Give Now

Tag Archives: cassone

Object of the Month: September 2017



Italian, 16th century


Years ago a television series aired featuring a dolphin named “Flipper.”  He exhibited the usual amount of dolphin intelligence and often saved the day. One of M&G’s pieces of furniture includes carved dolphins and takes a person to a time and place where dolphins symbolized various aspects of life.

During the 15th and 16th centuries, Italy specialized in the production of a special piece of furniture called, cassone, the Italian word meaning chest.  Of the eighteen cassoni (plural for cassone) in M&G’s collection, one is beautifully and elaborately carved; rather than a lion’s claw for feet or some other standard furniture base, this cassone rests on four carved dolphins.  In his catalog for M&G’s furniture collection, furniture connoisseur Joseph Aaronson described the chest this way, “the dynamic carving of swirling plant and grotesque animal forms, framed at the corners by winged putti figures. . . is based on Roman patterns and is unmistakably Italian in its playful freedom.”


Rome became the center of cassone production in the mid to late sixteenth century. According to the Encyclopedia of Interior Design, by this time society’s taste had shifted from the chests with painted panel scenes and portraits to a more sculptural form of decoratively carved dark walnut with little to no paint or gilding. M&G’s cassone represents the era’s preferred choice with its dark wood and ornate carvings.

However, why would dolphins be carved for the feet?  Most people at this time were familiar with the mammal due to the fact that Italy is surrounded by water.  Greek mythology presents dolphins as companions to Dionysius, a seafaring god; and they are also connected with Venus the goddess of love.  Dolphins symbolized long life and safety in travel.  Since cassoni were often given in pairs as a wedding gift by a bride’s parents, it was one way to express their support and desire that a marriage would be safe, long, and produce a healthy family. In its context, a cassone was both a practical and necessary piece of furniture, but also a status symbol in society for newlyweds.

M&G’s cassone was a gift from Carl Hamilton in 1956, and remains somewhat mysterious. Its shape may indicate when it was made and its possible origin in the seaport of Genoa.  On the front is a crest, yet no further information has been found to connect it to a specific family.  As cassone production is further studied, perhaps more will be learned about M&G’s cassone in the future.

John Good, Security Manager



Published in 2017

Object of the Month: June 2016


Polychrome and giltwood

Italian, 16th century

Click on the links throughout the article to view additional artists’ works and reference material.

In the not-too-distant-past, young women acquired hope chests to hold clothing, linens, and other items needed to set up housekeeping after marriage. In medieval and Renaissance Italy, similar chests, called cassoni (singular, cassone) served the same purpose. The ornate chests reflected the wealth and status of the families; even the size and grandeur of the cassoni conveyed the importance of the bride’s family, which in this case must have been substantial. Part of the wedding celebrations included the parading of cassoni through the streets from the bride’s home to her new home.

Portraits of the bride and groom are painted at each end of the Cassone.

To complete a cassone, the project required a variety of artisans—woodworkers, ironworkers, artists working in gesso for the ornate pastiglia  and gilding, and painters for the inlaid painted panels. It is probable that this cassone once had a decorative back called a spalliera, which is now missing. All of these components combined to make the cassone more impressive and expensive. The portraits of the bride and groom on each end of the cassone provide a beautiful, personal touch.

Sometimes an object of art contains clues on the back as to the history of its ownership, known as provenance. For example, a brass plate on the back of this cassone gives the information of “A. van Dyke 1599-1641.” Obviously added at a later date, there must have been some evidence to support the claim. It is known that Anthony van Dyke lived in Italy for six years (1621–1627). It seems especially appropriate that he would have owned this object which beautifully exhibits Renaissance portraiture since he became one of the best known portraitists who ever lived.

Another clue bears the name “Mrs. Rockefeller McCormick.” Edith Rockefeller McCormick was at one time one of the wealthiest women in America. She built an Italian-inspired villa on Lake Michigan and filled it with antiques. A chest such as this one would have fit in perfectly with the décor of the villa.

Anne Short, Volunteer Collection Researcher & Retired Docent

Published in 2016