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  • Place of origin:

    Venice (probably, made)

  • Date:

    about 1580 (made)

  • Artist/Maker:


  • Materials and Techniques:

    Beechwood (?) with panels of painted bone and bronze handles

  • Museum number:


  • Gallery location:

    Medieval & Renaissance, Room 62, The Foyle Foundation Gallery, case 6

This box may have been used for combs, brushes and other small personal accessories. Contemporary illustrations show such boxes hung on the wall in a bed chamber beside a dressing mirror with similar decoration. This type of decoration appears to have been a Venetian speciality, found from about 1570 on musical instruments, book-bindings, caskets and frames. The lustrous colours painted on bone (or sometimes mother-of-pearl) emulated the decorated surfaces of imported products which were probably described at the time as alla zemina (in the Persian manner), or petteniera turchesca (in the Turkish manner).

Physical description

Rectangular lidded box of apparently glued construction, overlaid with bone panels, painted with arabesques (red, blue and green and gilt), and with overlaying painted pilasters and brackets (black and gilt).
The lift-off lid (with applied edge mouldings) is subdivided by painted brackets, and the upper face is divided by thin (c1mm) walnut (?) fillets overlapping the edges of the bone panels, into nine compartments (four small corner, four larger rectangular and one larger central square).
The box (also with applied edge mouldings at the base and upper edge) is divided by an applied cornice into an upper and lower stage, with fluted columns above and brackets below. Note that single columns and brackets (cut with a right-angle behind) have been used at the corners.

Box and lid have been lined (before 1866, when it was marked with the Museum number) with red paper, with painted gilt marbling. There is no evidence of grooves for internal dividers. The bottom is painted black with gilt marbling of a similar character to that on the paper lining. Underneath this painted layer are traces of similar gilding on the bare wood. There are six small gilt bronze/brass lion-headed handles (two on the front, two on the back of the box, and two on the lid), which are now missing cords.

The box is relatively crudely constructed, with glued butt-joints (and mitred mouldings). Various areas have been reglued, and some areas have been overpainted.

Place of Origin

Venice (probably, made)


about 1580 (made)



Materials and Techniques

Beechwood (?) with panels of painted bone and bronze handles


Height: 17 cm, Width: 13 cm, Depth: 13 cm

Object history note

Bought from the Farrer sale for £4.10.0.

Some evidence suggests that this was a toilette box (cassa da pettenti) used for combs, brushes and other small objects useful for the toilette. A strikingly similar box survives in the Kunsthistorische Museum, Vienna inv. no. 4103-4122, from the collection of Archduke Ferdinand II of Tyrol, with internal compartments (unlike 217-1866) which contain six ivory combs, brushes, a gilt pair of scissors, various iron instruments, a bone earspoon, a mirror and a filigree glass bottle, and is 'veneered with bone pilasters and mother of pearl panels with orientalizing motifs in translucent colour. Silken cord with gold thread and tassel pulled through lion masks on the case and lid.' (WINDISCH-GRAETZ, Franz: Möbel Europa. 2. Renaissance-Manierismus (Munich, 1982), p.242). A print from Giovanni Andrea dalla Croce Chirurgiae universalis opus absolutum, Venice, 1596 (illustrated in Thornton, The Italian Renaissance Interior (London 1991), fig. 270, shows a box of this form hanging from a high shelf beside a mirror with shutter (cf V&A 218-1866) in a bed chamber, presumably useful for the toilette. Bartolomeo Scappi (Opera Venice, 1570, tavola XXIV) shows a similar rectangular lidded box (without obvious painted decoration) containing implements for the toilette. Hans Huth (1971) p.5 places the V&A box within this class of toilette cases.

The box is relatively crudely constructed, with glued butt-joints, and it may be that it was constructed by members of the painter's workshop who lacked (or were prohibited from using) more sophisticated construction skills. The same type of construction is seen on a casket in the Metropolitan Museum, New York with painted bone plaques and rosewood veneers (cataloguer to check this)

Historical context note

For discussion of this type of painted decoration, see
Hans Huth: Lacquer of the West. The History of a craft and an industry, 1550 - 1950. (Chicago, 1971), chapter 1; Peter Thornton, Form and Decoration (London, 1998), chapter 3; Clelia Alberici: Il Mobile Veneto (Milan, 1980), p.61ff.; Anna Contadini 'Middle-Eastern objects' in At Home in Renaissance Italy, eds.Marta Ajmar-Wollheim and Flora Dennis (London, 2006), p308ff.; Monika Kopplin, European Lacquer (Munich, 2010), pp.23-34

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.

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
-V&A W.180-1910
-Kunsthistorische Museum, Vienna inv. no. 4103-4122
-Kunstgewerbemuseum, Berlin, inv. 1901,38 a, b

Descriptive line

Rectangular lidded box. Wood, overlaid with bone panels

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

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.31
Box. Wood, overlaid with bone panels, painted and gilt with arabesques, and separated by lacquered pilasters. Italian, Venetian (?). About 1500. H. 6 3/4 in., L. 5 1/4 in., W. 5 1/4 in. Bought, 4l. 10s.
This is divided by little cornices of architectonic character into an upper and lower stage. There are, crossing these, little columns continued by brackets below. The lid is subdivided by straps of similar work. The upper portion lifts off the lower, and forms a tall square box, and is lined with China paper, decorated with marbleing in watergold or bronze. Small, gilt bronze lion-head handles are added. The work has a sort of richness, but is confused from the smallness of the pattern, and the variety of colour. Simpler usage of the gilding, or less elaborate arabesques, are more effective, unless the work is finished like an illumination. See also 7901-'66
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 (note 1) 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. The History of a craft and an industry, 1550 - 1950. (Chicago, 1971), fig.8, p.5
A. González-Palacios, Il Tempio del Gusto: La Toscana e l'Italia Settentrionale, Milan, 1986, vol. I p.308, vol. II, pp.308, 329, fig. 699
Ernst J. Grube, 'Le "laque" vénitien et la reliure au XVIe siècle' in Venise et l'Orient 828-1797, exh. cat., Institut du monde arabe, Paris (2006), p.243 n.37
Ajmar-Wollheim, Marta and Flora Dennis, At Home in Renaissance Italy, London: V&A Publishing, 2006.

Labels and date

ITALIAN (VENICE); about 1580
Wood covered with bone with polychrome decoration

A similar box in Vienna comes from the Kunstkammer of Archduke Ferdinand II of Tyrol (1529-96) in Schloss Ambras, one of the most celebrated collector of his day. It retains the original toilet fittings.Venetian lacquer of this type was based on Turkish models. [pre April 2001]
Dressing Case
About 1580

Special objects to support the rituals of beauty became prominent in the camera during the course of the 16th century. This case, with its finely painted decoration, is itself an object of beauty, but the different compartments for storing toiletries make it practical too. [43 words]

Beechwood with panels of painted bone and bronze handles

V&A: 217-1866
At Home in Renaissance Italy, eds.Marta Ajmar-Wollheim and Flora Dennis (London, 2006), cat.136, pl.3.11 [5 Oct 2006 - 7 Jan 2007]






Containers; Woodwork; Medieval and renaissance


Furniture and Woodwork Collection

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