Thursday, 4 January 2018

The Cassone, queen of renaissance furniture and tiny art gallery

The coffer was the ubiquitous piece of furniture of the middle ages. From smaller strong boxes to larger chests, they came in all shapes and sizes. The Cassone is the queen of coffers. One of the trophy furnishings of rich merchants and aristocrats in Italy from the late middle ages. The cassone was the most important piece of furniture of that time. It was given to a bride and placed in the bridal suite. It would be given during the wedding and it was the bride's parents' contribution to that celebration. 

Ornate and showy, as you might imagine, a beautiful cassone was a good opportunity to display your wealth and in the late fifteenth century there was no better way than to have a celebrated artist decorate the panels of yours. 

There survive today a number of cassone that were produced in the early decades of the 16th century by an unknown master operating in Florence. He is known to us as Maestro di Tavarnelle or Maestro di Ovidio or Maestro dei Cassoni Campana. High resolution pictures of the panels can be found here

Over several panels he tells the legend of Theseus with typically anachronistic Renaissance dress and a style that evolves the story in a single picture (so that characters appear multiple times in a single panorama). The first panel shows the passion of Pasiphae. 

1) King Minos of Crete is assumed to sacrifice a white Bull sent by Poseidon. 2) Minos thinks that it is better to sacrifice another bull which is killed and 3) sacrificed. The punishment 4, 5 ): Poseidon caused Minos's wife Pasiphae to fall in love with the bull. The result was her son the Minotaur.

Next we see the Taking of Athens by King Minos following the murder of his son Androgeos following which he imposed the annual tithe of 14 sacrificial youths.

The Third panel contains the most well known section of the legend. 
1) Minotaur, the son of the white Bull and Pasiphae, attacks and kills Cretans (In Medieval art the Minotaur is often represented as a Centaur). 2) The Minotaur is captured with the help of Poseidon. 3) The ship with Theseus arrives. Note the ship carries shields with the symbols of the Medici. 

4) Theseus meets Ariadne and her sister Phaedra. 5) Ariadne gives a ball of thread to Theseus (who is dressed like a knight) to be able to return from the Labyrinth 6). Theseus goes to the Labyrinth 7) He kills the Minotaur inside the Labyrinth, Ariadne and her sister are waiting in front of the Labyrinth 

8) Theseus with Ariadne and her sister leave Crete. 9) Their ship with the black sail (Theseus too happy has forgotten to replace it by a white sail) leaves Crete.

The final panel shows the tragic end to the legend. Theseus abandons Ariadne at Naxos but along comes Bacchus to woo her instead and there at the end the ship approaches Athens, black sails still up and the figure of Aegeus throws himself from the tower.

Quite what a bride is to make of the message of this last panel I'm not sure.

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