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Italian Hope Chests
Italian cassoni or brides' chests were among the few pieces of furniture found in Italian houses of Gothic and Renaissance times. Useful they were, and so richly attractive, that now centuries after they were made in the cluttered studios of the artists, they are collected by lovers of the beautiful.
Some carry paintings by the masters. Some are rich in intarsia - that melding of vari-colored woods into intricate patterns reminiscent of the mosaics of Eastern temples or the designs of Oriental rugs. Many are of wood, deeply carved so the designs stand out in high relief, giving highlights, shadows and texture along with the patina of time and use. Others are decorated with pastiglia or gesso - that plaster work so popular in the Renaissance.
Even the metal parts - hinges, locks, handles, and reinforcing bands or straps - were products of the master smiths as shown in their design and hammer work. They were important to these chests which might move only across the street, but more likely would be trussed on the backs of donkeys or put aboard ships to travel the days and weeks required far the bride to reach her new home: Often they were the wardrobe trunks of their day, serving bride and matron in their travels.
The Cassone Was Trunk, Bench, Table or Couch
In the bride's home the cassone or Italian hope chest became storage chest, chiffonier, bench, table, or couch. It held the family treasures and household money. To insure its safety day and night, it was frequently placed at the foot of the master's bed. When in pairs, as they frequently were made, these cassoni were placed against the wall to form the lower tier of wall decoration as well as serve as furniture.
The interiors of these cassoni were often lined with richest damasks or brocades in orange, yellow, blue, or crimson. Sometimes the inner lids were dug out, smoothed and framed, and decorated with paintings, frequently portraits of bride and groom.
Early cassoni sat on molded bases, on bracket feet, or on thick, squatty claw feet. A few stood almost a foot from the floor with simple aprons carrying the chest form neatly onto the legs. The common wood was poplar. It took the tempera paintings which decorated so many of the chests. It also worked well with the inlay work or the low carved decorations so much used to frame the painted panels.
Later Cassoni Were Elaborate in Shape and Decoration
Later hope chests or cassoni swelled out at the sides and top like sarcophagi. They stood off the floor on elaborate claw feet. Walnut, which responded to the knife and chisel and so allowed rich deep carving, was the predominant wood. Humans, pagan gods, fauns, nymphs, satyrs, cupids and phoenixes covered the panels with stories carved in the brown wood which time enriched to a burnished coppery glow. Space was allowed on the front panels for any coats of arms. The bride's, or that of her native city, was put on the left; the husband's on 'the right.
The chest decorated with paintings was the favorite. The Italian people loved colors and adored story-telling pictures. Sometimes the artist spread his picture completely across front and top panels. Again he divided his long panels into two or three sections, each of which he framed in intarsia, or carved wood, using the simple rectangle or square, or elaborating the frame to Gothic trefoil, quatrefoil, or pointed arch.
For intarsia the woods were heated or dyed to get the variety of colors necessary to the design. Sometimes ivory, natural or dyed bone, tortoise shell, and even motherof-pearl were used with the wood.
Bright Paintings Told Story Lessons on Cassoni Panels
Cassoni paintings were done in tempera. The paints were not brushed directly on the wood, but on a carefully prepared ground of gesso. This gesso was made of plaster of Paris mixed with glue and smoothed on the wood, then polished to satin smoothness, and the composition sketched on. Light shading or modeling in green or brown was then worked in.
Finally the paints were prepared. They were ground with water. (Powdered lapis lazuli, for instance, was a favorite source of Italy's rich blue.) Then they were mixed with white of egg or vegetable albumen. Once they were painted on they hardened into an enamel-like surface. Always there was a lavish spotting and outlining of gold.Love stories, both mythological and human, were favorite subjects for the paintings. Petrarch's Six Triumphs - Love, Chastity, Death, Time, Fame, and Eternity, pictured their story lessons throughout the woman's married life. The Wanderings of Ulysses and the Adventures of Aeneas may have taught tolerance of masculine adventure. The story of Sheba's Queen approaching Solomon over the bridge of the Tree of Life delicately warned that brides must seek man's guidance. Religious scenes portrayed biblical stories. And the social life of the times was recorded with all its rich pageantry and bright colored costumes for horses and humans.
America Has Many Italian Hope Chests
Many of these cassoni or hope chests had their panels painted by well known Italian masters such as Massaccio and Botticelli. Francesco Pesellino, who lived the first half of the 15th century, was a favorite, for he told his stories with splendid design, glorious color, and an imagination and tenderness that appealed to lovers.
Today these handsome hope chests of the rich Renaissance Italian girls are found in round-about corners of the world. They not only crossed the street but went by mule back to various parts of Europe and by boat across the Mediterranean to ancient Eastern lands.
They even passed the ancient Gates of Hercules and dared crossing the mighty Atlantic to come to this brave New World of the Americas. Here city museums show these cassoni in their antique furniture galleries, or hang their painted panels in rooms featuring Italian paintings.
But many a side street shop and wayside home in this broad land possess these antique hope chests. Wherever they are found, if the owner is faintly promising, and the purse permits, collectors pause to bargain for one of these wonderful cassoni that came West with some long ago Italian bride.