The Cassone in Renaissance Italy

Large decorative chests known as cassoni remained the most popular type of furniture in use in the homes of the Italian urban elite during the 14th through the 16th centuries. They were one of the trophy furnishings of rich merchants and aristocrats and cassoni would be recognizable in most Italian homes of this period. The basic form was extremely simple consisting of a roughly rectangular chest that served a variety of different functions. They stored and protected clothing, linens and other valuables and they could also be used as seats. Cassoni, however, varied greatly in terms of shape, size and decoration. Some versions were equipped with a lock for security and were known as forzieri. 

Wedding cassoni were the most popular of these chests. They were extremely ornate and were usually elaborately decorated with intarsia (inlaid wood of different colors), gilding and pastiglia (molded applied paste). Others were painted or carved. Though wedding cassoni served a practical function, they were commissioned primarily to commemorate a significant social occasion, a marriage. As such, the cassone represented one of the most prestigious pieces of furniture in the Renaissance home and became an important part of marriage rituals. 

During the 15th century, the front of a cassone was generally decorated with a painting. The painter and historian, Giorgio Vasari (1511-1575), referred to the custom of painting stories on cassoni, the subjects of which were chosen by the client. Great Florentine artists of the 15th century are known to have made their livelihood in part through the decoration of cassoni and some artists in Siena and Florence are known to have specialized in them. Sandro Botticelli, Paolo Uccello and Donatello, for example, were known to have painted them in addition to their other commissions. As Vasari complains, however, by his own time in the mid-16th century, artists thought such work was beneath them. By the 19th century, some collectors and dealers, who occasionally discarded the cassone itself, preserved the separated panels as paintings. A significant portion of the paintings preserved in museums today are panels or fragments that were originally part of a cassone. An example in the Cleveland Museum of Art was painted by Jacopo del Sellaio, an artist active in Florence. It shows a scene from Roman history, the Etruscan king Tarquinius Priscus, as he enters Rome. Once part of a cassone, it was separated at some point in its history and is now shown and preserved as a painting.

Records of the period indicate that these expensive chests were typically commissioned in pairs for the weddings of the daughters of the wealthy ruling classes. They were then conspicuously paraded through the streets from the bride’s family home to her husband’s as a clear statement of a new economic and political alliance between two elite families. Cassoni were therefore embellished with scenes appropriate for this public function with depictions of legendary heroes, histories, stories that emphasized the strength of love, conjugal virtues, and tales reminding husbands of their authority over their wives. Decoration was sometimes limited to putti (nude children), who held up the families’ coats of arms. These represented symbols of good luck and fertility and therefore the continuity of the family line. A typical place for such a cassone was in a chamber at the foot of a bed that was enclosed in curtains.

At the end of the 15th century, a new classicizing style emerged. Some early to mid-16th century cassoni drew their inspiration from Roman sarcophagi. In keeping with this new taste, the cassoni of central and northern Italy were now carved and partly gilded with friezes showing mythological scenes and other sculptural elements drawn from the classical past. An exquisite Venetian example from the mid-1500s, for example, now in the Cleveland Museum of Art, features Tritons and other mythological figures. By the mid-16th century, Giorgio Vasari could snidely remark on the old-fashioned cassoni with painted scenes, examples of which could be seen in the palazzi of Florentine families, but were rapidly out of fashion. These painted chests were quickly disappearing. The inventories of the Medici wardrobe from 1553 reveal that they were relegated to the “rooms of wet nurses” while the newer, more fashionable, carved cassoni were placed in official spaces. The newer style called for elaborately carved chests with mythological and grotesque figures decorated with swags of fruit and flowers. 

Examples of Italian cassoni can be seen in many museums. They form an important source for our understanding of life and society in Italy during the Renaissance. They inform us of important cultural practices pertaining to love and marriage at the time. The stories and imagery used to decorate these cassoni tell us much about popular tastes and interests. Yet these magnificent pieces of furniture survive as consummate works of art to be admired for the great skill of the craftsmen and painters who produced them.