The Illusion of the American Frontier
From 03 November 2015 to 07 February 2016
Early booking is recommended
Chest with convex tile-shaped lid, fixed to the back panel with two sets of double-pointed eyebolts and reinforced with tow cross-battens, placed edge to edge and fixed with wrought iron nails. The box has a rectangular-base prism shape, and is built with boards held together with dovetail joints -visible in the back panel- and originally had a lock placed on the inside, as was already usual in Italy in the 15th century, in contrast with other Western countries where the medieval tradition of fixing the locks on the outside was still common. The interior is undivided and lined with sackcloth. The outside is covered in modelled and stippled pastiglia, decorated with free carvings, water-based gild, graffito and tempera polychromy. It is supported by seven feet, five in the front and two in the back corners, linked to each other by a kind of arcade. Although it has many vertical cracks in the front panel and some loss of stucco from the lid, its state of conservation is highly acceptable for a piece of this period and decorated with such a delicate technique.
The front board, framed around its perimeter with a frieze of scrolls, shows a tournament scene, made in gesso low relief, with horsemen holding lances and two knights on foot in armour. These have been carved in a larger scale than the rest of the figures and are holding two shields: the one on the right, with a blue cross and five gold crescents on a silver background, and the one on the left with a black rampant lion on an undefined background, possibly due to the bole, which is visible as a result of the loss of the original coat of paint. According to Freuler, both coats-of-arms correspond to the Piccolomini, a noble family from Siena -whose most illustrious member, Enea Silvio, became Pope Pius II (1458-1464)- and frequently appear combined, as can be seen, for example, on the tomb of Bishop Tommaso Testa Piccolomini (died 1483) in the cathedral in Siena, made by Neroccio de´Landi, precisely the master of the workshop to which the making of this chest is attributed. The above-mentioned author suggests logically that, as the two coats-of-arms belonged to the same family, this was clearly not a wedding chest, but a piece made for an unmarried member of such illustrious family -perhaps the above mentioned bishop or any other member of the family- who probably appreciated Neroccio´s art, as it was this family who, in the years 1484-1485, commissioned the previously mentioned funerary monument. In spite of the logic in the previous arguments, and after Freuler´s studies, it has also been suggested that, if the background of the second coat-of-arms had been silver, and the lion had originally been blue, turning black later, this could be the coat-of-arms of the Nini family of Siena. If this hypothesis were true, by presenting the coats of two different families, this cassone might have been a wedding chest. However, there is no documentation of a marriage involving both families at the period when the piece was made, so it can only be hypothesised that the latter coat, supposing it corresponded to the bride, might have been added later, on the occasion of a wedding. Two weddings took place between members of the Piccolomini and the Nini families: one in 1613 and one in 1747.
The decorations on the side boards, also made in gilded and polychrome gesso, show a geometrical composition based on a double frame around the perimeter, with four small squares in the corners and four small tondi in the vertical and horizontal axes. Within, there is a large sun -whose shape recalls a tabernacle- with a central tondo from which stem serpentine beams in relief alternating with foliage painted in white.
The spandrels of the arches that form the feet are decorated with eagles and foliage. The lid is divided by three double frames, like the ones on the sides, with small lozenges instead of tondi, framing three large stylised rosettes. The sides of the lid present decorations with stylised scrolls painted in white on a red background.
The back panel shows an interesting polychrome decoration, composed of a central tondo in which is inscribed a black cockerel-which may allude to some virtue, like intrepidity or courage, majesty, strength, generosity or alertness-between two large stylised scrolls.
This chest, generally ignored by the historians of Italian furniture, has usually been considered as a piece made in the 15th century in Siena or Orvieto in the various catalogues of the Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection in Lugano. In 1991, Freuler, taking up the research carried out by Schubring in 1915, related it to a group of Sienese chests with similar characteristics and, as has been said, attributed it to the workshop of Neroccio de'Landi, an artist active in Siena in the second half of the 15th century. Its Sienese origin is corroborated by the previously mentioned coats-of-arms in the front panel.
Chests with tournament scenes were frequent throughout Europe in the 15th century. They were carved in deep relief in walnut or oak wood in countries like France and England, and with relieves in gilded and painted pastiglia in Italy. Various chests decorated with this technique and representing tournament scenes seem to proceed from Siena. It appears that this subject was very popular among the Sienese nobility, inclined to organise such events. In the chronicles of the city there are various descriptions of jousts, like for example in the writings of Tommaso Fecini, where he mentions a "bella giostra" in honour of the Pope held in Siena in 1407, and in 1416 "la piú bella giostra mai veduta".
The feet in the shape of a cut-out flap are similar to those of other chests of the 15th century, both Florentine and Sienese. The same type of frieze framing the front-which seems to be characteristic of Siena-made up of a straight rod with foliage around it, appears in a chest decorated with cartapesta or pastiglia, of lower quality than this one and poorly preserved, published by Windisch-Graetz and stated as being made in Siena in the third quarter of the 15th century, whose size is similar to that of the chest from the Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection analysed here. A chest kept in Brünn (former museum of Archduke Rainer) and the front of the chest of the former Figdor Collection in Vienna are also similar to this one. The latter has a faithful, though rougher, copy of the decoration of the cassone studied here, to the extent that they can be thought to come from the same workshop. Similarly, the figures appear to derive from identical models and the existing differences seem to depend only on the application of the superficial finishings.
As pointed out by Kanter two artists, Neroccio de'Landi and Francesco di Giorgio, stood out in Siena with regard to the production of these works with pastiglia. According to Freuler (1991) the style of Neroccio's workshop can be appreciated in this cassone from a multitude of details, like the gold backgrounds stippled with a burin showing delicate plant decorations, like the carefully painted meadow in bloom on which the tournament takes place, and even the enamelled modelling of the faces with delicate lines, which can be compared with a feminine head in a mirror frame proceeding from Neroccio's workshop and kept at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.
The date of its construction has to be fixed after 1468, the year when Neroccio de'Landi (born in 1447) was mentioned for the first time as an artist. A dating from the beginning of the 1470s, when Neroccio and Francesco di Giorgio Martini had together a successful workshop, seems to be the most probable.
Casto Castellanos Ruiz