) seems to suggest that the type originated in NE Italy, but that it was made over an extended period of decades, during which time variations in technique were introduced; over this period it may be that more internal compartments were added, and greater use made of rod cut marquetry, accompanied by a decline in quality (seen in the greater size and lower precision of inlay). Whether the presence of the IHS motif indicates an effort, perhaps after c1540, to ‘Christianise’ decoration that was recognised as Islamic in origin is purely speculative. The presence of chess boards (usually on the upper surface of the chest lid) appears to make it less likely that chests with IHS were made for ecclesiastical settings. The rich decoration and internal compartments point to this type of chest being conceived as a luxury, ‘exotic’ piece of domestic storage.

Peter Thornton, in The Italian Renaissance Interior 1400-1600 (London 1991), p.92 suggests that geometric inlay (also developed as marquetry), in a style derived from the Near East, was confined to small panels until the early 15th century. He uses the term 'lavoro di intarsio', noting 9n.6) that 'allo certosino' is the frequently used 20th century term: "It was such a widespread technique that it cannot have been confined to workshops in Carthusian monasteries - or to monasteries generally. On the other hand, a surprising number of monks became celebrated experts in the fully-developed [figurative] 'lavoro di intarsio' during the second half of the 15th century. Many travelled and set up workshops whenever needed; few were confined to monasteries during their active life." He illustrates (fig. 122) the Birth of the Virgin by Paolo di Giovanni Fei, (1380s), with bed chests with inlaid decoration of six-pointed stars, squares, rectangles and circles. See also fig. 173, Birth of St John the Baptist by Pinturrichio (Siena Cathedral), c1504(?) with inlaid 8-pointed stars.

Descriptive line

Walnut cassone; Italy (Venice); ca. 1460-1480

Labels and date

CHEST (CASSONE).
Walnut, inlaid with marquetry of ivory and other woods.
ITALIAN; about 1500.
128-1892.

This inlay technique originated in the Near East and was much imitated in North Italy during the 15th and 16th centuries. It is sometimes called alla certosina work. [Pre-2006]
Chest (cassone)
About 1460–80

Possibly Italy (Venice)

Walnut
Inlay: bone, and other woods, probably boxwood and bog oak

Museum no. 128-1892

The external geometric decoration on this chest is inlaid. For every tiny piece of inlay a precise recess was cut into the solid plank with a V-shaped metal blade. Individual pieces of bone and wood, mostly triangular or diamond shapes, were pressed into their matching recesses and glued in place. The recesses are now visible where the inlay has fallen out. [01/12/2012]

Production Note

the back rebuilt, probably before 1850

Materials

Walnut

Techniques

Inlay

Categories

Containers; Woodwork; Medieval and renaissance; Furniture; Renaissance (Italian)

Collection

Furniture and Woodwork Collection

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