- Place of origin:
ca. 1430 (made)
- Materials and Techniques:
Cypress wood with pokerwork decoration and composition infill
- Museum number:
- Gallery location:
Medieval & Renaissance, Room 10a, The Françoise and Georges Selz Gallery, case WN, shelf EXP
Woodwork with engraved and shallow-relief carved decoration was characteristic of north- eastern Italy, particularly the areas of Friulli and the Veneto, from about 1390 until 1470. Medieval courtly romances, such as the 'Fountain of Love', were more popular themes than classical myths. Cypress wood and cembra pine were most often used. The wood was chiseled or sometimes engraved with a hot needle. The recessed areas were often filled with chalk mixed with verdigris (green) or vermilion (red). The majority of figures on this chest wear clothes than would have been fashionable between about 1390 or 1430. Many similar chests, of slightly later date, show figures dressed in the style of Burgundy, France, which became popular in Italy, or in the style associated with the painter Pisanello, who lived from about 1395 to 1455.
Rectangular boarded chest, with balustrade lower rail above shaped feet at the front and the sides cut with a cusped arch, the surfaces decorated with pyrographic (pirografata) designs, drawn with a hot needle, with small areas of shallow relief containing the remains of colour composition infill. The design of the front is divided into two tiers above a balustrade composed of a series of half spindle-shaped balusters which link it to a rail, nailed to the side at the left end and resting on a carved foliate bracket with a gothic cusp at both ends. (Note, the balustrade and brackets were restored 2012.) On the lower one is an arcaded series of figures, mostly slaughtering beasts, and on the upper one, musicans playing for the royal couple in the far left, courtiers grouping round the 'Fountain of Love' and a lion hunt nearer the centre, and the shooting of one of the courtiers by the king with a bow and arrow in the far right. In the centre of the front panel is a verticle strip, at the top of which the wood is cut to accomodate a lock. Below the lock the wood is incised in the shape of a lockplate with concave sides and a keyhole; below the incised "lockplate" is a tournament shield with a profiled female crest.
On each side is a foliate pattern encircling a blank shield and sprigs of leaves, sprouting towards the four corners. At the bases of both sides are trefoil arches cut into the boards. The lid is plain on the outside, with old accretions of plaster near the corners, pieces of wood attached at the back right, forming a crude repair. On the inside of the lid is a carved tournament shield with a profiled female crest in a circular, foliate frame, with substantial traces of vermilion red pigment. Above the left hinge is a gash curving towards the centre.
Construction and materials
The chest is constructed from boards nailed to each other, with wooden caps covering the nail heads. At the front of the lid is a strip of wood, which has been subsequently cut back.
Samples from the interior of the front left and right panels were taken and analysed by Jo Darrah of the V&A Conservation dept. (16/5/1986), and identified as Cupressu sempervirens L.
FTIR analysis of the green inlay decoration showed that wax (probably beeswax) contained copper palmitate. Brenda Keneghan, V&A Science Section 21/2/2006. Jo Darrah (1986) identified the red infill as wax with vermillion and a little chalk.
Place of Origin
ca. 1430 (made)
Materials and Techniques
Cypress wood with pokerwork decoration and composition infill
Height: 71.9 cm, Width: 171.8 cm, Depth: 55 cm
Object history note
This chest was bought in 1864 for £92 from William Blundell Spence (1815 - 1900), an Anglo-Florentine dealer based in Fiesole, although its previous provenances remain unknown.
Object sampling carried out by Jo Darrah, V&A Science; drawer/slide reference 1/114.
Historical significance: The decoration of this chest is associated with North Eastern Italy, particularly Friulli and the northern parts of the Veneto. The style is similar to manuscript illustration of about 1400. The costumes date from about 1400 and predate the fashion for all things Burgundian, that began to prevail in Italy by about 1450. Most surviving chests with this distinctive engraved and shallow-carved decoration in public collections are stylistically associated with Giovanni Pisanello and date from the 1460s. This is a rare example that predates this type of chest.
Historical context note
This chest is decorated like those that came from Friulli, a region north east of Venice and bordering on the Tyrol. Various floral patterns and medieval romantic themes would have been incised or carved shallowly on the wood with various knives, gouges and chisels, and were sometimes shaded with hot needles and ink. The hollowed out space was often filled with green (verdigris) or red (cinnabar) beeswax, so these objects would originally have looked highly colourful. Large chests like this were placed in bed chambers, most often against a bed used for storing clothes and valuables. Storage chests were often referred to in inventories as laborati (worked on), and the term may possibly refer to this sort of decoration. An item like this would most certainly have been used for storage, although not necessarily as a marriage chest, a piece of furniture with much more symbolic significance, as far as we know, in Tuscany, particularly Florence, than in the far north east of Italy. On this chest and a number of others in public collections, such as one in the Palazzo Davanzati in Florence (ref. Gian Franco Fiaccordi, p. 225 - 226), the shields are left blank, although they may have once been painted on and subsequently removed, once the colours had irreparably faded and the original owners been forgotten.
Cypress wood chest with engraved decoration featuring 'The Fountain of Love', Italy, about 1430
Bibliographic References (Citation, Note/Abstract, NAL no)
James Yorke: 'Engraved Decoration on Early Fifteenth-century Italian Furniture', Apollo, June 1989, pp. 389 - 392, 445
Gian Franco Fiaccordi and Maurizio Grattoni d' Arcano (ed.): In domo habitationis - L' arredo in Friuli nel tardo Medioevo. (Venice, 1996), pp. 90 - 109; 222 - 247.
Paul Schubring, Cassoni; truhen und truhenbilder der italienischen frührenaissance. ein beitrag zur profanmalerei im quattrocento (Leipzig: K.W. Hiersemann, 1915); cat. no. 745.746 Plate CLIX
London, South Kensington Museum: Ancient and Modern Furniture & Woodwork in the South Kensington Museum, described with an introduction by John Hungerford Pollen (London, 1874) , p.123-124
“COFFER. Cypress wood; the front and sides carved with ﬁat ornament of hunting and other subjects. Below are niched allegoric ﬁgures, the ground ﬁlled in with green mastic. Italian. About 1350. H. 2 ft. 4% in., L. 5 ft. 4 1/2in., W. I ft. 7 in. Bought, 92L.
Of the early Italian art, in incised and inlaid woodwork, we shall see no specimen so important or so decorative as this. It is of cypress wood, that material like sweet cedar being considered a speciﬁc from its smell against moth and other insects. The form of the chest is simple, but more graceful and with more design than is usual in such pieces. It has no architectural character. The front is mounted on two shaped legs or haunches, being merely boards cut out each into the form of half an ogee arch head. On the angle they meet the ends. These are two single pieces shaped at the bottom into ogee arch heads. The front of the chest is separated from the cusped supports by an open space of three inches, extending nearly the entire width. This opening is occupied by balusters of turned wood an inch in diameter, and separated by about three-quarters of an inch from each other. If we examine these we ﬁnd them only halves, that is, ﬂat behind, but ending in pegs above and below, by which they ﬁt into the bottom of the front board, and a bar of wood, on which they are supported. The little balusters are merely turned in rings and ﬂight depressions and are of even diameter from top to base. The lid consists of a board. The whole of the front and the centres of the sides are elaborately decorated with inlay of green and vermilion. As we see it now, most of this, a composition of wax and mastic of some kind has disappeared, perhaps with the cleanings that preceded its sale to the Department. We see, therefore, now rather the incised lines than the inlay that they were made for. But as it is the delicacy of the design, and the careful way in which it has been executed on a soft wood with grain liable to chip, is perhaps still better to be appreciated. There is in the centre of the front an elaborate heraldic achievement with foliated ornament round it. On either side of this compartment are two panels or divisions, and below are a series of niches with arches and columns between, each containing a ﬁgure of one of the virtues. The ﬁrst or right hand panel contains a group of ﬁgures representing a betrothal. The knight stands on one ﬁde of a fountain, the Fountain of Youth, and the lady on the other. They eat the fruit of the tree of love that grows beside it. Behind the lady stands a maiden, and behind the cavalier a squire, holding his sword. Again, the lovers are seen seated, and musicians playing before them. Trumpeters are proclaiming their marriage from a tower. In the second or left hand panel we perceive ladies looking on at the chase, and alarmed by wild beasts. Of these they are warned by Love, and they seek the protection of a knight, who is crowned, and is in the act of letting ﬂy an arrow. The niches below contain virtues, chieﬂy of the knightly order, courtesy, equity, chivalry, purity, truth, &c. These are represented by winged ﬁgures with their various attributes. Round the whole of this decorated front runs a border of rolled foliage. This also runs along the bar that supports the turned rails or balusters. The two arch spandril pieces below contain the combat of St. George between them. But much of this has worn or been cut away. The ornaments of the ends consist of shields with arms, and bold foliated scrolls issuing above, below and on each side in a following order. Such work on chests is only met with occasionally.“
Wilhelm Bode, Die Italienischen Hausmobel der Renaissance (Leipzig: Hermann Seemann Nachfolger, 1902), p.54, fig. 72
Cypress; Chalk; Verdigris; Vermillion; Iron
Sawing; Joining; Engraving; Carving
Courtiers; Queens; Hunters; Monsters; Kings; Fountains; Lions
Containers; Furniture; Renaissance (Italian); Medieval and renaissance
Furniture and Woodwork Collection