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  • Place of origin:

    Venice (city) (made)

  • Date:

    ca. 1550 (made)

  • Artist/Maker:


  • Materials and Techniques:

    Wood veneered with wood, horn and bone (stained and unstained)

  • Museum number:


  • Gallery location:

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

This box was made in Venice in about 1550. The mosaic inlay on the lid resembles Islamic patterns, which reflect close trading contacts between Venice and the Eastern Mediterranean. However, the stars and hexagons on the front and sides are strikingly similar to those on the body of an undated lute (Museum no. 193-1882) made by Marx Unverdorber, a German craftsman living Venice, who flourished around this time. This is an interesting example of creating a three dimensional effect by juxtaposing lighter and darker pieces of wood – an art at which the Italians excelled.

Physical description

Rectangular casket of poplar(?) with a rounded and splayed lid and splayed plinth, covered on all sides except the bottom with marquetry of one type of wood, horn (the black areas), unstained and green-stained bone in geometric patterns.

The round arched lid is covered with a diaper of squares surrounded by a 'woven' border of intersecting lines, and a flat edge border of hexagons and moulded edge of uncoloured bone. Below the hinged lid is a splayed opening, on the outside of which is a small vertical zig-zag band in bone and mahogany(?), above a large horizontal zig-zag in bone and ebony(?). The front, back and sides of the coffer are all decorated with a panle of illusionistic six-pointed stars (uncoloured bone, green-stained bone and ebony(?), framed by a border of hexagons. Running up the arris of each corner is a thick band of alternating uncoloured bone and ebony(?). The splayed base has a band of '3-d' Greek key ornament, between narrow bands of bone, wood, angled 'dentils' and green-stained bone, and a plinth moulding with sections of uncoloured bone separated by narrow strips of ebony(?). The bottom is stained black. The interior is partly lined with fragments of a dark red silk, overlaid by fragments of orange linen (both fabrics could be 16th century, or later). A woven green and white ribbon tied to metal rings has been used as a retainer for the lid.

The casket is veneered on a carcase of nailed and pegged poplar(?), using both lap and mitred joints. The arched section of the lid appears to have been cut from the solid. The lid is held on two iron ring hinges and an added ribbon stop .The geometrical veneer is assembled from larger individual tesserae, and, for the smaller motifs 'slices' or tiles of rod or bundle marquetry.

Place of Origin

Venice (city) (made)


ca. 1550 (made)



Materials and Techniques

Wood veneered with wood, horn and bone (stained and unstained)


Height: 22.2 cm, Width: 42.7 cm, Depth: 27 cm

Object history note

Bought from R. Duseigneur, 18 Rue Seguier, Paris in 1904 for £25 - 15 - 3.

Historical context note

This type of geometric tarsia was found in Islamic Spain, where it was produced as early as the 10th century; the workshops of Cordoba and later Granada seem to have specialised in the technique. (See J.Bloom et al.: exh. cat. The Minbar from the Kutubiyya Mosque (New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1998), pp.20-22; Mariam Rosser-Owen, Islamic Arts from Spain (London 2010), p.65) It was used for large objects such as pulpits and doors, and small objects such as combs, caskets, and possibly gamesboards though none have survived.

The technique was used from the early 14th century in Italy (often described as 'certosina' work), on objects associated with the Venetian Embriachi workshop, which typically combined geometrical marquetry with low relief figurative panels carved in bone, on altarpieces and domestic objects such as caskets and gamesboards. The term tarsia derives from the Arabic 'tarsi', meaning 'incrustation'.

To make the tiles, thin rods of different coloured woods and bone, pre-cut into shapes such as squares and triangles, were glued together lengthwise and then sawn across the 'grain' into tiles. This technique was less labour intensive than another technique of assembling tiny pieces into a mosaic. (See See J. Bloom et al.: exh. cat. The Minbar from the Kutubiyya Mosque (New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1998), pp.7-14 and 93; A. Wilmering, The Gubbio Studiolo and its conservation, II: Italian renaissance intarsia and the conservation of the Gubbio Studiolo (New York, 1999), p.64; Rosser Owen p.64

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."

Comparable caskets
V&A 2568-1856
See NEW YORK, l’Antiquaire & The Connoisseur, Inc.: Tempting Pandora: A Selection of European Boxes, 1200 – 1800, p.42 (attributed Po Valley, 1440-80);
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), p258ff (Embriachi school, early 15th century)
Luciana Martini, “Bottega degli Embriachi” cofanetti e cassettine tra Gotico e Rinascimento, catalogue to an exhibition at Brixiantiquaria, Brescia 17-25 November 2001, esp. nos.11, 14, with suggested dating to the 15th century, possibly 1400-1450.
Box with flat lid attrib. North Italy c1400-30 (inv. o.1966.GP.33 (18 x 43.5 x 30.7cm), in John Lowden, Medieval and Later Ivories in The Courtauld Galleries (2013), no.19

Descriptive line

Wood casket inlaid with small pieces of partly stained wood and bone, Venice, ca. 1550

Labels and date

About 1550

Italy (Venice)
Carcase: wood
Veneer: horn, bone (some stained), ebony and two other woods
Hinges: iron
Linings: silk (possibly original) and linen (added)

Museum no. 936-1904

Quantities of geometric marquetry can be made economically using the ‘sliced bundle’ technique, known in Italy as tarsia a toppo and in India as sadeli. Here, the small-scale geometric borders were made this way, using slices assembled into bands on a paper backing. At the corners, breaks in the pattern show where the bands were sawn to length. [01/12/2012]


Wood; Bone; Horn


Stained; Joining; Marquetry


Containers; Woodwork; Medieval and renaissance


Furniture and Woodwork Collection

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