Skeletons in the closets, now with the mirrors

I already wrote about Tititan’s mirrors, many times, in fact, and so this posting is not about the Venetian master; plus, his famous Venus of Urbino does not have any mirrors in it. This posting will be about another object that is often displayed on the works of Italian Renaissance that makes busy the two ladies on the background of this painting:

The object that keeps them busy is called cassone, or a chest (a closet?), and it played an important role in the life of women of that time (and thus entered many artworks too), and the story will be about these chests.

The reason for the story was my recent visit to the London’s Somerset House (we had a workshop there), and then the visit to the lovely Courtauld Gallery, with a relatively a small but incredibly rich collection. I should have known about this gallery before (also because of ‘mirrors in art’, since it has one of the most famous of them, the Manet’s Bar at the Folies-Bergère) but I didn’t.

It’s allowed to take pictures in the gallery, and so I took quite a lot of them (here you can find some example of Medieval art, and here more recent Renaissance art.) I obviously took few pictures of the Manet’s masterpiece, and some other modern ‘mirrors’ I found there, but in this this posting I will be talking about these objects I found in one of the gallery’s halls:

Or more precisely, I’ve seen something else; the picture above is from their website, and it also shows the upper panels of these chests, but when I’ve been there the panels were absent, and the lids closed. So, in reality I’ve seen something like that:

There are two huge and lavishly decorated cassoni; it’s indeed difficult to call them mere ‘chest’, they look like huge wardrobes.  In Italian ‘cassone’ may mean a chest, or a box, a case, things like that (modern word ‘cassa’ also comes from this word).  But in Italy at that time (Renaissance, speaking very broadly) they had very specific connotation, and were used as ‘marriage chests’, to place and keep dowry (dote in Italian), that the bride was talking with her to the husband’s house.

This particular couple of chests was made for Lorenzo Morelli, an affluent merchant from Florence who married Viaggia Nerli in 1972 — we can see the coats of arms of these families on the corners of both cassoni.

At least three different master worked to produce these stunning pieces  —  Biagio di AntonioJacopo del Sellaio и Zanobi di Domenico (aka Domenico di Zanobi), not counting the wood carvers. It was a very expensive piece of furniture indeed, often these cassoni accounted for a significant portion of the inheritance.

The wikipedia article that I ultimately read says that these cassoni evolved from simple, pragmatic chests to store the belongings to indecently luxurious installations, made by the best artists of the time.  There are plenty examples in the internet, so I will skip this part, of presenting dozens, of not hundreds of these beautiful pieces.

Paradoxically, but today it’s more difficult to find a simple cassone, without excessive decor; the latter were often not kept properly, and as a rule didn’t go to the museums.   Compared to the chests of the Courtauld Gallery the one below can be considered next to primitive:

With time, the cassoni became more decorative, and often included panels with complex scenes, both religious and mythological.

We may consider the function of these scenes and images merely decorative, but they often were very meaningful for the ‘stakeholders’ of the projects, and contained somewhat didactic content. More often than not they depicted profane, and not explicitly religious content, although the boundary between the two are not always easy to draw; the cassoni had often been placed next to the hope altarpieces:

From the 16th century onward we see more examples of cassoni decorated with complex reliefs and carvings, rather that panels:

The couple on display in the Courtaud Gallery is of hybrid nature, we already see a lot of carvings, but the most interesting part is still their large panels, both beautiful and informative. Before I go to the ‘mirror theme’, I will show a few pictures of these panels:

The fontal panel of the left cassone:

It depicts a notable episode from the Roman history, so called expulsion of the Gauls from Rome by (Marcus Furius Camillus, who was later entitled ‘the second Romulus’ . Below are two fragments (also hyperlinked to the original large files):

The side panels show, in a very different stye, two allegorical figures, of Justice:

and Fortitude:

The second chest shows another scene with the same Marcus Furius; according the the legend, after capturing the Etruscan city of Falerii he ordered to beat himself wooden sticks, demonstrating his obedience and readiness to follow the will of the dwellers. The story was intended to show an example of the proper behaviour for the future wife.

Again, a couple of fragments:

The description says that the panel also shows the legendary Gaius Mucius Scaevola, burning his arm at the altar’f flame, but I didn’t find the scene. The problem is, as I wrote earlier, that the the chest’s lids were closed, and there were no special wall panels on display this time (they are called spallieri — they are seen on the picture from the website). In fact, it is these wall panels that make these two chest unique, they are the only ones we have now from this place (Florence) and time (the end of 15th century).

In the internet I found the original view only for the first chest:

Its side panels depict Temperance:

and Prudence:

— who holds the mirror, the reason I started to write this posting in the first place:

Prudence is often portrayed with a mirror (and with this snake(s) too – see, for instance, the instructions from Cesare Ripa on the matter), but I don’t recall the examples of Prudentia portrayed in such a matrimonial context.  One of the qualities of a prudent person is a capacity to look head, to foresee possible long-term consequences of the actions, and therefore act accordingly now, and a mirror seems be an appropriate device for such an exercise.

However, being associated with matrimonial affairs, the meaning of the mirror becomes controversial, since it could be also interpreted as a symbol of vanity and frivolity.

One interesting feature of this depiction is that the mirrors does work here, we see the face of the woman reflected in its surface:

The reflection is not very accurate (also in terms of optics), but the intention to do it deserves a praise. Interestingly, the mirror doesn’t have a handle, the woman holds it somewhat awkwardly, and we also can’t say if it is convex or already flat one.

It’s difficult to say with certainty who was the author of the panels.  Biagio d’Antonio was known as the maker of the panels for cassone, but both Jacopo da Sellaio and Domenico di Zanobi were renown masters of portrait (and the latter is suggested by more researchers as a possible author of these ones).

What else could be said? In this case the content of the inner panels (on the lids) is closely resembling the outer design, but more often their content was somewhat different. For example, if the the external panels depicted some moralistic scenes, the inner, hidden part could have portrayed more risque content:

Of course, it wasn’t plain pornographic, or even overtly erotic, and most often followed an appropriate mythological framework (for instance, the naked ladies were not *just* women but Venuses):

I hope that one day I will also find an inner panel with a mirror; so far I found only one with a ‘false’ one, it turned to be a pillow at the end:

Speaking about Titian’s Venus of Urbino that I have started this posting with, it was, in fact, exactly such an inner panel, the inner side of one of the cassone, commissioned by Guidobaldo II della Rovere, the Duje of Urbino in 1534, on the occasion of his marriage to Giulia Varano (a small aside note: she was one eleven years old by then, the commission for Balthus, not Titian). In any case, the master hadn’t seen the bride (and most likely the broom too), and the model for the painting was his own mistress Angela del Moro.

The intended placement of this work also explain its unusual elongated design; I also tend to think that it was more ‘Tititanian’ much later, by adding this large black square behind the woman. The initial layout shows only a small veil, making the whole composition much more light and transparent.

When we know the original purpose of the work that so much shocked Marc Twain at some point, we can understand that it’s a typical example of misappropriation: a gross abuse of the original intent by placing it into very alien context. This is what is happening when we tear the altarpieces from churches and place them in art museums (or when Pussy Riot & Co make their punk performance in a church). I don’t want to say that such things should never be done, and often they do produce important results (as in the latter case), but we need to be aware what’s actually going on.

If you don’t understand the original context of the Venus of Urbino, you may see somewhat sympathetically the statement like that:

You enter [the Uffizi Gallery] and proceed to that most-visited little gallery that exists in the world — the Tribune — and there, against the wall, without obstructing rap or leaf, you may look your fill upon the foulest, the vilest, the obscenest picture the world possesses — Titian’s Venus. It isn’t that she is naked and stretched out on a bed — no, it is the attitude of one of her arms and hand. If I ventured to describe that attitude there would be a fine howl — but there the Venus lies for anybody to gloat over that wants to — and there she has a right to lie, for she is a work of art, and art has its privileges.

I saw a young girl stealing furtive glances at her; I saw young men gazing long and absorbedly at her, I saw aged infirm men hang upon her charms with a pathetic interest. How I should like to describe her — just to see what a holy indignation I could stir up in the world… yet the world is willing to let its sons and its daughters and itself look at Titian’s beast, but won’t stand a description of it in words… There are pictures of nude women which suggest no impure thought — I am well aware of that. I am not railing at such. What I am trying to emphasize is the fact that Titian’s Venus is very far from being one of that sort. Without any question it was painted for a bagnio and it was probably refused because it was a trifle too strong. In truth, it is a trifle too strong for any place but a public art gallery.” – Mark Twain, Tramp Abroad.

I don’t know fur sure if Marc Twain knew the original purpose of the work (I doubt  – he refers to bagnio, a bath where he thought this work was intended for)? And whether his opinion would change, if he would know that the original placement of the panel was very intimate and only a handful few would be able to see this work for centuries?

Also interesting, that if we know that the work was made as an inner panel of the cassone, we can imagine a possible Droste effect, whereby the lid of the cassone on the background would have this very painting on it. We can extend this effect to the moralistic side, too, considering the woman (who is taking cloths from the cassone to cover the naked Venus, if to believe the most common interpretations) the old goddes, the Venus of the future, who has to gather the dowry for her daughter.

The icon for today (let it also reflects the todays’ developments a bit):

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One thought on “Skeletons in the closets, now with the mirrors

  1. I love your articles but you may want to change “Monet” to “Manet” who painted the highly reflective “Bar at the Folies Bergere”. Please keep writing and finding mirrors!

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