The Chest or Coffer

Coffers are nowadays often known by their Italian name "Cassone", but during the Italian Renaissance, they were sometimes called "forziere"*). Forziere means chest or box, and up to the XVIth century one and the same chest may have served both for /the home and to take on journeys i to serve the purpose of a box, a seat and a bedstead. But a differentiation according to the condition and the wealth of the owner must have been attempted at an early period. The chief requirement of a "travelling box" was strength, therefore it had \4 to be plain in form and make, while a more elaborate shape, and decorations liable to be damaged could be allowed on chests determined for home use only. Special types were here developed according to the special purposes required; the low chest which merely served as a box, was vprovided with a raised decorated lid 2), v the high table-chest had a flat top. The chief object of the bench-chest was to afford a comfortable seat; but at the same time it was still a box, though part of the seat could be raised. Among such ichests which before all were to serve as boxes, the v so-called bridal coffers were the most richly decor-

14. Later part of the XVIth Century, Painted Linen Wall Hanging

Kunstgpewerbe-Museum, Frankfort on the Maine

14. Later part of the XVIth Century, Painted Linen Wall Hanging

Kunstgpewerbe-Museum, Frankfort on the Maine

*) Paul Schubring, who in his great work: Cassoni, Truhen und Truhenbilder der italienischen Renaissance (Leipzig, 1915) treats of this matter and especially gives a fundamental and exhaustive account of chests and chest ornamentation in their bearing on the general history of civilisation, expresses the opinion that in the Quattro- and Cinquecento the term Cassone was mostly used (pp. 13 and sequ), while Schiaparelli (in his above cited work pp. 294 and seq), admits the name forziere for all kinds of coffers, and cassone only for the tall table-chest.

2) The interiors of the chests were frequently lined with woven stuffs, and inside the lids were sometimes ornamented with paintings. Schubring says that of 600 chests which he examined, 400 had interior fittings; occasionally they were provided with complicated secret places.

atedThey usually contained the outfits of the young married couple, their decoration frequently bore some relation to the festal event; as for instance the armorial bearings of the young pair, legendary representations such as the judgment of Paris, or the Rape of Helena, and even the wedding ceremony itself were sometimes pictured.

y The most ancient coffers were similar to oblong, four-cornered boxes (figs. 69 and 73). Most of them, especially the travelling ones, were mounted with strong iron bands which sometimes were painted over; on both ends they were provided with iron handles2). Afterwards, in the XVth century,, a form slightly receding at both. ends, came . into vogue, whose softly curved ground line vibrates like the rhythm of a gothic line (fig. 89). During the renaissance this motive was more strongly accentuated and in the XVth and XVI* centuries it is also occasionally met

  • with in chests curved on one side only, namely when it was destined to be placed near a door, and therefore seemed to require this form (fig.121). This curved shape grew in importance for it allowed of sitting comfortably upon it; this pleasing turn being soon
  • The most magnificent chests were placed on low pedestals which, in proportion and contour, formed their architectonic complement. For travelling purposes they were covered with special cases to protect them from wear and tear, such as the bridal coffers of the Lady Paola Gonzaga (Schubring pp. 355 and sequ).

s) The employment of handles was customary also on richer chests up to baroque period, and is even met with on cupboards. The key-hole was, as a rule, roughly cut, and without ornament. Only since the middle of the XVIth century it frequently took the form, on richly carved chests, of a gor-gon's mouth. The keys, on the contrary, already in earlier times, were richly adorned, gothic motives being in vogue far into the age of the Renaissance (fig. 17). The metal mounts on the outer and inner side, especially in the North of Italy, frequently served as ornaments, (fig. 18). In Upper Italy they are always fixed into the wood, sometimes over a coloured ground which rendered conspicuous its fine pierced work; on the other side of the Alps such metal decorations were applied plastically.

15. Tuscany 1585. Bronze Lamp

Cathedral, Pisa

15. Tuscany 1585. Bronze Lamp

Cathedral, Pisa given even to such coffers as were exclusively used as boxes. The profiles became more and more accentuated during the renaissance, the upper curve below the lid was less round than the lower one, but they were in perfect harmony; the horizontal parts were distinctly separated from each other and rendered more and f more conspicious by profiled mouldings until finally^/ a form resulted which to-day is considered as typical for the sarcophagus (figs. 91, 81, 124, 134—5, 140).

The marble coffins of the early renaissance, however, were like plain boxes, similar to the chest of that period, and the transformation, under the influence of classic models, simultaneously took place in monumental stone work, and in wood furniture, the plain early form, however, never being quite abandoned *).

Painting, being the earliest kind of adornment, and also the later manner of decoration by means of gilt or painted stucco reliefs 2) are principally found on chests with rectilinear contours (figs. 74 — 77). The same may be said of the wood-engravings pasted on to the fronts of the chests which, slightly coloured, often imitate the patterns and the effect of intarsia work. This art was sometimes practised in Lombardy 8). Paintings and stucco reliefs in early times were often mere imitations of stuffs which in the late middle ages frequently served as mountings or coverings for chests. This becomes particularly manifest where stencilled quadratic motives are repeated over and over again (fig. 73). In the course of the XVth century the painted board and

  1. Figs, to be seen in Baum's work cited above pp. 223 and seq. — Vasari, in his Vita Dello Delli (Milanesi II, p. 148) speaks of the painting on large wooden chests as "a uso di sepolture", and Schubring, in the above cited work (p. 5) says that he found in a long chest, the body of a knight.
  2. Vide p. XVII. 1.
  3. Illustration in the above cited work of Schubring, Plate No. CLV. Fragments of large woodcuts of Lombardic origin show that probably this technique was employed in Lombardy to imitate wall paintings, that is to say, they may be called the first paper hangings.

reliefs became more and more popular. Large and connected representations frequently filled the front of the chest, or, better said, its middle field, (fig. 96) for the independency of the decoration and the new naturalism of depiction urged the employment of an efficacious framework. Therefore the architectural construction of the chest was not alone determined by its use but at the same time corresponded to the new art of painting1). Such chests ornamented with intarsias (figs. 90,92,94,95) were divided off into several fields and in Upper Italy, about 1500, only small paintings were inserted in the plastically carved fronts (figs. 83 , 84). It was quite otherwise with the later Bolognesian cupboards on which intarsias were imitated by inserted bright-lined stucco work. In these the fronts are ornamented with a charming acanthus motive throughout the entire surface (fig. 113).

Wood-carving on chests was in common use already during the middle ages, and numerous examples of furniture ornamented with gothic motives, geometrical rosettes and figural representations done in chip or flat carving have come down to us, especially f romUpper Italy8), (figs. 99,100).

The latter at times remind us of wood blocks for printing. The effectful high relief, however, intended y/to express architectonic purpose, is a creation of the renaissance.

Chests were then ornamented with wood-carving of manifold designs. The ends were emphasised by ^ diagonally placed figures, the fronts by pillars, hermae, masks, gorgons, harpies, and other mythological beings, amorettes and chained warriors, (figs. 112, 116—118, 132—134)3). Luxuriant foliage and tendrils covering the entire surface of the chest accentuate its horizontal form or perpendicular reeds strive with every

16. Bronze Door Knockers. Venice about 1575.

*) Here the question need not be discussed as to how far the renaissance pictures inserted in chests and panelling interrupted by its illusion of space, the unity of the whole surface of the pieces of furniture and the panelling. In any case they were more in keeping with the monumental rooms of the renaissance than with those of the present age. Still it is characteristic for the severe artistic taste of the High Renaissance that painted chests gave way more and more to carved ones.

  1. See Lehnert, Vol. I, pp. 402 and seq. and Robert Schmidt, pp. 70-71.
  2. Figural ornamentation of old triumphal arches are chiefly found on Roman chests.

force upwards against the power of the horizontal, again long curved flutes voice the swinging curves (figs. 108, 123, 124).

Architectural stone forms such as metopes and trig-lyphs are applied to the fronts, not used, as in classic times, to give the impression of beams, but remodelled for the purpose of having forceful decorative fillings (fig. 102).

Or, the chief accentuation is in the centre where it takes the form of an ornamental shield or some other emblem as a relief to the surrounding plain surface (fig. 106 and 112). Finally the figural reliefs seem like those pictoral stones taken mostly from ancient history and sagas found on Roman chests of the XVIth century (figs. 125—132). But these fillings almost always find

  • their necessary equi poise in a strong accentuation of the architectonic articulation, by free plastic ornamentation at the corners, and the deep shadow effect of the rich framework. This type of chest earliest found favor with collectors. But those coffers of the XVIth century possess more inner charm where a simple motive, such as dividing the front, , into fields of a dif-^ ferent size, has been developed to a most noble harmony of the whole, or where the rhythm of the parts and the^. delicate outlines with their narrow decorative lines accord with one another. But these delights can only be felt by the connoisseur (figs. 93 and 101). Another variety of distinguished furniture is the so-called treasure boxl) which developed on pretty much the same lines as its bigger sister. The small box usually had its place on tables or chests, it never served as a seat, therefore rarely had a flat lid. The earliest have mostly pointed ones; these seem copies of small Reliquaries, in imitation of the bone ornamentation frequently made by the Embriacchi, a family of artists in the XIVth century2), the surfaces were covered with bright coloured reliefs made of rice-paste (pasta di riso) (figs. 142 and
  • This seems to have served many purposes, vide Bode p. 9. Schubring (pp. 14 and 211) shows that articles of gold and silver and also money were hoarded in the big chests kept in the bedrooms. Ludwig pp. 304—5 maintains that valuables were treasured in heavy iron-plated chests (scrigni) fig. 18 and considered the jewel-chests to have been at the same time both for jewelry and toilette necessaries, in Italy known as casselle di banca da letto, in a way corresponding to the present day night-commodes.
  • Vide Schubring pp.211 and sequ.

following). The designs are often the same as those of the paintings and stucco work on the coffers. The carved oak boxes with broadly moulded profiles and slightly raised lids are of a later date (figs. 146,148,149). The ornamentation is the same as that on chests and dressers; in the XVIth century in order to obtain a richer effect, colored marble slabs were sometimes inserted (fig. 147).

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