fig. 1 	
Italy

Among the most mysterious items in the National Gallery of Victoria’s Renaissance collection are two walnut wedding chests (figs 1 and 2). These cassoni – wooden coffers often given to newlyweds during the Renaissance – are decorated with a series of rare and distinctive features, including unusual narrative relief panels, coats of arms and decorative figures. This article explores the incomplete provenance of these intriguing chests and outlines the circumstances of their purchase by the NGV. Further, a stylistic analysis of the chests suggests they were constructed in Rome in the latter decades of the Cinquecento. Confirming this analysis, a reading of the iconography and decorative features on the ornate carved panels links the cassoni to chests in North American and Russian museums that were likely produced by the same studio. This paper also identifies a further cassone in the Collezione Carmen Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid, which bears panels identical to those on the Melbourne example. The choice of Old Testament heroine Judith as the subject for the Melbourne cassoni reliefs is also explored here to help assess the origins and significance of these important objects.

A ‘splendid addition to the Italian collection’1 Daryl Lindsay, ‘Report by Director on: a pair of late 16th century Italian Walnut Cassoni’, included in A. J. L. McDonnell, letter to the Secretary of the Felton Bequests Committee, 4 July 1955, Felton Bequest Papers, Shaw Research Library, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, letter 113.

During the fifteenth century in Italy, sumptuously decorated wooden chests known as cassoni were purchased for the houses of newlyweds, to which they were often carried as part of a nuptial procession. Both en route and once installed in the family palazzo, richly painted cassoni displayed the wealth and importance of their owners, while providing storage for garments and linens.2 Vasari records that the chests were used for storing ‘silk garments and other precious things’ (Giorgio Vasari, Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, trans. Gaston du C. De Vere, vol. 2, MacMillan and Co. & The Medici Society, London, 1912 –14, p. 108). This is illustrated in the background of Titian’s Venus of Urbino, 1538 (Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence), in which a maid bends to rifle through the contents of such a chest, apparently retrieving garments for her mistress. Prominent artists often painted these objects of great prestige and luxury with didactic imagery to inspire good behaviour in the couple. While Quattrocento cassoni are relatively well studied, the small surviving corpus from the Cinquecento remains largely neglected by modern scholarship. This is perhaps because such objects fell out of fashion and were no longer produced by high-profile artists.

The NGV purchased the Judith cassoni to complement its small but not insignificant existing collection of Renaissance paintings and sculpture. This is made clear by director Daryl Lindsay’s overseas buying schedule of 1953, which stated this aim and specified cassoni as a purchasing priority. Building on earlier 1940s policies, and also responding to current trends in collecting, the buying schedule instructs that the Gallery’s first priority should be to purchase ‘Old Master paintings and other works of art, that are essential to complete and support the most important existing Schools or groups in the Collection’.3 Daryl Lindsay, ‘National Gallery of Victoria Overseas Buying Policy’, 4 Oct. 1953, Leonard Cox Papers, State Library of Victoria, Melbourne, box PA 98/58. As part of this aim, Lindsay’s schedule specifies cassoni as worthy and valuable additions to the collection, explaining this rationale as follows:

[T]o support our Florentine and Northern Italian pictures, and for their great decorative value to the Collection as a whole, and [such cassoni] would show to great advantage beneath the Pisanello and Veronese paintings.4 ibid.

While the schedule mentions carved cassoni, it in fact focuses mainly on painted chests from the Quattrocento, noting their quality and desirability to museums.5 ibid. The schedule comments: ‘Good examples are rare and much sought after by museums both for their decorative value and as examples of early Renaissance art’. Yet after completing his revised buying schedule in 1953, Lindsay or the Felton Bequests Committee appear to have changed their minds and decided that a Cinquecento cassone would, after all, best complement the NGV collection. This is suggested by a handwritten addition to the buying schedule. Despite the document’s focus on Quattrocento cassoni, a later hand has added the words ‘16th Century’ to the phrase ‘Cassoni – Either one example or a pair’. This change of heart may be explained by an apparent decision by Lindsay or the Committee to focus on enhancing the display of Paolo Veronese’s Nobleman between Active and Contemplative life, c.1575, rather than Pisanello’s The Garden of Love, 1465–70.6 This work has since been reattributed to the Master of the Stories of Helen and the studio of Antonio Vivarini.

This new aim to flatter the Gallery’s Veronese is evident in correspondence regarding the purchase of the pair of chests. The London adviser to the Felton Bequests Committee, A. J. L. McDonnell, suggested that the cassoni would be appropriate to the aims of the buying schedule, adding in particular that the cassoni ‘would greatly enhance the display of Italian pictures such as the Veronese’:7 McDonnell, letter to the Secretary of the Felton Bequests Committee, 4 July 1955.

[F]our very similar chests have stood for many years in the octagonal room at the National Gallery here [in London] under the four Veronese, where they combine with the pictures to make a very handsome effect.8 ibid.

Lindsay’s response to the recommendation strongly supported the purchase and reaffirmed the Gallery’s objective to complement the Renaissance painting collection.9 Lindsay writes, ‘As Mr. McDonnell says they could be shown to great advantage with the Veronese and other Italian paintings’ (Daryl Lindsay, letter to A. J. L. McDonnell, London Adviser to the Felton Bequests Committee, 25 July 1955, Felton Bequest Papers, Shaw Research Library, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, letter 114). The director also described the pair of chests as ‘magnificent examples of late 16th Century Italian craftsmanship’, and as a ‘splendid addition to the Italian collection’.10 Lindsay, letter to McDonnell, 25 July 1955. The sale was approved and the cassoni purchased in 1955. The acquisition was completed, received and installed without fanfare and went largely unreported in the Gallery Bulletin.11 The Gallery’s Quarterly Bulletin of 1956 (vol. 10, no. 1, pp. 1–2) featured an unannotated photograph of one of the pair, while the institution’s annual report of 1956 simply included them in its list of acquisitions for the year: ‘Chests (Pair) Italian, price 1560.0.0’ (Trustees of the National Gallery of Victoria, ,Report of the Trustees of the National Gallery of Victoria with Statement of Income and Expenditure for the Year Ended 30th June, 1956, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 1956).

Provenance and authenticity

The provenance of the Melbourne cassoni is incomplete. Offered for sale in London in 1955 through antique dealers Frank Partridge and Sons, the chests had been in the collections of Lord Hill and William Randolph Hearst, according to the letter from A. J. L. McDonnell recommending the objects for purchase.12 McDonnell, letter to Secretary of the Felton Bequests Committee, 4 July 1955. The letter, however, does not specify who was the more recent owner, nor does it make clear the identity of ‘Lord Hill’, who may either have been Viscount Hill or Lord Hill Baronet of Hawkstone. Similarly, while the magnificent collection of American William Randolph Hearst is well known, his archive offers no insights into these chests, nor even a definite account of their acquisition.13 For an overview of Hearst and his collections see Mary L. Levkoff, Hearst the Collector, Los Angeles County Museum of Art and Abrams, Los Angeles, 2008. Hearst did have a substantial collection of Cinquecento chests, at one time owning at least thirteen,14 While it has since been dispersed, the collection included a number of sixteenth-century walnut cassoniadorned with relief panels (see ‘List of Furniture Holdings’, William Randolph Hearst Archive, Long Island University Cedar Swamp Historical Society Collection, B. Davis Schwartz Memorial Library, New York, album 28). but these were little documented on account of them being considered items of furniture rather than works of art. Instead, a stylistic and iconographic analysis offers the most information on the origins and significance of the objects and their decoration.

Style and dating

The Melbourne chests have the classic form of Cinquecento cassoni, which were more closely modelled on classical sarcophagi than on their Quattrocento predecessors. While Quattrocento cassoni were shaped to suggest classical tombs and often bore decorative references to Greek and Roman art, including scrolls, claw feet and a raised lid,15 See, for example, the chest and spalliera with the arms of Lorenzo Morelli and Vaggia Nerli (The Morelli Chest), 1472, The Courtald Gallery, London, and the chest and spalliera with the arms of Vaggia Nerli and Lorenzo Morelli (The Nerli Chest), 1472, The Courtald Gallery, London. On these objects see Caroline Campbell, Love and Marriage in Renaissance Florence: The Courtauld Wedding Chests, The Courtauld Gallery in association with P. Holberton, London, 2009, pp. 69–79. the objects themselves were largely rectilinear in order to bear flat painted panels.16 William M. Odom, A History of Italian Furniture from the Fourteenth to the Early Nineteenth Centuries, Archive Press, New York, 1966–67, p. 176. Cinquecento chests drew on classical art more heavily, featuring sentinel-like figures on their corners, large and prominent paw feet and tiered lids with decorated borders. Such chests also bore classical-style acanthus leaves, rosettes, garlands, masks and trophies, and prominent, central armorial bearings.17 See, for example, David Dubon, The Frick Collection. An Illustrated Catalogue, vol. 5, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1992, pp. 8–22. Their narrative scenes also echoed Roman sarcophagi: crowded with figures, they were sometimes even tinted to resemble patinated bronze.18 John Morley, Furniture: The Western Tradition; History, Style, Design, Thames & Hudson, London 1999, p. 109; and Odom, p. 176.

Also particular to the sixteenth century are the carved narrative scenes on these cassoni, as fifteenth-century wedding chests were painted rather than sculpted. Giorgio Vasari noted this change, stating that although in the fifteenth century ‘there were none that did not have the said chests painted’, by the mid sixteenth century, fashion favoured chests that were intricately carved.19 Vasari further observes: ‘The custom prevailed, after no long time, of forming richer decoration, by carving in natural wood, covered in gold, which did indeed produce most rich and magnificent ornaments’ (Vasari, p. 108). The NGV marriage chests therefore bear all the hallmark features of sixteenth-century cassoni.20 There were, however, several cassoni carved with purely decorative schemes, often from Venice and highly influenced by the classical period (see, for example, Morley, p. 115).

A stylistic analysis of the Melbourne cassoni suggests that they were produced in Rome. The chests bear a range of decorative features characteristic of that city, where cassoni decoration was most strongly influenced by classical funerary sculpture and architecture. The patterned gadrooning on the chests’ lower edges is common in both Greek and Roman sculpture, as is the rosette pattern carved on the overhang of each cassone’s lid.21 See, for example, Salomon Reinach, Répertoire de reliefs grecs et romains, vol. 2, E. Leroux, Paris, 1897, p. 80, figs 3–4; p. 147, figs 1–4. In addition, the corner figures guarding the Melbourne cassoni were common on classical sarcophagi, which also frequently bore the lions’ paw feet seen here. Classically inspired too are the cornucopia atop the winged heads that appear on both ends of each cassone, as well as the garlands under the masks that sit below the coats of arms on the front of each chest. The armorial bearings are a further indicator that the Melbourne cassoni originate in Rome, where coats of arms formed a dominant part of the decoration of such objects and were placed in the centre of the front panel. However, ascribing the objects to a single workshop is not possible, since the declining prestige of such objects’ decoration reduced their appeal to high-profile artists, leaving few known cassoni sculptors from this period.

On stylistic and iconographic grounds the Melbourne cassoni can, however, be linked to at least fifteen other chests – thirteen in public collections, and two now lost.22 The thirteen cassoni in museum collections are held in the Frick Collection, New York; the Hermitage, St Petersburg; the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia; the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA); the Lehman Collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; and the J. Paul Getty Museum, Malibu. Further cassoni were at one time held in Berlin’s Kaiser Friedrich Museum and Schloss Museum. The lost cassoni were auctioned by Sotheby Parke Bernet in New York on November 10–11, 1972, as lots 18–19. For descriptions and details see Dubon, p. 42. These connections may also help determine the origin of the Melbourne chests, although at present there is little agreement in the scholarly literature about where these other cassoni were made.23 Dubon, p. 28. All of the chests are connected by their iconography: compositions, subjects and decorative features are repeated in a number of examples. Each bears one or more of the following, executed in the same style: a central escutcheon bordered by Ephesian Dianas and sometimes flanked by muscular slaves depicted in various postures; a scene of homage in which a crowd bends before Caesar; a panel illustrating The Opening of the Treasury after Plutarch’s Caesar; a representation of a crowd before a statue and/or a portrayal of the Triumph of Caesar. That the narrative is derived from Plutarch’s Lives is evident from the phrase ‘Vedi vidi vinci’, with which Caesar reported his Pontic victory and which appears as an inscription on a chest in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, United States. Some of the iconography is also derived from Roman monuments. While previous authors have noted the links between these chests24 ibid., p. 42. their similarity to the Melbourne cassoni has not previously been noted. This includes the representation of Judith before Holofernes (fig. 3), which resembles closely the scene of homage before Caesar that appears on other chests, including that in the Frick Collection, New York (fig. 4). There are also decorative motifs common among the group, such as the rosette pattern that appears just below the lid of the Judith cassoni.

Two further cassoni not identified by previous studies of the group have even more in common with the Melbourne pair, and these too may, in the future, provide provenance information about the Melbourne chests. The first additional cassone is in the Carmen Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection, Madrid (fig. 5).25 The connection between this work and the LACMA and Hermitage chests is also made by Casto Castellanos Ruiz on the website of the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza (Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, ‘More information about this work’, , accessed 21 May 2014. This chest bears a similar escutcheon and decorative scheme, but, most importantly, near-identical narrative panels to one of the Melbourne cassoni – scenes that depict Judith appearing before Holofernes and the subsequent feast.26 The Madrid scenes have been previously described as illustrating the Judgment of Solomon and his meeting with the Queen of Sheba (see Adolf Feulner, Stiftung Sammlung Schloss Rohoncz, Vol. 3, Villa Favorita, Lugano-Castagnola, 1941, p. 113). The iconography of these Madrid panels has not previously been correctly identified. A second closely related chest, also identified here for the first time, was sold at auction in July 2012 where it was described as an ‘Italian Carved Walnut Armorial Cassone, Rome, late 16th or early 17th Century’ (fig. 6).27 The chest was sold as lot 59 in sale 5703 at Christie’s London, King Street, on 6 July 2012. Like the Madrid chest, this cassone is without its matching pair. This chest closely resembles the Melbourne and Madrid cassoni in parts of its decorative scheme, the style of the carvings and parts of the iconography, particularly in the scene of homage, which here illustrates a scene from the History of Rome by Titus Livius Patavinus (c.59 BC – 17 AD) rather than Judith appearing before Holofernes. These additional chests are both thought to have originated in Rome, supporting a similar attribution of the Melbourne cassoni.

Despite these similarities, the Melbourne chests are extremely distinctive. They bear a series of unusual and undeciphered features that are found on almost no other cassoni from the period. The first of these is the unusual form of the carved figures on the outer corners of each chest (fig. 7). Where most contemporary chests feature putti, harpies,28 For example, see the putti on the Frick Collection cassoni 16.5.80 and 16.5.81 (see Dubon, pp. 24, 46). For harpies see, for example, the following cassoni: a pair in the Frick Collection 16.5.117 and 16.5.118 (Dubon, p. 45); another in the Museo Nazionale, Florence (Odom, p. 127); one more in the Bardini Collection, Florence (p. 127); and another in the Musee Jacquemart Andre, Paris (Morley, p. 107). prophets, philosophers, non-specific male figures29 Such as cassoni 18.5.78 and 18.5.79 in the Frick Collection (Dubon, p. 40). or Dacian captives,30 Based on the well-known models of the ‘Farnese Captives’ in the Museo Archaeologico Nazionale, Naples. the Melbourne cassoni are adorned with empty suits of armour. The helmet is shaped as a grotesque and thus leers evilly at the viewer; its emptiness is both unusual and eerie. The significance of the empty armour is unclear: it has no obvious narrative or symbolic function and is largely unknown on other sixteenth-century cassoni.

The second very particular feature of the Melbourne cassoni is their heraldry. A coat of arms appears prominently in the centre-front of each chest, likely to identify the families of a bride and groom for whose wedding the cassoni were commissioned. The bearings remain legible, unlike many extant marriage cassoni of the period, and there is an obvious lion rampant, fallen tree, fess bretessé and trio of urns. When combined with marriage records from the late sixteenth century, this heraldry could give a more precise date of construction for the cassoni. The heraldry, however, does not seem to refer to any of the most prolific and prominent families in Rome in the late sixteenth century whose insignia feature on major extant monuments and works of art from this period. More specialised heraldic research beyond the scope of this paper is required to answer this question.

‘Her sandal ravished his eyes, her beauty captivated his mind, and the sword severed his neck.’ (Judith 16:9)

The Melbourne cassoni are adorned with sumptuous relief carvings depicting scenes from the biblical Book of Judith. This text tells of a pious widow who delivered the Jews of Bethulia from the ravages of an invading Assyrian army. The frightened Jews were surrounded by their enemy and on the verge of surrender when Judith, a virtuous, rich and beautiful widow, went to the Assyrian camp dressed in fine clothes and jewellery. Brought before the enemy general Holofernes, she offered to help him defeat her people. Holofernes summoned Judith to a feast in his luxurious tent, where he rested ‘under a canopy which was woven with purple and gold and emeralds and precious stones’ (Judith 10:20). The general ate extravagantly and drank ‘much more than he had ever drunk in any one day since he was born’ (Judith 12:18). Without compromising her virtue, patient, righteous Judith was able to overpower and kill him by severing his head with a sword. She then returned to her people, taking Holofernes’s head in a food bag carried by her maid. The widow became a celebrated heroine, ‘the exaltation of Jerusalem’, ‘the great glory of Israel’, and ‘the great pride of our nation’ (Judith 15:9). The Assyrians fled and Judith sang a song of praise before retiring again to virtuous widowhood.

On the Melbourne chests, Judith is portrayed in a manner consistent with the aim and function of Renaissance cassoni imagery. Patrons commissioning or purchasing such objects chose didactic subjects intended to remind newlyweds of the virtues proper to their new roles as husband and wife: sexual virtue and obedience for women and leadership for men. Thus exemplary lives from Petrarch or Boccaccio were represented on cassone panels to provide salutary examples of qualities such as love and justice (in the story of Trajan); generosity and sexual restraint (Alexander, Scipio); mercy (Caesar); female obedience and the benefits of marriage (the Rape of the Sabines); and chastity (Tuccia the vestal virgin).31 Vasari explains that ‘the stories that were wrought on the front were for the most part fables taken from Ovid and from other poets, or rather, stories related by the Greek and Latin historians, and likewise chases, jousts, tales of love, and other similar subjects, according to each man’s particular pleasure’ (Vasari, p. 107). On the interpretation of cassone imagery see Campbell, p. 32–40; and Paola Tinagli, Women in Italian Renaissance Painting: Gender, Representation, and Identity, Manchester University Press, New York, 1997, pp. 21–31. In many cases, cassone panels also provided an excuse for representing ornate scenes of celebration and festivity; in almost all cases the panels are a riot of activity and embellishment, featuring large numbers of figures. Yet behind the spectacle was a serious moral message.32 While the didactic intent of Quattrocento cassoni imagery is generally accepted, the paucity of scholarship on Cinquecento examples inhibits our understanding of the function of their imagery. There is, however, no evidence to suggest an abrupt change in purpose.

To execute this didactic function, the Melbourne chests portray Judith in a positive manner as a virtuous heroine, with no suggestion of the violence or seduction seen in other Renaissance works on the subject. This is made clear by the heroine’s dress and demeanour. Whereas painters sometimes suggested voluptuousness by displaying Judith’s décolletage or thigh, on the Melbourne panels the heroine is dressed modestly in a high-necked gown, covered to wrist and ankles and veiled until she returns home to her people. Similarly, the heroine behaves demurely, bowing before Holofernes when presented to him and keeping her gaze lowered at the feast. This is in line with the Book of Judith, which notes the heroine’s chastity repeatedly and is at pains to emphasise her perpetual purity.33 Returning from the Assyrian camp, for example, Judith notes that the Lord had protected her, and that ‘it was my fact that tricked him to his destruction’, and ‘he committed no act of sin with me, to defile and shame me’ (Judith 13:16).

The cassoni panels also have Judith demonstrate qualities prized in a Renaissance wife. Where at the feast a great many attendants prepare and serve an array of dishes, Judith takes food from the hand of her maid, a reference to her pious observance of Jewish dietary strictures noted in the text.34 At the feast Judith ‘took what her maid had prepared and ate and drank before him’ (Judith 12:19). Similarly, in the reliefs Judith is dissociated entirely from her violent act: she is not even present at the scene. Instead, the virtuoso carving has soldiers drawing back the bed curtains to reveal the beautifully foreshortened body of Holofernes, neck neatly sliced without a trace of gore (fig. 8). The viewer’s eye is drawn to the carefully rendered drapery, intricate armour and masterful perspective in the scene rather than its violence, with Judith barely visible in the background, escaping with her maid. The final scene, in which Judith receives the adulation of her people upon her return, continues the endorsement of her virtue. The heroine appears on a platform surrounded by a crowd of worshipful Bethulians, including elders, soldiers and a priest, all exalting her. In this way the Melbourne cassone panels present Judith as a model of valour who nonetheless maintains the proper feminine virtues of humility, piety and modesty.

The positive portrayal of Judith in the Melbourne panels thus guided the Renaissance viewer to recall other prized feminine traits exhibited by the biblical Judith. She was wise and beautiful: brought before Holofernes, his courtiers ‘marvelled at the beauty of her face’ (Judith 10:20), and Holofernes opined that ‘[n]o other woman from one end of the earth to the other looks so beautiful or speaks so wisely!’ (Judith 11:21). She was also pious, devout and from a long and worthy lineage; indeed, ‘no one spoke ill of her, for she feared God with great devotion’ (Judith 8:8).35 The heroine of the Book of Judith also exhibits a number of characteristics less prized in Renaissance women: apart from being strong and self-reliant, she is independent, choosing not to remarry after her husband’s death and refusing to submit to the will of any man. This, however, was perhaps less evident in visual imagery which could present only key scenes from her story. The text also points out that the heroine’s achievements are extraordinary given her sex, marvelling at the ability of a woman to defeat a powerful man:

For their mighty one did not fall by the hands of the young men, nor did the sons of the Titans strike him down, nor did tall giants set upon him; but Judith the daughter of Merari undid him with the beauty of her countenance (Judith 16:7).36 The text also tells that before undertaking her task, Judith prayed to God to ‘crush their arrogance by the hand of a woman’ (Judith 9:10) and that, when she returned, the Israelites made a similar exclamation that ‘the Lord Almighty has foiled them by the hand of a woman’ (Judith 16:6).

As beauty of visage indicated beauty of soul in Renaissance understanding, Judith was an exemplary figure for a bride to imitate.37 Holofernes is a less than exemplary figure for the Renaissance groom to imitate, but his drunkenness, lechery and eventual death at the hands of the virtuous heroine perhaps offered a cautionary reminder of the rewards of sin.

This virtuous Judith is consistent not only with the instructive function of cassone imagery but also with the interpretation of Judith in sixteenth-century visual culture. Although many well-known depictions of Judith from the Renaissance present her as a violent seductress, a parallel tradition framed the heroine as a model of piety and purity. These began with influential portrayals of her as a personification of virtue in both the popular twelfth-century Speculum Virginum and in Prudentius’s Psychomachia (fifth century), which had an enduring influence in the Renaissance. Furthermore, Judith’s symbolic links to the Virgin prompted positive representations of her in Counter-Reformation texts and imagery contemporary with the Melbourne chests. The links between Judith and Mary were derived from medieval typology, patristic literature, biblical allegory38 Catholics also found in the Old Testament explicit evidence of the link between the Virgin and Judith. When Judith returns home to Bethulia, for example, an elder proclaims, ‘you are blessed by the Most High God above all other women on earth’ (Judith 13:23), which was taken by Catholics as a reference to Luke 1:28, when at the Annunciation Gabriel exclaims to the Virgin, ‘blessed art thou amongst women’. and medieval manuscripts,39 Saint Bonaventura was among the first to link the Virgin to the Old Testament heroines Jael, Esther and Judith, whose decapitation of Holofernes he likened to the Virgin beheading the devil. This association was echoed in the thirteenth chapter of the Speculum Humanae Salvationis, which also linked several of Judith’s habits and actions to those of the Virgin. This is evident, for example, in the fragment of a late fourteenth-century Tuscan manuscript of the Speculum Humanae Salvationis in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge (MS 43-1950, fol. 14v), that presents the Virgin Slaying the Devil alongside Judith Killing Holofernes. This is also evident in the early fifteenth-century Speculum Humanae Salvationis in the John Rylands Library, University of Manchester, United Kingdom, which presents together The Virgin Overcomes Satan, Judith and Holofernes, Jael and Sisera and Tamyris Kills Cyrus (Latin MS. 27, fol. 28v–29r). On the typological parallels between Judith and the Virgin, see Elena Ciletti, ‘Judith Imagery as Catholic Orthodoxy in Counter-Reformation Italy’, in Kevin R. Brine et. al. (ed.), The Sword of Judith: Judith Studies Across the Disciplines, Open Book Publishers, Cambridge, 2010, pp. 356–7. and took on a theological importance as part of the Catholic defence against the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception.40 Saint Jerome’s lengthy meditation on Judith’s Mary-like virtue was quoted frequently in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and influential preachers such as Robert Bellarmine used the allegorical links between Mary and virtuous Judith as part of his defence of the Immaculate Conception in a 1570 sermon. For further information see Ciletti, p. 365. The link was so significant that Judith became a bastion of the Catholic defence of Mary against Protestantism and is evident in art of the period. The connection between the pair is evident in Cinquecento works of art, including Lorenzo Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise, 1425–52,41 On the baptistery doors, a small figure of Judith appears in the border of the David and Goliath panel. and Albrecht Dürer’s Life of the Virgin print series, 1503, in which the scene of the Annunciation includes a simulated relief of Judith with the head of Holofernes.42 In fact, the association between the two women was so strong that the illustration of a 1608 poem about Judith by Bartolommeo Tortoletti subsumes the Old Testament heroine entirely into the Virgin, who alone of the two is depicted on the title page, in this case on clouds holding the baby Jesus (Bartolomeo Tortoletti, Ivditha Vindex et Vindicata, Stamperia Vaticana, Rome, 1628. The text was composed in c.1608). In fact, the connection between Judith and Mary is referenced in some of the most prominent and significant works of art commissioned by the Church during this period, including a major fresco cycle commissioned for Rome’s Palazzo Lateranense, the historical nexus of papal power.43 The cycle focuses on Judith as Chastity, Piety and Humility – the very qualities that were cited as linking her to the Virgin – defeating Holofernes as Lust, Blasphemy and Pride. Executed by Giovanni Guerra, Cesare Nebbia and their workshop in 1588–89, the series is one of the most extensive known Judith cycles. In that city alone the heroine appears in the Gesù, Santa Maria in Vallicella, Santa Maria del Popolo and St Peter’s Basilica. Such examples confirm the inextricable link between the two women in the art of this period and reinforce Judith’s importance in Counter-Reformation visual culture.44 Ciletti, p. 363.

The connection between Mary and Judith is suggested on the Melbourne panels by a scallop shell displayed prominently below the escutcheon in their centre-front. In the Renaissance, such shells referenced Mary’s divine conception and her symbolic role as the new Venus.45 Such imagery featured prominently in Renaissance art; for example, in Piero della Francesca’s Brera Madonna, 1472 (Pinacoteca di Brera Milan), with the prominent dome above the Virgin and Child shaped as a scallop shell. Judith’s other attraction as a positive allegory was as a symbol of the resurgent Counter-Reformation Church itself. After Protestant reformers questioned the canonicity of the Book of Judith,46 In his 1534 translation of the Bible into German, Martin Luther wrote at length about problems with the Book of Judith and, despite commending it as a fine and godly work, set it apart from the remainder of the Bible as part of the Apocrypha (Martin Luther, Biblia, das ist die gantze Heilige Schrifft Deudsch, Wittemberg 1534, Taschen, Cologne, 2002, p. IIr). The Council of Trent disagreed and proclaimed unequivocally the legitimacy of the full Vulgate. For the decrees, see Jaroslav Pelikan & Valerie Hotchkiss (eds), Creeds and Confessions of Faith in the Christian Tradition, vol. 2, Yale University Press, New Haven, 2003, pp. 822–4. upholding the validity of the Book became emblematic of the Counter-Reformation and the heroine came to stand for the resurgent, resilient Church itself. The Palazzo Lateranense fresco cycle, for example, makes extensive use of Judith in this way.47 As well as presenting the achievements of the reigning pope (whose insignia is abundantly referenced) and denouncing Protestant heresy, the Palazzo Lateranense fresco cycle depicts Judith, whose ancient lineage is used as theological evidence for Mary’s ancestry. Judith’s story was probably chosen because Cesare Baronio’s Annales Ecclesiastici (1588–1607), which was sponsored by and dedicated to Sixtus, links Judith typologically to the first pope, thus presenting her as a confirmation of the Church’s righteous authority. For more information see Cesare Baronio, Annales Ecclesiastici, 10 vols, Vatican, Rome, 1588–1602, and Plantinus, Antwerp, 1602–58; Ciletti, pp. 350–7. This connection is echoed in a range of contemporary dramas48 In a range of widely performed sixteenth-century dramas, Judith’s defeat of Holofernes represented the Church’s battle with heresy (see Mary D. Garrard, Artemisia Gentileschi: The Image of the Female Hero in Italian Baroque Art, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1989, p. 289). and theological treatises.49 In particular, Judith was central to the argument of several important late sixteenth-century texts that became cornerstones of Counter-Reformation ideology. Robert Bellarmine’s Disputationes de controversiis Christiane fidei (1581–1593) and Baronio’s Annales Ecclesiastici both used Judith as evidence of the foundations of the Church’s authority, and both texts were widely known and highly influential. They suggest strongly that Catholic patrons commissioning representations of Judith would have been aware of her importance to the Counter-Reformation. In fact, Bellarmine states this specifically in his lengthy rebuttal of Luther’s claims against the Book of Judith. He notes that those of his contemporaries who commissioned Judith imagery would know that defending her canonicity was important to Catholic renewal (Robert Bellarmine, Disputationes de Controversiis christianae fidei adversus huius temporis haereticos, 3 vols, Sartori, Ingolstadt, pp. 6–93).

The iconography of the Melbourne reliefs appears to support their dating to the sixteenth century rather than the nineteenth century, when many copies in this style were created. Judith was an obscure and unpopular figure in nineteenth-century visual and literary culture, and a copyist at that time would have been more likely to illustrate one of the classical subjects favoured both in his own time and in the Renaissance. In the nineteenth century, representations of Judith waned as artists and writers conflated the heroine with Salome, the nemesis of John the Baptist.50 On perceptions of Judith in the twentieth century see Theodore Ziolkowski, ‘Re-Visions, fictionalizations, and postfigurations: the myth of Judith in the twentieth century’, The Modern Language Review, vol. 104, no. 2, April 2009, pp. 311–32. The two were linked as ‘unnatural’ women because they killed men, and the association tarred Judith with Salome’s lust and desire for vengeance. Her reputation tarnished, Judith then began to slide into obscurity as Oscar Wilde’s 1894 play Salome focused popular imagination on a similar but different biblical female. Judith’s final eclipse by Salome in visual and popular culture is suggested by the title of Gustav Klimt’s 1909 painting Judith II (Salomé), which was eventually known simply as Salomé as interest grew in the nemesis of John the Baptist.51 Marie-Amélie zu Salm-Salm & Serge Lemoine (eds), Klimt, Schiele, Moser, Kokoschka: Vienna 1900, Lund Humphries and Editions de la Réunion des Musées Nationaux, Aldershot and Paris, 2005, p. 112. In Italy, too, nineteenth-century drama satirising Judith suggests that such an unpatriotic, individualistic, religious heroine held little interest for those citizens of the new Italian state in the market for a modern faux-Renaissance cassone.52 Marco Marcelliano Marcello’s Judith (1860), for example, depicts Holofernes defeated by the Jewish army, making Judith’s triumph unimportant. Similarly, in Friedrich Hebbel’s tragedy Judith (1840), well known in Italy, Judith was already pregnant to Holofernes, undermining her victory. In subsequent dramas – with the exception of a small number of religious plays — the story slid into parody or licentious Orientalism dominated by the interests and actions of the male characters. For more information see Alberto M. Banti, L’onore della nazione. Identità sessuali e violenza nel nazionalismo europeo dal XVIII secolo alla Grande Guerra, Einaudi, Turin, 2005, p. 324. This being the case, a copyist at that time would have been unlikely to choose Judith to decorate a chest assembled for a modern audience. Although this is not definitive evidence of a sixteenth-century date for the chests, given that modern copyists generally echo the tastes of the Renaissance, it nevertheless further supports the case.53 Paolo Bernardini, ‘Judith in the Italian unification process, 1800–1900’, in Brine et al., pp. 397–410.

Conclusion

The iconography of the Melbourne cassoni is thus consistent both with the interpretation of Judith in the sixteenth century and the function of imagery on Renaissance wedding chests. Further, the stylistic association between the Melbourne cassoni and the previously identified group of sixteenth-century chests in other collections, as well as the newly noted link to the Madrid cassone, suggest the pair in question were also constructed in a studio in Rome. Although there remains more to discover about the heraldry and provenance of these chests and a more precise dating remains elusive, the evidence presented here suggests that these chests are unusual and important examples of sixteenth-century marriage furniture.

Anna Drummond, independant scholar (in 2014)

Notes

The author would like to thank Matthew Martin, Curator, International Decorative Arts and Antiquities, NGV, for his assistance with this article, and Ben Thomas for material from the Lindsay Archives, State Library of Victoria, Melbourne.

1       Daryl Lindsay, ‘Report by Director on: a pair of late 16th century Italian Walnut Cassoni’, included in A. J. L. McDonnell, letter to the Secretary of the Felton Bequests Committee, 4 July 1955, Felton Bequest Papers, Shaw Research Library, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, letter 113.

2       Vasari records that the chests were used for storing ‘silk garments and other precious things’ (Giorgio Vasari, Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, trans. Gaston du C. De Vere, vol. 2, MacMillan and Co. & The Medici Society, London, 1912 –14, p. 108). This is illustrated in the background of Titian’s Venus of Urbino, 1538 (Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence), in which a maid bends to rifle through the contents of such a chest, apparently retrieving garments for her mistress.

3       Daryl Lindsay, ‘National Gallery of Victoria Overseas Buying Policy’, 4 Oct. 1953, Leonard Cox Papers, State Library of Victoria, Melbourne, box PA 98/58.

4       ibid.

5       ibid. The schedule comments: ‘Good examples are rare and much sought after by museums both for their decorative value and as examples of early Renaissance art’.

6       This work has since been reattributed to the Master of the Stories of Helen and the studio of Antonio Vivarini.

7       McDonnell, letter to the Secretary of the Felton Bequests Committee, 4 July 1955.

8       ibid.

9       Lindsay writes, ‘As Mr. McDonnell says they could be shown to great advantage with the Veronese and other Italian paintings’ (Daryl Lindsay, letter to A. J. L. McDonnell, London Adviser to the Felton Bequests Committee, 25 July 1955, Felton Bequest Papers, Shaw Research Library, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, letter 114).

10     Lindsay, letter to McDonnell, 25 July 1955.

11     The Gallery’s Quarterly Bulletin of 1956 (vol. 10, no. 1, pp. 1–2) featured an unannotated photograph of one of the pair, while the institution’s annual report of 1956 simply included them in its list of acquisitions for the year: ‘Chests (Pair) Italian, price 1560.0.0’ (Trustees of the National Gallery of Victoria, Report of the Trustees of the National Gallery of Victoria with Statement of Income and Expenditure for the Year Ended 30th June, 1956, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 1956).

12     McDonnell, letter to Secretary of the Felton Bequests Committee, 4 July 1955.

13     For an overview of Hearst and his collections see Mary L. Levkoff, Hearst the Collector, Los Angeles County Museum of Art and Abrams, Los Angeles, 2008.

14     While it has since been dispersed, the collection included a number of sixteenth-century walnut cassoni adorned with relief panels (see ‘List of Furniture Holdings’, William Randolph Hearst Archive, Long Island University Cedar Swamp Historical Society Collection, B. Davis Schwartz Memorial Library, New York, album 28).

15     See, for example, the chest and spalliera with the arms of Lorenzo Morelli and Vaggia Nerli (The Morelli Chest), 1472, The Courtald Gallery, London, and the chest and spalliera with the arms of Vaggia Nerli and Lorenzo Morelli (The Nerli Chest), 1472, The Courtald Gallery, London. On these objects see Caroline Campbell, Love and Marriage in Renaissance Florence: The Courtauld Wedding Chests, The Courtauld Gallery in association with P. Holberton, London, 2009, pp. 69–79.

16     William M. Odom, A History of Italian Furniture from the Fourteenth to the Early Nineteenth Centuries, Archive Press, New York, 1966–67, p. 176.

17     See, for example, David Dubon, The Frick Collection. An Illustrated Catalogue, vol. 5, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1992, pp. 8–22.

18     John Morley, Furniture: The Western Tradition; History, Style, Design, Thames & Hudson, London 1999, p. 109; and Odom, p. 176.

19     Vasari further observes: ‘The custom prevailed, after no long time, of forming richer decoration, by carving in natural wood, covered in gold, which did indeed produce most rich and magnificent ornaments’ (Vasari, p. 108).

20     There were, however, several cassoni carved with purely decorative schemes, often from Venice and highly influenced by the classical period (see, for example, Morley, p. 115).

21     See, for example, Salomon Reinach, Répertoire de reliefs grecs et romains, vol. 2, E. Leroux, Paris, 1897, p. 80, figs 3–4; p. 147, figs 1–4.

22     The thirteen cassoni in museum collections are held in the Frick Collection, New York; the Hermitage, St Petersburg; the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia; the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA); the Lehman Collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; and the J. Paul Getty Museum, Malibu. Further cassoni were at one time held in Berlin’s Kaiser Friedrich Museum and Schloss Museum. The lost cassoni were auctioned by Sotheby Parke Bernet in New York on November 10–11, 1972, as lots 18–19. For descriptions and details see Dubon, p. 42.

23     Dubon, p. 28.

24     ibid., p. 42.

25     The connection between this work and the LACMA and Hermitage chests is also made by Casto Castellanos Ruiz on the website of the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza (Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza,  ‘More information about this work’, <http://www.museothyssen.org/en/thyssen/ficha_obra/33>, accessed 21 May 2014.

26     The Madrid scenes have been previously described as illustrating the Judgment of Solomon and his meeting with the Queen of Sheba (see Adolf Feulner, Stiftung Sammlung Schloss Rohoncz, Vol. 3, Villa Favorita, Lugano-Castagnola, 1941, p. 113).

27     The chest was sold as lot 59 in sale 5703 at Christie’s London, King Street, on 6 July 2012. Like the Madrid chest, this cassone is without its matching pair.

28     For example, see the putti on the Frick Collection cassoni 16.5.80 and 16.5.81 (see Dubon, pp. 24, 46). For harpies see, for example, the following cassoni: a pair in the Frick Collection 16.5.117 and 16.5.118 (Dubon, p. 45); another in the Museo Nazionale, Florence (Odom, p. 127); one more in the Bardini Collection, Florence (p. 127); and another in the Musee Jacquemart Andre, Paris (Morley, p. 107).

29     Such as cassoni 18.5.78 and 18.5.79 in the Frick Collection (Dubon, p. 40).

30     Based on the well-known models of the ‘Farnese Captives’ in the Museo Archaeologico Nazionale, Naples.

31     Vasari explains that ‘the stories that were wrought on the front were for the most part fables taken from Ovid and from other poets, or rather, stories related by the Greek and Latin historians, and likewise chases, jousts, tales of love, and other similar subjects, according to each man’s particular pleasure’ (Vasari, p. 107). On the interpretation of cassone imagery see Campbell, p. 32–40; and Paola Tinagli, Women in Italian Renaissance Painting: Gender, Representation, and Identity, Manchester University Press, New York, 1997, pp. 21–31.

32     While the didactic intent of Quattrocento cassoni imagery is generally accepted, the paucity of scholarship on Cinquecento examples inhibits our understanding of the function of their imagery. There is, however, no evidence to suggest an abrupt change in purpose.

33     Returning from the Assyrian camp, for example, Judith notes that the Lord had protected her, and that ‘it was my fact that tricked him to his destruction’, and ‘he committed no act of sin with me, to defile and shame me’ (Judith 13:16).

34     At the feast Judith ‘took what her maid had prepared and ate and drank before him’ (Judith 12:19).

35     The heroine of the Book of Judith also exhibits a number of characteristics less prized in Renaissance women: apart from being strong and self-reliant, she is independent, choosing not to remarry after her husband’s death and refusing to submit to the will of any man. This, however, was perhaps less evident in visual imagery which could present only key scenes from her story.

36     The text also tells that before undertaking her task, Judith prayed to God to ‘crush their arrogance by the hand of a woman’ (Judith 9:10) and that, when she returned, the Israelites made a similar exclamation that ‘the Lord Almighty has foiled them by the hand of a woman’ (Judith 16:6).

37     Holofernes is a less than exemplary figure for the Renaissance groom to imitate, but his drunkenness, lechery and eventual death at the hands of the virtuous heroine perhaps offered a cautionary reminder of the rewards of sin.

38     Catholics also found in the Old Testament explicit evidence of the link between the Virgin and Judith. When Judith returns home to Bethulia, for example, an elder proclaims, ‘you are blessed by the Most High God above all other women on earth’ (Judith 13:23), which was taken by Catholics as a reference to Luke 1:28, when at the Annunciation Gabriel exclaims to the Virgin, ‘blessed art thou amongst women’.

39     Saint Bonaventura was among the first to link the Virgin to the Old Testament heroines Jael, Esther and Judith, whose decapitation of Holofernes he likened to the Virgin beheading the devil. This association was echoed in the thirteenth chapter of the Speculum Humanae Salvationis, which also linked several of Judith’s habits and actions to those of the Virgin. This is evident, for example, in the fragment of a late fourteenth-century Tuscan manuscript of the Speculum Humanae Salvationis in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge (MS 43-1950, fol. 14v), that presents the Virgin Slaying the Devil alongside Judith Killing Holofernes. This is also evident in the early fifteenth-century Speculum Humanae Salvationis in the John Rylands Library, University of Manchester, United Kingdom, which presents together The Virgin Overcomes Satan, Judith and Holofernes, Jael and Sisera and Tamyris Kills Cyrus (Latin MS. 27, fol. 28v–29r). On the typological parallels between Judith and the Virgin, see Elena Ciletti, ‘Judith Imagery as Catholic Orthodoxy in Counter-Reformation Italy’, in Kevin R. Brine et. al. (ed.), The Sword of Judith: Judith Studies Across the Disciplines, Open Book Publishers, Cambridge, 2010, pp. 356–7.

40     Saint Jerome’s lengthy meditation on Judith’s Mary-like virtue was quoted frequently in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and influential preachers such as Robert Bellarmine used the allegorical links between Mary and virtuous Judith as part of his defence of the Immaculate Conception in a 1570 sermon. For further information see Ciletti, p. 365.

41     On the baptistery doors, a small figure of Judith appears in the border of the David and Goliath panel.

42     In fact, the association between the two women was so strong that the illustration of a 1608 poem about Judith by Bartolommeo Tortoletti subsumes the Old Testament heroine entirely into the Virgin, who alone of the two is depicted on the title page, in this case on clouds holding the baby Jesus (Bartolomeo Tortoletti, Ivditha Vindex et Vindicata, Stamperia Vaticana, Rome, 1628. The text was composed in c.1608).

43     The cycle focuses on Judith as Chastity, Piety and Humility – the very qualities that were cited as linking her to the Virgin – defeating Holofernes as Lust, Blasphemy and Pride. Executed by Giovanni Guerra, Cesare Nebbia and their workshop in 1588–89, the series is one of the most extensive known Judith cycles.

44     Ciletti, p.363.

45     Such imagery featured prominently in Renaissance art; for example, in Piero della Francesca’s Brera Madonna, 1472 (Pinacoteca di Brera Milan), with the prominent dome above the Virgin and Child shaped as a scallop shell.

46     In his 1534 translation of the Bible into German, Martin Luther wrote at length about problems with the Book of Judith and, despite commending it as a fine and godly work, set it apart from the remainder of the Bible as part of the Apocrypha (Martin Luther, Biblia, das ist die gantze Heilige Schrifft Deudsch, Wittemberg 1534, Taschen, Cologne, 2002, p. IIr). The Council of Trent disagreed and proclaimed unequivocally the legitimacy of the full Vulgate. For the decrees, see Jaroslav Pelikan & Valerie Hotchkiss (eds), Creeds and Confessions of Faith in the Christian Tradition, vol. 2, Yale University Press, New Haven, 2003, pp. 822–4.

47     As well as presenting the achievements of the reigning pope (whose insignia is abundantly referenced) and denouncing Protestant heresy, the Palazzo Lateranense fresco cycle depicts Judith, whose ancient lineage is used as theological evidence for Mary’s ancestry. Judith’s story was probably chosen because Cesare Baronio’s Annales Ecclesiastici (1588–1607), which was sponsored by and dedicated to Sixtus, links Judith typologically to the first pope, thus presenting her as a confirmation of the Church’s righteous authority. For more information see Cesare Baronio, Annales Ecclesiastici, 10 vols, Vatican, Rome, 1588–1602, and Plantinus, Antwerp, 1602–58; Ciletti, pp. 350–7.

48     In a range of widely performed sixteenth-century dramas, Judith’s defeat of Holofernes represented the Church’s battle with heresy (see Mary D. Garrard, Artemisia Gentileschi: The Image of the Female Hero in Italian Baroque Art, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1989, p. 289).

49     In particular, Judith was central to the argument of several important late sixteenth-century texts that became cornerstones of Counter-Reformation ideology. Robert Bellarmine’s Disputationes de controversiis Christiane fidei (1581–1593) and Baronio’s Annales Ecclesiastici both used Judith as evidence of the foundations of the Church’s authority, and both texts were widely known and highly influential. They suggest strongly that Catholic patrons commissioning representations of Judith would have been aware of her importance to the Counter-Reformation. In fact, Bellarmine states this specifically in his lengthy rebuttal of Luther’s claims against the Book of Judith. He notes that those of his contemporaries who commissioned Judith imagery would know that defending her canonicity was important to Catholic renewal (Robert Bellarmine, Disputationes de Controversiis christianae fidei adversus huius temporis haereticos, 3 vols, Sartori, Ingolstadt, pp. 6–93).

50     On perceptions of Judith in the twentieth century see Theodore Ziolkowski, ‘Re-Visions, fictionalizations, and postfigurations: the myth of Judith in the twentieth century’, The Modern Language Review, vol. 104, no. 2, April 2009, pp. 311–32.

51     Marie-Amélie zu Salm-Salm & Serge Lemoine (eds), Klimt, Schiele, Moser, Kokoschka: Vienna 1900, Lund Humphries and Editions de la Réunion des Musées Nationaux, Aldershot and Paris, 2005, p. 112.

52     Marco Marcelliano Marcello’s Judith (1860), for example, depicts Holofernes defeated by the Jewish army, making Judith’s triumph unimportant. Similarly, in Friedrich Hebbel’s tragedy Judith (1840), well known in Italy, Judith was already pregnant to Holofernes, undermining her victory. In subsequent dramas – with the exception of a small number of religious plays — the story slid into parody or licentious Orientalism dominated by the interests and actions of the male characters. For more information see Alberto M. Banti, L’onore della nazione. Identità sessuali e violenza nel nazionalismo europeo dal XVIII secolo alla Grande Guerra, Einaudi, Turin, 2005, p. 324.

53     Paolo Bernardini, ‘Judith in the Italian unification process, 1800–1900’, in Brine et al., pp. 397–410.