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  • Place of origin:

    Venice (probably, made)

  • Date:

    1575-1600 (made)

  • Artist/Maker:


  • Materials and Techniques:

    Softwood with beechwood(?) veneers inset with mother of pearl plaques, painted and with gilt embellishments; within, a glass mirror and lined with later red velvet; bronze handles

  • Museum number:


  • Gallery location:

    Medieval & Renaissance, Room 62, The Foyle Foundation Gallery, case 9

Luxurious fitted caskets like this one were often used as vanity cases. The interior would be divided into compartments for hair dye and bleach, toilet accessories such as a scriminal (an instrument for parting the hair), combs, brushes, handkerchiefs, or sponzarol (sponge saucers used for cosmetics). Such caskets are often depicted in scenes of the goddess Venus at her toilette.

The distinctive style of decoration uses moresques or tight scrolls, executed in gold, in combination with mother-of-pearl plaques. This may have been what was referred to by Italians variously as frissi grottesche- grotesque friezes, alla zemina- in the Persian manner, or petteniera turchesca- in the Turkish manner. It seems to have been a speciality of Venice, developed during the sixteenth-century, and probably imitated the Persian lacquer imported through the port city. It was used for luxury objects but also for the covers of government documents and ceremonial shields, suggesting that it was not regarded as a frivolous type of decoration.

Physical description

Casket (cofanetto) of rectangular form with panels of painted mother-of-pearl inset within painted moresque decoration (gold on black) on all exterior surfaces (except the base). The casket contains a single large compartment above a shallow drawer (opened from right end). It has with a cast metal handle on the lid, and is fitted with a modern lock.

The li,d with a raised mid-section, with mother-of-pearl panels set all over the horizontal and angled surfaces, the central panel under the handle with a coat of arms (unidentified).The exterior of the body of the casket consists of alternating rectangular and octagonal (with spandrels) mother-of-pearl panels (with red, blue, gold, green painted moresques) set within flat framework painted with gold scrolling leaves and flowers on a black ground, with dividing half-round pilasters (gold on blue and black). Below this a pedestal with rectangular (with rounded ends) mother-of-pearl panels, with dividing consoles running all round (including the drawer front, at right hand end, fitted with a metal pull). The casket set on a moulded base resting on four right-angled shaped feet at the corners.

Inside are remnants of a (non-original) red velvet lining (over what may have been pink silk originally), and traces of the grooves for original compartment dividers, and on the lid a modern glass mirror, with a painted batten surround (apparently modern). The drawer is lined with modern red velvet. Some restorations are visible, for example nailed battens above the drawer cavity.

Place of Origin

Venice (probably, made)


1575-1600 (made)



Materials and Techniques

Softwood with beechwood(?) veneers inset with mother of pearl plaques, painted and with gilt embellishments; within, a glass mirror and lined with later red velvet; bronze handles


Height: 23.5 cm, Width: 43.5 cm, Depth: 30.5 cm

Object history note

Bought for £10 18s. 9d. (as Italian 17th century; no other information on register).

The coat of arms on 7901-1861 (casket) has a mill wheel at the bottom, which is the stemma of the Molin family of Venice (see Crollalanza, p. 149 and Morando di Custoza, tav. ccxxxvi). Search did not find a device of a mill wheel and two stars.

Sources consulted:

Il codice araldico degli stemmi personali : compilato su ordine dell'imperatrice Maria Teresa d'Austria e successori / a cura di Andrea Borella D'Alberti. Studio araldico genealogico diplomatico italiano, 1998.

Stemmario italiano delle famiglie nobili e notabili. A cura di Adalberto Ricotti Bertagnoni. Presentazione di Giacomo C. Bascapè
Ricotti Bertagnoni, Adalberto. Bassano del Grappa, La remondiniana, 1970-

Blasone veneto, descritto ne'xxxv tomi della Biblioteca Universale.
Coronelli, Vincenzo, 1650-1718.

Le Arme, overo, Insegne di tutti li nobili della città di Venetia.
Bologna : SEAB, 1978.

Historical context note

Historical significance
Thornton suggests that this would have been called a 'cassetta'. Patricia Fortini Brown prefers the terms cofanetto, cassettina or possibly scrigno. (Brown, P.F., Private Lives in Renaissance Venice: Art, Architecture and the family, New Haven and London, 2004). Luxurious fitted caskets of this type were fitted with a mirror inside the cover, indicating that they were used as vanity cases (though note that the interior of 7901-1861 has been restored.) The insides of these caskets were divided into several small compartments covered with silk, and 7901-1861 bears evidence of this. Decoration of an Islamic flavour was obviously fashionable. Huth suggests that this casket is representative of the type Gustav Ludwig calls the cassa da conzar (abbrev. conza da cao), in other words a box containing utensils to dress the hair, cao being the Venetian form of capo. Among other items a lady might keep in this box would be hair dye and bleach. Gustav Ludwig, p.303-4 is confident that this is Venetian, and suggests that while its usage is uncertain, it probably would not have been used for jewels (heavier scrigni were used for jewels); the mirror inside the lid suggests 'conze de cao' recorded inventories between 1501-90, or possibly the 'casselle di banca da letto' smaller boxes kept near the bed, which in inventories are recorded containing toilet accessories such as a scriminal (folding instrument in bone, glass or silver used for making a parting in the hair), combs, brushes (sedola), handkerchiefs, sponzarol (sponge saucers used for cosmetics).

Toilette Caskets
Gilles Corrozet's poem 'Les Blasons Domestiques' of 1539 (Furniture History, 1989, vol. XXV) suggests various ways in which luxury caskets were used, and his blazons for the toilet case of the chamber and the cabinet give a sense of their contents:
(from the toilet case of the chamber) combs with large & small teeth which teeth, you must believe, are of ebony or white ivory or of boxwood, to dress beautiful hair, & also to shape long fair beards... scissors, the bodkin the well fashioned brush, the toothpick, the ear-cleaner, the marvellously small saw the file, the neat tweezers the scraper, & the little shears with many other articles enclosed and shut within you, case so pretty and so handsome, case bound with fine silver, case adorned with silk & gold... (from the cabinet) jewels, rings, precious stones, girdles with gold ornaments and with trimmings with gold chains, with beautiful buttons, with cuffs, with bracelets, with gorgets and with collars, sewn with pearls, with laundered and perfumed gloves,w ith musk more precious than gold ducats with fine ambergris and musk scented soap, with powder from Cyprus and pomade to restore faded colour, with Damascus, pink and rose water store in phials of glass, signet rings, paternosters, seals, tassels, knives, forks, scissors, the mirror...
See also: 'Health, Beauty and Hygiene' by Sandra Cavallo, in At Home in Renaissance Italy, eds.Marta Ajmar-Wollheim and Flora Dennis (London, 2006), pp.174-187

Fine lacquerwork was made in Persia during the 16th century. It was commonly decorated with moresques executed in gold: this was done on relatively small items, such as folding book-rests, book-covers, containers for writing materials, etc. Such objects excited the admiration of Europeans whenever they saw them, and early imitations of this work embodying moresque decoration were made in Venice. The technique was deemed suitable for embellishing the covers of highly important government documents, so apparently carried no light-hearted or frivolous connotation in the way that imitations of Chinese artefacts were often to do later. Venetian lacquer was also used for making small objects, such as jewel caskets covered with moresques, although entirely occidental figure-subjects occasionally occupy panels within the imitation Islamic ornament. Sometimes the ground of the panels in such work was made of mother-of-pearl which reflects light back through the painted deocration applied on to it. A similar effect was contrived with a gold ground over which painted decoration was applied; the colours were often applied so as to form ‘the ground’, leaving the pattern itself unpainted (reserved as it is called).. exemplified on the V&A ‘Queen Elizabeth virginals’ (about 1570) or a harp ordered for the private orchestra of Duke Alfonso d’Este (1581, Rome). Thornton pp.34-5

Huth says that from the 13th century Venice had been an entry point to Europe for goods (earthenware, metalwork, textiles, jewelry and lacquerware) from the Levant and Orient. A Venetian document of 1283 consists of rules for the depentores (those working with a brush, involved in the production of varnished caskets, tables and woodwork). The decoration of wares as opposed to simply protecting them with varnishes seems to have begun during the mid 16th century. A Syrian craft which may have inspired Venetian artisans working in lacquer was the practice of damascening metal, known in Milan and Venice as early as 1300. The Italian craftsmen (no oriental craftsmen resided in Venice) who practised this art were called azziministi. Another Oriental craft introduced to Venice from the late 15th century was the practise of fashioning elaborate bindings for books. Venetian copies or adaptations of lacquered bindings ‘in the Persian style’ date from the middle of the 16th century (eg Binding, Museo Correr 1570-77). European engravings based on Moresque designs, such as those by ‘the Master F’, were circulating in Italian workshops as early as 1520. Venetian shields of wood covered with parchment, painted with knotwork and scrolls, and with areas in white, red and green that shone through the varnish, giving the effect of lacquer survive in armeria of the Doge’s palace (Venice ) and from the household of the Bishop of Salzburg. Huth discusses other types of object (probably Venetian) with similar decoration, which may have been what was referred to by Italians variously as ‘frissi grottesche’, ‘alla zemina’ in the Persian manner, ‘petteniera turchesca’ in the Turkish manner: a quiver case, a folding table, small cases (casse da pettenti), caskets (scrigni or possibly what was known as ‘casse da conzar il cao’, boxes for dressing the hair), mirror frames and frames of architectural form with or without inset marble plaques, cuoridoro shields (described by Contadini in At Home in Renaissance Italy eds. Ajmar-Wollheim, and Dennis, pp.319-321), cabinets with leather coverings and musical instruments such as harpsichords and harps.

Monika Kopplin, European Lacquer (Munich, 2010), pp.23-34
Kopplin notes that Venice traded in shellac, mainly from north-east India, Indochina and Sumatra, and maintains that Islamic lacquered objects (made from as early as the 10th/11th centuries) were undoubtedly present in Venice by the 16th century. Recent studies of the techniques used found that Venetian 'lacquer' was generally made up of linseed oil and colophony derived from pine resin, a composition also mentioned in contemporary writings such as Leonardo Fioravanti (1517-1588) in his 'Compendio di secreti rationali' (Venice 1562). Turpentine of larch, also known as 'Venice turpentine' was also used, though not sandarac, the most important resin in Islamic lacquerwork but problematic on account of its limited availability and complex preparation. Arabesques were applied in powdered gold on the black-painted wood, and gold leaf employed for gilding larger decorative surfaces which were then given a luminous glow through a lustre finish in a variety of colours. Tempera was probably used as well as oils, and a final coat of glossy varnish applied. These studies suggest that the stylistic imitation of Islamic models was coupled with the use of largely identical techniques (p.24, citing Adriana Rizzo, 'Le "laque" vénitien: Une approche scientifique', in Venise et l'Orient 828-1797, exh. cat., Institut du monde arabe, Paris (2006), pp. 244-51)

Comparable objects
-Cofanetto or scrigno for toilet articles, Venetian 1570-90, 18.26x 41.6 x 28.9cm New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 57.25.ab
-Cofanetto for toilet articles, Venice 1550-1600, 39.7 x 20cm, New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Pierpoint Morgan Bequest, 1917 (17.190.848)
-Casket, in WINDISCH-GRAETZ, Franz: Möbel Europa. 2. Renaissance-Manierismus (Munich, 1982), fig.91 p.242
Casket, Kunstegewerbemuseum, Berlin (inv. 1887.1325)
-Casket in a private collection, illustrated in Tra/E: Teche, pissidi, cofani e forzieri dall’Alto Medioevo al Barocco, exhibition catalogue, curated by Pietro Lorenzelli and Alberto Veca (Galleria Lorenzelli, Bergamo Oct-Dec 1984 and Antiquaria, London March-April 1985), fig.178 (Private collection)

Descriptive line

Rectangular casket; Venice; 1575-1600

Bibliographic References (Citation, Note/Abstract, NAL no)

Thornton, Peter. 'Capolavori Lignei in Formato Ridotto', Arte Illustrata (Jan 1972), anno V, pp.9-12, 50-7,108-110

Translated from the Italian
"On the other hand the mother-of-pearl inlay panels are painted with somewhat different polychrome patterns. A casket and a little box decorated in the same manner are shown in figs. 2 and 4. It is almost certain that these objects and many others linked to them that survive were made in imitation of damascened steel objects, in Milan, a city famous towards the end of the first half of the sixteenth century for the production of such items. In fact the Victoria and Albert museum owns a beautiful damascened steel mirror with gold and silver inlays (fig. 5) dateable to around 1550. As it has already been published by A. Gonzales-Palacios I will limit myself to highlighting the similarities between the structure of this mirror and that on the lacquered object in fig.1. The black and golden elements correspond to those in steel on the damascened version; the polychrome mother-of-pearl decoration represents the gold encrusted silver. The form of the casket is often found on damascened steel objects sometimes mounted with rock crystal panels. I don’t recall seeing a metallic prototype of our little box but it does not require a great effort of imagination to represent one with that decoration. For this reason all objects lacquered in this fashion should be considered as imitations, made with less expensive materials, of the well-known steel objects made in Milan. However the imitations are not less interesting than the originals."
Huth, Hans, Lacquer of the West (Chicago and London 1971), p.5, pl.9
Peter Thornton, Cassoni, Forzieri, Goffani and Cassette: Terminology and its problems, in Apollo vol. CXX (1984), no.272 pp.246-251, fig 15.
Gustav Ludwig, 'Restello, Spiegel und Toilettenutensilien in Venedig zur Zeit der Renaissance', Italienische Forschungen, Berlin 1906, Volume I; fig.124
Ajmar-Wollheim, Marta and Flora Dennis, At Home in Renaissance Italy, London: V&A Publishing, 2006.
Pollen, J. H. Ancient and Modern Furniture & Woodwork in the South Kensington Museum (London, 1874), pp. 34-5

Box. Black and gold lacquer, with sunk panels of mother-of-pearl, painted with scroll work; on the cover a shield of arms. Italian. 17th century. H. 9 ins, L. 17 in., W. 12 in. Bought, 10 l. 18s. 9d.
A specimen of lacquer, and pearl, bone, &c., as it was used in Italy in the 17th century. The idea has probably been inspired by some of the Chinese ware that began in the course of the 16th century to find its way into Italy. The panels on the sides are diamond-shaped. These are divided from each other by half columns, with architectural vases, caps, &c. The casket is in two horizontal divisions, formed by tiny cornice mouldings, well made out. The columns of the upper division are continued by brackets in this lower portion. The panels are formed by laying thicknesses of lacquer-work over the plaque or slice of shell concealing the joints. The whole is wokred over with arabesque scroll work, gilt and lacquered. The bottom contains a drawer. The lid, which rises into a raised central panel with canted sides, when opened has a glass, with gilt frame inside. Outside the top is a moulded bronze handle, gilt. The little architectonic mouldings, cornices, &c. are all kept sharp and clear, and between the inlaid shell, the delicate arabesque work, and the general composition, it forms an effective piece. It would be instructive to compare it with our modern Birmingham lac work in which the shell is glued on the wood, and the lac laid on, rubbed down, and laid on afresh in successive coats till this material has become even with that of the slices of shell. Then the whole is rubbed to a surface, gilt and decorated, and polished over by careful hand labour. Of this Italian work another specimen may be studied in No. 217. '66.

Labels and date

Casket and Mirror
During the 16th century furnishings associated with beauty became more complex, as shown by the ornate form and decoration of this casket and mirror. Caskets, used to keep jewellery, cosmetics and other precious items, are often depicted in scenes of Venus at her toilette. Mirrors grew in size and developed free-standing bases. The mirror of this one has been replaced, but would originally have a small sheet of glass backed with an amalgam of tin and mercury. [77 words]

Softwood, painted and gilded, with veneers inset with mother-of-pearl plaques; bronze handles; inside a glass mirror; lined with later red velvet
With an unidentified coat of arms
V&A: 7901-1861
At Home in Renaissance Italy, eds.Marta Ajmar-Wollheim and Flora Dennis (London, 2006), cat.186, pl.13.5 [5 Oct 2006 - 7 Jan 2007]




Containers; Woodwork; Medieval and renaissance


Furniture and Woodwork Collection

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