December 17, 2008

Scenes from a Marriage

Bridal-chest paintings gathered by a Tufts art historian offer glimpses of wedded life in the Italian Renaissance, and are now on view at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

By Cristelle Baskins
Slideshow by Taylor McNeil

When a modern bride-to-be plans her wedding, she registers at Crate & Barrel and awaits a flood of Hallmark cards. In fifteenth-century Italy, they did things a little differently.

Click on the play button to see a slideshow narrated by art historian Cristelle Baskins of images from the exhibition, The Triumph of Marriage: Painted Cassoni of the Renaissance.

The well-to-do bride could expect to receive an elaborately decorated wedding chest known as a cassone in which to store her trousseau—her personal linens, sheets, towels, jewelry and perhaps a few devotional books. (“Hope chests” once served the same purpose in the modern era.) Cassoni were usually commissioned in pairs and carried in bridal processions before being placed in the bedrooms of newlywed couples.

The chests were luxury goods in their own right—a form of conspicuous consumption not unlike that indulged in by some latter-day bridezillas. Their rich gold surfaces and colorful paintings were produced by artists in specialized workshops, particularly in Florence and Siena.

Cassoni paintings were intended to delight as well as to inform. They featured allegorical and historical subjects, themes related to the ideals of Renaissance marriage. The paintings dramatize conflicts between duty and desire—a chastened Cupid is a recurring character—and instruct the young (usually teenaged) bride in marital conduct.

Over centuries of use, marriage chests became worn and damaged. The paintings on the front and sides were often removed and sold to art collectors. Today they are displayed in art galleries and museums, often without reference to their original function as furniture.

An exhibition called The Triumph of Marriage, which I curated at Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum along with Alan Chong, the museum’s curator of collections, brings together cassoni paintings from around the country.

Ironically, this exhibition comes at a time of change for marriage: it is increasingly short-lived, yet it has recently been extended to new groups in some countries and some U.S. states. Looking back more than 600 years, we rediscover imagery from an age in which marriage was more rigid in its gender roles and, for the woman approaching childbirth, possibly lethal, given the state of medicine at the time.

The Triumph of Marriage: Painted Cassoni of the Renaissance is on display at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston through January 18, 2009. It will be at the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota, Fla., from February 14 to May 17.

This article first appeared in the Winter 2009 issue of Tufts Magazine. Cristelle Baskins is an associate professor in the department of art and art history. She can be reached at

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