Leave it to the Italians for Great Embellishment.

When people think of boarded chests, they usually think of six boards nailed together in a rectangle. Some nice hinge might be all the decoration they ascribe and usually these chests are reproduced without any painting or embellishment. It tends to be figured that boarded chests are simple and non-ornate. The inclusion of a boot jack might be the ultimate expression of decoration in this style of chest. We can largely thank the Brits for this. Most of the examples available to the English speaking world are just what I mentioned above. Comparatively there is a large catalog of Medieval and Renaissance boarded chests that survive from England. While studious readers might discover phrases like “traces of polychromy remain,” what we see is a dark patina over naked grain. This in particular comes from the tendency of Victorian “Conservators” stripping any paint away from extant pieces of furniture in order to protect the wood underneath with “modern” finishes from the 19th century.

Much of the English Body that survives is also rectilinear with occasional applied decorative motifs, much of the decoration tended to be carved and painted (with the paint since removed). But we’re not here to talk about the atavism of England this week. Instead, we’re going to have a look at what might be some of the most lavish boarded chests ever created in the Renaissance.

We are extremely lucky that the Cassone form of chest have largely been maintained in their original form and decoration. Usually the value of these pieces comes from the artwork applied to the surfaces of the boarded chests, beyond their utility or design. In valuing the artwork applied to the finished chest, we can really understand what kind of embellishments to strive for should we create a boarded chest.

Cassone, in general, are a type of domestic furniture common to middle and upper class homes in Italy during the High Middle Ages and Renaissance. They were typically commissioned in pairs and reflect the family heraldry of two people on the occasion of their wedding. Sometimes only one chest was commissioned for the newlywed couple together, and other times they were made for the bride alone as their “wedding chest.”

For a large portion of the time the tradition was in effect, the chests were built of Popple (Cottonwood or Aspen) then covered in cloth which was then gessoed. This is not at all unlike the methodology of preparing panels for Ikon Painting used by the Medieval Church.

Dated 1345-1354, Florence or Siena Italy, Museum No. 317-1894, V&A Collection

Let’s start with a simple early one. Like some of the Northern European examples, this chest is reinforced with decorative metal banding. The banding, however, has only the vaguest similarity to the heavy “vinework” style we’ve seen in contemporary Norse examples and is tin sheet rather than wrought iron. The face and back boards are evidently oriented as in our basic form, and there’s something of a boot jack.

End view of same chest, Collection of the V&A

In this case, however, the “boot jack” is actually made up of applied triangular wedges which are toe-nailed to the bottom of the chest. The decoration on the surface of the end pieces is meant to suggest a joined panel while retaining the simpler construction of the boarded type. This is something we’ll find commonly in later boarded chests, but these chests were meant more to be the “canvas” for the decoration than artistic works in and of themselves.

The lid is noticeably of the “coopered” type, curving front to back, a look at the underside of the lid shows that a flat board is nailed to at least two curved battens (at the ends of the lid).

The museum description does not identify whether the top is one curved board or several coopered together. Almost disturbingly, the hinge for this chest seems to be a piece of goat skin tacked along the back edge of the lid and the top lip of the case.

V&A 317-1894, from the back. As typical, these chests look a lot nicer coming than going.

Jumping ahead a century, here is one that is actually a favorite of mine.

ca 1430, Northern Italy V&A Museum No. 80-1864

Okay, sure, we’re still in the rectangular form, but this one is all about the applied details. When woodworkers talk about applied mouldings and accents, the context is usually American Colonial furniture, not “bleeding edge” of the technique three and a half centuries earlier. What really makes this one special, in my mind, is the line of turned spindles that are sandwiched between the bottom of the faceboard and an applied stretcher. The stretcher does nothing but encapsulate the bottom of the spindles before providing a surface for the applied tracery footer to be nailed and toe-tacked onto. The face board is also very evidently made up of two boards joined on edge, with a little scarf to help keep things in line:

Side detail showing the boot-jack and edge-on view of the separate elements of the face board.

Aside from the pure construction of the casework on this piece, it is the decoration that really gets me.

“Whitened” photograph of V&A 80-1864.

While I am a huge fan of fine chisel and gouge work, the real tickler here is the turned balusters. There is a style of furniture that predates this piece by a century and a half known as “Byzantine Turned” furniture. There is nothing to relate this style to the Medieval Roman Empire, but it sure is interesting to me. It was a flash in the stylistic pan, but the innovation of decorative turnings to create a pattern on a plane design is intriguing and rare. The heyday of this kind of decoration didn’t come around until well after the Federalist Period in the United States, and clings on even today where we can purchase decorative balusters in most home centers.
In this instance, however, we have this pleasant little element that adds to out simple rectangular box with so many little circles and cylinders. The combination of turned work with other styles of woodworking is often considered a very modern concept. Seeing at least one example of this that is six centuries old shows us how much play we really have in this style.

The carved work also shows great promise for experimentation within the style. According to the V&A Description : ” The wood was chiseled or sometimes engraved with a hot needle. The recessed areas were often filled with chalk mixed with verdigris (green) or vermilion (red). The majority of figures on this chest wear clothes than would have been fashionable between about 1390 or 1430.”
And here this seems to be very low relief carving combining geometric shapes and landscape scenes. Whether the “hot needle” technique was used in this piece specifically or not is somewhat obscured by the chalk “inlay.” In another century, the chalk would begin to be replaced with pitch and pigmented size infill of geometric and stylized vinework carving

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