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The Marie de Medici cabinet

  • Object:

    Cabinet on stand

  • Place of origin:

    Paris, France (probably, made)

  • Date:

    ca. 1630 - ca. 1660 (made)
    ca. 1840 - 1855 (re-modelled)

  • Artist/Maker:

    unknown (production)

  • Materials and Techniques:

    Ebony and ebonized wood, veneered on a carcase of pine, poplar, and walnut, the interior with marquetry of brazilwood, purpleheart, and kingwood, with stringing in ivory and pewter.

  • Credit Line:

    Purchased by HM Government and allocated to the Museum.

  • Museum number:

    W.64:1 to 3-1977

  • Gallery location:

    Furniture, room 135, case BY1, shelf EXP

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Cabinets on stands of this form were fashionable in France from about 1630, but most surviving examples are decorated with carving in ebony only. The richness of the decoration on this piece is exceptional and has led to a continuing debate as to the date of the gilt-bronze plaques and other mounts. A design drawing for a similar, but not identical cabinet survives in an album of drawings in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, which was collected by the French architect Jean Cotelle (d. 1676). The drawing carries the cipher of Marie de Medici, the wife of Henri IV of France. After the king's death in 1610 she acted as regent for her son until he came of age in 1617, and she remained a powerful figure in France until her exile in 1630. This cabinet has traditionally been associated with her, but no firm evidence exists for that claim.

In the 19th century, the cabinet formed part of the luxurious collections of the Rothschild family at Mentmore Towers, Buckinghamshire. At that time it was accepted practice to embellish historical items to appeal to collectors, and it is possible that much of the decoration on this cabinet dates from that period. The large plaques tell the story of Rinaldo and Armida from the epic poem Gerusalemme Liberata (Jerusalem Delivered) by the 16th-century Italian poet Torquato Tasso.

Physical description

Cabinet on stand of ebony and ebonised wood, veneered on a carcase of pine, poplar, and walnut, with rich mounts of gilt-brass, including panels showing scenes from the story of Rinaldo and Armida, from the romantic epic of Torquato Tasso (1544-1595), Gerusalemme Liberata, the interior of the central, inner cupboard set with with marquetry of brazilwood, purpleheart, and kingwood,with stringing of ivory and pewter. Probably French, c. 1630-1660, re-modelled, restored and and embellished in France or England, 1840-1855.

Design
Cabinet

The cabinet is of architectural form, the façade of shallow, breakfront form, with two arched panels on the front showing, in low relief, a scene from the story, these set between three pairs of pilasters of the Corinthian order flanking figures in niches, all above a low, integral plinth set with gilt-brass plaques showing scenes of classical sacrifice and celebration. The sides of the cabinet are each set with a single, arched panel of gilt-brass, showing a scene from the story, between pilasters. Above is a narrow frieze set with a gilt-brass mount of scrolling flower heads and foliage. The front opens as two doors, opening just to the left of the central figure and pilasters.

The narrative panels are not set in any recognizable order. Reading from the left side, round the cabinet to the right side, they show: the knights Charles and Ubaldo, with the wise woman, rescuing Rinaldo from the clutches of the enchantress Armida, who is prostrate with grief; an early scene of Armida, seeking out the crusader Rinaldo to kill him but prevented by his beauty, which causes her to fall in love with him; Armida and an attendant carrying off the unconscious Rinaldo; Charles and Ubaldo finding Rinaldo with Armida in her enchanted palace on the Fortunate Isles.

The interior of the doors are set with octagonal gilt-brass plaques in low relief, showing further scenes from the story of Rinaldo and Armida, each surrounded with low relief gilt-brass plaques showing seated figures of classical gods and goddesses. On the left door a scene of Rinaldo's finding of Armida about to kill herself and preventing her, is surrounded by figures of (clockwise from top left) Diana, Hercules, Mars, and Venus with Cupid. On the right door a scene showing Armida on horseback leading the Egyptian forces is surrounded by figures of (clockwise from top left) Juno, Jupiter, Apollo and Minerva.

The body of the cabinet is set with two banks of 5 drawers (some disguised, some appearing as two short drawer fronts), flanking a central cupboard with disguised drawers above and below, the door of the cupboard set with a smaller, arched panel of gilt-brass showing Rinaldo returning to his senses after enchantment, confronted with the mirror like diamond shield held by his companions, Charles and Ubaldo, in which he sees truly what he has become. This is flanked by Corinthian columns, forming an aedicule or doorcase.

The door hinges to the right and reveals a small cupboard veneered all over with geometric marquetry of tropical hardwoods with stringing of ivory and pewter. If the drawers to the right of the cupboard are removed, the back panel of the cupboard can be slid to the right, revealing a bank of 5 tiers of shallow drawers, the upper, lower and central tier each with two drawers, the other two with single drawers presented as a central drawer flanked by two half-width drawers. The fronts of these small drawers are veneered with kingwood, framed with ivory and ebony, the drawer-pulls in green silk ribbon.

Stand
The cabinet is raised on a conforming stand with solid back, the front of six legs in the form of Ionic columns set below the Corinthian pilasters on the front of the cabinet and supporting a frieze section set with a gilt-brass mounts of eagles linked by laurel swags, entirely disguising the fronts of five shallow drawers.

Construction
Cabinet

The cabinet is of softwood (pine) painted black on all surfaces that are not veneered. It is constructed as a four-sided dove-tailed box, the base and top joined to the sides with blind dove-tails. The frieze section is separately constructed as a frame, to which the cleated top is screwed. The cabinet is divided vertically by two boards which are tenoned between the top and bottom boards. These provide the inner supports for four dustboards, inserted into each side section from the back and running in grooves cut in the sides and in the vertical divides. On the right-hand side the lower dustboards do not extend the full depth, to allow for the movement of the back panel of the central cupboard. The backboard is composed of three horizontal boards and slides into grooves cut into the top and sides, from the base.

The separate frieze compartment is composed of two side rails and four drawer dividers tenoned into a back rail and rebated to fit over a shallow front rail. The cleated top is attached to this with large screws, counter-sunk into the top.

The doors are of hollow frame construction, to allow for the recesses needed for the niches for figures. The frameis faced on the front with thin, vertically set, butt-jointed boards, on the inside with thinner, vertical boards. The core is reinforced with blocks set at intervals between the boards.

The main drawers are of walnut, of dovetailed construction, made as boxes to which the front facings and bottoms are simply glued on, the front facing of ebony running over the front of the base. The bottom boards are set with grain running front to back. All the drawers have been painted vermilion on the inside.

The small drawers hidden behind the central cupboard are set into a frame of beech horizontals and poplar verticals, veneered on their front edges. The drawer boxes are of whiter walnut than that used for the larger drawers but their construction is similar, although the grain of the bases runs laterally.

The locks on both doors and drawers appear to be of 17th-century date, although they are attached with replacement screws.

Stand
The stand is constructed of softwood (pine) and poplar, all visible surfaces veneered in ebony or ebonized, all other surfaces painted black. The base of the stand is of frame-and-panel construction, raised on softwood blocks under the pairs of columns, these glued and screwed to the underside of the base. An additional block has been added under each, cut away in the centre to allow for the nut that fixes the lower end of the large, steel rods that reinforce each corner column (the tops visible in cut-away sections on the top of the stand). These rods may originally have been intended to carry the weight of the cabinet to the ground but no longer do so, because of the addition of the extra blocks.

The back of the stand is also of frame and panel construction with three panels set flush between stiles and riles, with no muntins. This back panel is set forward of, but not apparently joined to, an open frame of shallow rails, with two median rails, the whole of this tenoned to the underside of the frieze case and through the frame of the lower, stretcher panel. To the outer face of each outer stile of the back is a vertical softwood board, set at right angles to the back and also tenoned into the frieze section and through the stretcher panel. These are veneered with ebony on their outer faces and against them is set the back pilaster on each side.

The frieze case is composed of an upper and a lower frame of softwood, each with a single, medial rail and with two panels of poplar, the grain running laterally. The jointing of the frame is difficult to see because short boards have been nailed onto the back, outer edges. The sides and drawer dividers are presumably jointed with floating tenons to this upper and lower frame.

The drawers of the frieze echo those of the cabinet in construction. The fronts of the side and central drawers are slightly chamfered in the thickness of the front, so that when either the side or central drawers are locked, the intermediate drawers are immoveable. The outer drawers have each been cut back on their outer sides to allow for the insertion of the steel reinforcing rods.

Place of Origin

Paris, France (probably, made)

Date

ca. 1630 - ca. 1660 (made)
ca. 1840 - 1855 (re-modelled)

Artist/maker

unknown (production)

Materials and Techniques

Ebony and ebonized wood, veneered on a carcase of pine, poplar, and walnut, the interior with marquetry of brazilwood, purpleheart, and kingwood, with stringing in ivory and pewter.

Marks and inscriptions

362
Arabic numerals

Dimensions

Height: 171.7 cm, Width: 157 cm, Depth: 55 cm, Weight: 189 kg
[Cabinet] Height: 9 cm pediment, Width: 156.2 cm pediment, Depth: 54.5 cm pediment, Height: 77 cm cabinet, Width: 154.6 cm cabinet--includes hinges, Depth: 53.2 cm cabinet, Weight: 105.5 kg
[Stand] Height: 86.5 cm, Width: 175 cm, Depth: 55 cm, Weight: 83.5 kg

Object history note

The cabinet was sold by the gentleman-dealer Alexander Barker (ca. 1797-1873) to Baron Mayer Amschel de Rothschild (1818-1874) in 1855 for his new house, Mentmore Towers, Buckinghamshire. Its earlier history is unknown although it was said in the 1883-4 catalogue of Mentmore, to have been give by the city of Florence to Marie de Medici (1575-1642) as a wedding gift on the occasion of her marriage to King Henri IV of France in 1600.

Purchased by HM Government in 1977 from the estate of the 6th Earl of Rosebery and allocated to the Victoria and Albert Museum, before the sale by Sotheby's of the contents of Mentmore Towers.

Although a Continental piece, this cabinet was acquired as the result of efforts to save a collection considered part of England's national heritage. In 1977 the Museum's curators were heavily involved in a campaign to avert the break-up of the Rothschild collection at Mentmore Towers, Buckinghamshire. Although the effort failed, this cabinet and a handful of other items were purchased by the British government and allocated to the Museum to document this important nineteenth-century collection.

Historical context note

Although this cabinet was clearly made at least thirty years after the marriage of Marie de Medici in 1600, the association with her was revived after the cabinet came to the Museum in 1977 because similarities were noted between the cabinet and a drawing (now in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford) for a cabinet surmounted by the monogram of Marie de Medici. That drawing may suggest that a cabinet of this overall form was designed for Marie de Medici but there are no indications on the cabinet itself of such ownership. The drawing appears to be a design drawing, with slight variants offered, and differs from this cabinet (and other ebony cabinets made in Paris in the period 1630-1660) in suggesting no figurative decoration, let alone a full narrative programme.

Such cabinets became the most notable form of furniture in fashionable Frech interiors in the period 1630 to 1660 and were produced in fairly large numbers, probably by several workshops. Their substantial form served to articulate interiors and established the cabinet-on-stand as the most fashionable type of furniture until the end of the 17th century, when that place was taken by the newly developed form the commode, or decorative chest of drawers.

Although the exact origin and date of this cabinet is still a matter for debate, recent work has established that it is part of a group of cabinets, all mounted lavishly in gilt-bronze, that show recognizably similar appearances. These include a cabinet-on-stand at Windsor Castle (inv. no. RCIN35510) which is identified as Flemish, 1660s and a cabinet-on-stand at Drumlanrig Castle, Scotland which is similarly identified and dated. All three are slightly smaller than Parisian cabinets, show notably shallow frieze sections, and, most importantly, show a single-doored, central cupboard within, instead of the double-doored cupboards generally found on Parisian cabinets, which open to reveal a small-scale, theatrical 'prospect'. These three all show the same geometric marquetry in tropical hardwoods, a form of decoration that is also found in the central cupboards of some Augsburg table cabinets of the same date. All also show exactly the same form of hidden drawers behind a sliding back in the central cupboard. It is possible that all three came from the same workshop, and that that workshop may have been in another European city, possibly Antwerp. Unfortunately, it is clear that all three have undergone substantial restoration and even alteration in the 19th century, so it is not possible to declare that even one is the standard against which others can be judged.

The V&A cabinet shows evidence of some re-building, particularly of the stand. The very rich mounting of the stand is certainly very different from the generally more restrained decoration of stands of cabinets made in Paris in the 17th century, when the design was graduated carefully to bring the viewers' eye towards the cabinet itself as the most important element of the whole, with decoration even of that becoming ever richer as the doors were opened and the interiors of the central cupboards displayed. The very rich embellishiment of the sides of this cabinet also appear to contradict 17th-century tradition. On this cabinet, the sides exactly match the main panels of the front, negating any sense of hierarchy, although the panels themselves are undoubtedly of very high quality.

Descriptive line

Cabinet on stand of ebony and ebonised wood, veneered on a carcase of pine, poplar, and walnut, with rich mounts of gilt-brass, including panels showing scenes from the story of Rinaldo and Armida, from the romantic epic of Torquato Tasso (1544-1595), Gerusalemme Liberata, the interior of the central, inner cupboard set with with marquetry of brazilwood, purpleheart, and kingwood,with stringing of ivory and pewter. Probably French, c. 1630-1660, re-modelled, restored and and embellished in France or England, 1840-1855.

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

Baker, Malcolm and Richardson, Brenda, eds. A Grand Design : The Art of the Victoria and Albert Museum. London: V&A Publications, 1997. 431 p., ill. ISBN 1851773088.
Although a Continental piece, this cabinet was acquired as the result of efforts to save a collection considered part of England's national heritage. In 1977 the Museum's curators were heavily involved in a campaign to avert the break-up of the Rothschild collection at Mentmore Towers, Buckinghamshire. Although the effort failed, this cabinet and a handful of other items were purchased by the British government and allocated to the Museum to document this important nineteenth-century collection.
When the cabinet was acquired, it was celebrated as a supreme example of the ebony cabinets fashionable in French courtly circles between 1640 and 1660. Such cabinets usually showed carved decoration based on literary sources. This cabinet was more luxuriously decorated than usual, with gilt-bronze plaques illustrating episodes from the Italian poet Torquato Tasso's romantic epic, Gerusalemme Liberata (Jerusalem Delivered), first published in 1580.
In 1884, in a privately printed catalogue of Mentmore, the cabinet was said to have been presented to Marie de' Medici (1573-1642) by the city of Florence in 1600, for her marriage to Henri IV of France. This aristocratic provenance may well have been accepted when the piece was acquired by the Rothschilds in 1855 from the distinguished and knowledgable collector Alexander Barker. Although the date of 1600 seemed unrealistically early, it was later recognised that the piece related to a drawing for a cabinet bearing the monogram of Marie de' Medici, bound in an album (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford) with drawings by Jean Cotelle (1607-1676).
It was always clear that the cabinet and stand had been altered and enriched with new mounts in the nineteenth century. Rigorous conservation inspection has revealed that much of the structure and most of the mounts are also of nineteenth-century date. Some carcase work and marquetry may have been taken from an earlier cabinet. The carcase, which uses no oak, is more suggestive of an Italian than a French workshop. The main plaques have been heavily regilt, but may be from a German workshop of the late seventeenth or early eighteenth century; it is clear that the plaques have been cut down, suggesting re-use. The trade in altering and enriching furniture for collectors was well established by the middle of the nineteenth century, and in recent years-with the rise of interest in the history of collecting-has become a subject of enthusiastic study. This cabinet remains the subject of debate and investigation.
In the mid-nineteenth century, carved ebony cabinets, of which this is an exotic hybrid, were keenly sought by both private collectors and those forming the new Museum collections. The value placed on such cabinets as works of art at that time is also attested to by the contemporary re-creation of the form for one of the most ambitious exhibition pieces shown in Paris in 1867 (cat. 7).
The allure of such a richly mounted version must have been strong for the Rothschilds, of whom Lady Eastlake wrote after a visit, "I do not believe the Medici were ever so lodged at the height of their glory.

Lit. Thornton, 1978

SARAH MEDLAM
Mentmore [catalogue of the collections]. Edinburgh, privately printed, 1884, p. 70
Riccardi-Cubitt, Monique, The Art of the Cabinet. London, Thames & Hudson, 1992, pp. 84-85
K.R., 'Mentmore at the V&A', Burlington Magazine, vol. 120, no. 902, Special issue devoted to the Victoria and Albert Museum, May 1978, p. 316, fig. 20
Thornton, P.K.T., 'A Very Special Year'. Connoisseur, vol. 198, no. 191 (June 1978), pp. 138-145
Mentmore, volume I. Catalogue of French and Continental Furniture, Tapestries and Clocks, sold on behalf of the Executors of the 6th Earl of Rosebery and his family. Sotheby Parke Bernet & Co., 18-20 May 1977 at Mentmore, Buckinghamshire. Lot 880.

Exhibition History

Precious: Objects and Changing Values (The Millennium Galleries, Sheffield 02/04/2001-24/06/2001)
A Grand Design - The Art of the Victoria and Albert Museum (Victoria and Albert Museum 12/10/1999-16/01/2000)

Labels and date

The ‘Marie de Medici’ cabinet
About 1630–60
Re-modelled about 1840–55

France (Paris) or Netherlands (Antwerp)

Carcase: pine, poplar and walnut
Veneer: ebony and ebonised wood
Interior marquetry: padouk, purpleheart and kingwood
Mounts: gilded brass

Purchased by HM Government and allocated to the Museum
Museum no. W.64-1977

The origins of this celebrated and complex cabinet on stand are mysterious. Seventeenth-century Parisian cabinets usually have figurative scenes in carved ebony, but this cabinet is spectacularly mounted with gilded brass plaques depicting scenes from Tasso’s romantic poem Gerusalemme Liberata. In the 19th century, dealers would often enrich older furniture with more luxurious mounts.
[01/12/2012]

Associated names

Marie de Medici (Queen of France)

Materials

Walnut; Pine; Ebony; Gilt-brass; Poplar; Kingwood; Purpleheart; Ebonized wood; Brazilwood

Techniques

Gilded; Cabinet making; Marquetry; Veneered

Subjects depicted

Figures; Trees; Horses; Angels; Festoons; Chariot; Swags

Categories

Furniture

Collection code

FWK

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