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  • Kay Miller

TO A YOUNG LUCCHESE BRIDE: Mia's Wedding Chest

Updated: Mar 2, 2023

Discover newfound context and details about the Wedding Chest (Cassone) – from the perspective of the bride who received it


Wedding Chest (cassone), 1475-85, Unknown Artist, Italian (Lucca)

Poplar with gilt and painted gesso decoration, The William Hood Dunwoody Fund, 16.747 • Credit: artsmia.org

On View in Gallery 343


Of all the gifts you received for your marriage, the golden cassone – your wedding chest – surely is the most luxurious and costly. By day, the chest is stately and inviting in its place at the foot of your bed. Like bedrooms in most Tuscan houses, yours offers little seating. So, those who come to visit or conduct business must clamor up on the cassone to secure a spot, scarring its top over time. Perhaps you wait for the night, when the candles and torches scatter light across its magical reliefs. In the flickering radiance, the enigmatic scenes on the sides of the chest – beastly half-men attacking each other with clubs and a maiden riding on the back of a centaur – come alive, freeing you to dream.


Six hundred years from now, no one will remember your name. Or your husband’s. Or the year you wed. But this intriguing cassone will remain: Covered in gold leaf, with mythological allusions and admonitions to you as a young bride. We will wonder: How old were you when you married? What precious things did you stow away in here? Did you have children? And when they plopped on their tummies to get a really good look at this, did you regale them with familiar tales or let them invent their own?


This Tuscan trunk, officially known as the Wedding chest (cassone), has been a part of Mia’s collection since 1916, the year after the original grand museum building first opened. But until scholar Roberta Bartoli arrived at Mia with her then-curator husband, Eike Schmidt in 2010, and added the cassone to her research on Renaissance furnishings, we did not realize what a treasure we’d had all along. In a series of lectures and a catalog entry for the recent Botticelli and Renaissance Florence exhibition, Bartoli shared what she has learned. As we listened, we could envision that young bride, chin propped in her palm, yearning to add a few details.


A Renaissance Wedding This was no affair of the heart, she certainly would tell us. It was a business deal, pure and simple, negotiated to join two prominent families in the Tuscan town of Lucca. Likely, the bride was 14 or 15 years old, her groom already in his 30’s, and she probably did not meet him until their nuptials. On their wedding day, they would have gathered in her family’s home or courtyard with guests and the city notary, who witnessed the exchange of rings and recorded their marriage in the city registry. There was no religious ceremony. Perhaps later her family would have asked a priest to bless the union.


But years before that, a marriage contract would have spelled out precisely how much her family must amass for her dowry in the form of money, clothing, kitchen utensils, furniture, maybe a villa or plot of land, and this cassone. After the wedding, the entire bridal party would have spilled onto the street and paraded her dowry goods from one end of town to the other, confirming for curious onlookers just how rich and important both families were, with a burly servant or two shouldering the cassone for all to see. Eventually, such lavish wedding processions became so costly that sumptuary laws were passed to limit the expense.


Cassone in Renaissance Homes: Impressive and Practical

Household furnishings like the cassone were an extremely important part of Renaissance culture. Although bedrooms, where the chests were prominently displayed, were the domain of women and their children, they were not exclusively private preserves in the 15th century. Families conducted business and met with people from the public there. So, furnishings had to reflect their status.


The Master of the Life of the Virgin, The Birth of Mary, c. 1479, wood, 85 x 109 cm, Alte Pinakothek, Munich

Credit: Wikimedia commons


Cupboards didn’t come into use for clothing storage until the early 16th century, so the cassone held the bride’s linens, jewelry, silk dresses, precious manuscripts, and other treasures.


Most Tuscan girls were very sheltered and, while the attributes of a good wife were drilled into them, they probably were taught very little about sexuality. So, decorative motifs on cassoni often were designed to be instructive. Scenes on the outside often stressed the wife’s role as modest and restrained in public. But images of naked men or women painted on the inside lids of some cassoni (but not Mia’s) were good omens for fertility and daily reminders that a lusty, sexually appealing wife was more likely to bear beautiful children and keep her husband from straying.

Nude woman in cassone lid: Giovanni di Ser Giovanni (called “Lo Scheggia”), Painted chests with open lids, Copenhagen, Statens Museum vor Kunst, c. 1460 • Credit: open.smlk.dk


All this beaten gold, imagery, and tactical advice came at a steep price. Bartoli cited one account book from the mid-15th century that listed a single chest at 40 florins, four times the salary of a laborer for an entire year. And wedding cassoni were traditionally given in pairs – possibly as his and hers.


A Closer Look at the Wedding Chest

We don’t know if Mia’s cassone had a mate. But we do know that it is one of the best-preserved in the world. Gold leaf, patterned with thousands of rosette-shaped punches and hand-incised foliage, covers the surface. Three-dimensional reliefs on the front suggest several possible stories with references to antiquity. Bartoli opened the cassone and found fragments of a diamond-patterned fabric that once lined the interior to protect precious garments still clinging to the inside. Even the lock is original.


Interior of cassone showing fabric remnants


At first Bartoli was convinced by the size and shape of our cassone that it was made in the Italian city of Siena.


“Each city made cassoni in a specific form and shape. Even the thickness of the wood was determined by the guild that produced the furniture. In this case, we have a bit less than 1 inch of thickness in the panel planks, exactly what was prescribed in Siena in the 15th century,” Bartoli said in a Sunday lecture at Mia. The figures seen on it also reminded her of those in paintings by Sienese artist Francesco di Giorgio Martini.


But the curious motifs puzzled her.


Mysteries Solved and Remaining

The front of the chest is decorated with an elaborate, three-part scenario made with gesso packed into molds to model the relief figures. On the left, a violent battle plays out between two monstrous creatures – half-lion and half-satyr (given the pointed ears and snub noses). The figures appear to have been crafted by an artist who was emulating Antonio del Pollaiuolo’s 1470 “Battle of the Nudes,” a masterful engraving of 10 men in vicious combat, copies of which were circulating throughout the Italian peninsula at that time. More puzzling was the scene on the right: A centaur with a lascivious air gallops while a young woman calmly rides on his back, holding a torch aloft. At first, the pair appeared to be modeled on Guido Reni’s “The Rape of Deianira,” from 1617-19. But in that work, Deianira, (Hercules’ wife) who has been abducted by the centaur Nessus, is clearly distressed. The woman on Mia’s wedding chest, however, seems quite serene.


Cassone Closeups of 4 Virtues, Beasts Battling and Centaur/Maiden


Bartoli feels that a better fit might come from another mythological figure: Demeter, the Roman goddess of the harvest, who brings prosperity and civilization to humankind while embodying reason. “By bestriding the centaur and dominating his bestial power, she represents the civilizing impulse and the knowledge and prosperity it brings,” Bartoli wrote in the Botticelli catalog. So, this figure probably represents Demeter, who comes to the earth riding a centaur, bringing virtue while also taming the lustful instincts of the male. Bartoli points out that this imagery highlights the importance of women and a woman’s role in the family.


Located front and center between the fighting brutes and the centaur-and-maiden are four women dressed in flowing veils who represent the four Cardinal Virtues: Temperance, Justice, Fortitude, and Prudence, flanked by two coats-of-arms.


The key for Bartoli was discovering that those two distinctive coats-of-arms on the chest belonged to two prominent families from Lucca, a walled Italian city close to Siena, between Florence and Pisa. On the left, traditionally the groom’s side of the chest, is the Cenami family crest: a rampant lion, red on a field of gold. On the right is our bride’s Balbani family crest: gilt eagles on a silver band, within a red field. In her work, Bartoli found two other chests with similar reliefs and with the Balbani family crest, hinting at a 15th century workshop active in Lucca, with Mia’s chest as a possible model for the others.


Taken together as a single narrative, the three relief scenes we see here comprise a sophisticated message: “Since these [Cardinal Virtue] figures are enclosed by the two coats of arms, the viewer is led to understand that only within the bond of matrimony can these Virtues govern and allow one to dominate both the blind violence associated with males (as shown on the left, not by accident next to the groom’s shield) and feral and savage instincts as Demeter calmly does with a centaur (on the right),” Bartoli wrote.


A Message of Femail Power and an Unknown Bride

Bartoli learned that the Balbani were merchants and diplomats with many activities in France and Bruges, Belgium, where a 1405 book by Christine de Pizan, “The Book of the City of Ladies,” was well known. Pizan writes about the civilizing influence of Demeter. She describes a vision she had of three ladies, the personification of Reason, Rectitude, and Justice, who have come to help her build a city in which women can live in safety and security. In this allegorical city, three beautiful women dressed in billowing dresses and veils provide refuge to women who have gone unprotected by lazy, apathetic men.


Might the bride’s merchant family have brought this international message of female power and virtue home to Lucca, to be emblazoned on a chest for their daughter to see every day?


Bartoli has searched Lucca city archives for the names of our bride and groom. Based on the shape of the crests, she believes their marriage took place between 1475 and 1485. She cannot name them yet. But she is still looking.


So, we leave you, our young Lucchese bride, with both a good omen and a warning about the pitfalls of marriage: Left to his own devices, your husband already a man of the world – might follow a lusty, even a violent path. But for you, our hope is that the golden cassone will have brought inspiration and a daily reminder that you are a 15th century Demeter, powerful enough to succor and sustain a family – as you choose – within a loving, prosperous Lucchese home.

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