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Cassone (chest)

  • Place of origin:

    Italy (made)

  • Date:

    1570 (made)

  • Artist/Maker:

    Unknown

  • Materials and Techniques:

    Walnut, carved and gilded, with metal fittings

  • Museum number:

    4417-1857

  • Gallery location:

    In Storage

This cassone (chest) and its pair (4416-1857, also in the V&A), were probably made to celebrate a marriage linking two wealthy families, whose arms are prominently displayed in the centre by naked putti. It is possible that it marked the marriage of Paolo Lancelloti and Giulia Delfini in Rome, in 1570.

Across the front of each cassone are four scenes carved in relief, relating to various episodes from Greek myth. On this cassone, from the left Apollo has shot dead the dragon or serpent, known as the Python which guarded the oracular shrine at Delphi (perhaps a play on the family name, Delfini), which Apollo then took his own oracle. The second scene probably shows the nymph Clymene, with Phaethon her son by Helios (the sun), praying to the sun god. The third shows Phaeton as a youth asking Helios (like a living statue, on a plinth), for the use of his father's celestial chariot. The fourth scene shows a reclining river god with two attendants and probably represents Eridanus, into whose waters Phaethon crashed, when he could no longer control the fiery horses (a scene shown on the companion cassone).

The classical myth, with its themes of love, and the lessons of imprudence and filial duty/parental responsibility, would have been seen as resonant and edifying for a married couple. On the female term figures that separate the scenes, lion masks are strategically placed below their waist, and a fierce mask forms the escutcheon around the keyhole. Both details suggest that a symbolic guard is being placed over the family valuables and reputations.

Physical description

Chest (cassone) with hinged lid and set on lion feet; the front and sides with high-relief carvings against gilded backgrounds, which depict scenes from the stories of Apollo and Phaeton, divided by caryatid term figures, centred on a coat of arms supported by two putti. The relief carving is partly gilded.

Design
Left side: youthful term figure bust with breastplate, set on a plinth with scrolling shoulder
Panel with a trophy of a winged helmet and bundle of arrows, 'suspended' on a cord from a ring
Naked female winged caryatid at the corner
Panel with Apollo carrying a bow (right arm missing) and Python
Naked female caryatid
Panel with Clymae and Phaeton pointing to a star
Shield supported by two putti, above a mask
Panel with Phaeton and Apollo (as a statue)
Naked female caryatid
Panel with Eridanus (Po) river god and two attendants
Naked female winged caryatid at the corner
Panel with a scrollwork cartouche (or shield) with a cingquefoil boss, with twin ram head supporters, 'suspended' on a cord from a ring

All the term figures wear bead necklaces (painted) and hair ornament. The rear term figures are youthful busts wearing a breastplate, the head inclined towards the front of the cassone. The frieze has acanthus flanking palmette, above running beads (mostly missing). Under the chest front is a carved, scrolling apron with paired rosettes flanking a bud.

Construction
The front of the cassone consists of a single deep (about 11cm) board (neatly excavated inside to form a shoulder), and a freize panel butting onto the single deep board. Integral to the deep board are the four relief panels, and the rearmost parts of the shield and supporters, and term figures, (the near shoulder of the end terms). The foremost parts of the term figures are built up with a top layer. The freize panel is carved in the solid with the heads of the term figures and a grotesque, foliate mask escutcheon
The freize panel has been rebacked with a replacement section.
Each end is formed by a single panel, below a separate freize. Integral to the main panel is the carved trophy (in low relief), the body of the rear term figure, and part of the body of the front term angel figure. Integral to the freize is the head of the rear term figure, the head of the front term figure. A bead moulding has been nailed (or glued) to the freize.

The back consists of a narrow board above a deep board (probably glued rather than doweled together), both roughly finished on the outside.

The lid consists of a rectangular frame of half-lapped construction, held on three ring hinges (apparently original). The frame is carved on the front and ends with a fluted fore-edge, and overlapping scale pattern. It is plain along the back. On the frame stands a canted, rectangular frame formed by thick, cyma mouldings (meeting in a mitred joint), carved with superimposed acanthus leaf, on three sides and at the top edge a double cyma leaf moulding. This angled frame contains a flat panel, in the centre of which is an applied roundel with a grotesque foliate mask.

The bottom consists of two, (possibly doweled) boards, with moulded ends, nailed up into the sides, back and ends. The cassone stands on four lion feet.

Place of Origin

Italy (made)

Date

1570 (made)

Artist/maker

Unknown

Materials and Techniques

Walnut, carved and gilded, with metal fittings

Dimensions

Height: 65 cm, Width: 175 cm, Depth: 60 cm

Object history note

Bought for £110. Acquired from an unknown source, presumably with 4416-1857, and probably also 4414 and 4415-1857.

A note on the dept. green catalogue says that the chest came from Palazzo Lancellotti in Rome, but this may be supposition, as the acquisition papers do not give this information.

Museum papers ref. T.14715/1907 is recorded as having contained correspondence from Prince Lancellotti giving the marriage date 1570 for the marriage of Giulia Delfini and Paolo Lancellotti, but this file (nor abstracts of correspondence) do not survive.

Historical context note

Various other cassoni of comparable form and carving, with a central coat of arms and winged corner term figures, have been published, mostly described as Roman or Venetian mid-16th century, though fewer use term figures to separate the carved scenes, as here: Berlin K.2465 (lost)

See also:
Walnut cassone with scenes of Phaeton, (dims. 65 x 175 x 57cm), Minneapolis Institute of Art, gift of the F.W. Clifford family 59.8.
Pair of walnut cassoni with arms of Rustici and Massimo , ill. in Goffredo Lizzani, Il Mobile Romano (1970), figs. 185-6, 189-90; described in
GONZALEZ-PALACIOS, Alvar (editor), Fasto Romano - dipinti, sculture, arredi dai Palzzi di Roma. (Rome, Palazzo Sacchetti, 1991), no. 64, as by Tuscan craftsmen.

Descriptive line

Walnut, carved and gilded with scenes of Phaeton and Apollo, Rome c1570

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

The South Kensington Museum. Examples of the works of art in the Museum, and of the decorations of the building, with brief descriptions. Issued in monthly parts, I-XI (1880), XII-XXI (1881), XXII (1882) -- [Vol. 2. Parts XIII-XXII; NAL: VA.1882.0001]]

COFFER. CHESTNUT WOOD. No. 4417-1857. II. 65
NORTH Italian, of the middle of the sixteenth century. Chests or coffers of this character were commonly made about that period, and very often in pairs, to furnish the galleries of palaces. The chest shown in the illustration is not of the largest size, but is extremely good in design and workmanship.

The front is carved in high relief and the panel gilded. It is divided by terminal female figures into four compartments, representing mythological subjects. In the centre is a shield of arms supported by two cupids. On the cover is a raised panel with a lion’s head in the centre.

The first panel represents Apollo slaying the python, a dragon who guarded the oracle of Delphi. In the second Phaeton is presented by his mother to Helios or the sun. In the third he is praying to Apollo for the use of his chariot for a single day. In the fourth we have the catastrophe : the chariot is overset, the horses fall headlong, and Phaeton is cast into the river Eridanus and drowned. The Eridanus, a river with many affluent streams and drainage from an immense extent of land, and regarded in ancient days as the king of Italian rivers, is typified by a recumbent river god, with two assistants to swell the volume of his waters.

The chest is five feet seven inches long, two feet three inches high, and one foot ten inches wide.

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.145

“COFFER. Walnut wood, carved in high relief, and parcel gilt; the front divided by terminal female figures into four compartments, in which are groups in low relief representing Apollo slaying the Python, and other mythological subjects; in the centre is a shield of arms supported by two cupids; on the cover is a railed panel with a lion’s head in the centre. Italian. About I560. H. 2 ft. 3 in., L. 5 ft. 7 in., W. I ft. IO in. Bought, 110L. Similar to the last. In the panels we have, first, Apollo slaying Python, a dragon who guarded the oracle of Delphi; after which he became himself the guardian of the shrine. In the next we are introduced to the story of Phaeton, of whom the doleful end is recorded in the carvings of No. 4416 ’57. Phaeton was the son of Apollo and Clymene, an oceanid or sea nymph. Phaeton’s royal descent was not acknowledged and he prayed his father to own him. We have him, accordingly, presented by his mother to Helios or the Sun, the name and office of Apollo in his temple. In the third panel he is praying Apollo to grant him the use of his chariot for a single day. Then we see the chariot overset, the horses falling headlong and Phaeton cast into the river Eridanus (the Po) and drowned. The upset as we have seen is detailed in the last panel and the Po, the Eridanus, with its vast drainage and many affluent streams, considered in ancient days as the king of the rivers of Italy (and of the world) is here represented by a recumbent river god with two assistants to swell the volume of his waters.”

William M. Odom, A History of Italian Furniture (New York, 1918), p. 271, fig. 256
Paul Schubring, Cassoni; truhen und truhenbilder der italienischen frührenaissance. ein beitrag zur profanmalerei im quattrocento (Leipzig: K.W. Hiersemann, 1915); cat. no. 865, plate CLXXXI

Labels and date

Cassone (Chest)
Chestnut, partly gilt
Italian (probably Roman); 1570
The four panels are as follows (left to right): Apollo slaying Python; Apollo and Clymene before Apollo; Phaeton begs Apollo for his chariot; the river Eridamus awaiting the fall of Phaeton. The arms in the centre are those of the Lancellotti family and this cassone, together with its pair shown nearby, was probably made for the marriage of Paolo Lancellotti and Guilia Delfini in 1570.
[]
MARRIAGE CHEST (Cassone).
ITALIAN (ROMAN);
third quarter of the 16th century.
Walnut, carved and partly gilt.
4417-1857.

On the front: (Left) Apollo slaying the serpent Python: Phaeton and his mother Clymene. (Centre) the arms of the Lancellotti family; (Right) Phaethon begging Apollo for his chariot; the River Eridanus awaiting the fall of Phaethon.
The chest, which comes from the Palazzo Lancellotti in Rome, was made in 1570 for the marriage of Paolo Lancellotti and Giulia Delfini. [Pre-2006]

Production Note

probably Rome

Materials

Walnut

Techniques

Carving; Gilding

Categories

Furniture; Household objects; Containers; Renaissance (Italian); Medieval and renaissance

Collection

Furniture and Woodwork Collection

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