Boxes are an invention that probably predates recorded history, but were certainly present after the Neolithic revolution with a more sedentary lifestyle. By the Middle Ages every home had at least one chest given as part of the bride’s dowry. The chests in the Middle Ages were usually pretty simple affairs but that all changed in the Renaissance. The emergence of a wealthy merchant class meant that the the chest had to be more ornate, more expensive and bigger. The cassone (“large chest”) was one of the trophy furnishings of rich merchants and aristocrats in Italian culture, from the Late Middle Ages onward. The cassone was the most important piece of furniture of that time. It was given to a bride and placed in the bridal suite. It would be given to the bride during the wedding, and it was the bride’s parents’ contribution to the wedding. The casson pictured above would have been an extravagant wedding gift. I have collected photos of a number of beautiful chests and cabinets from around the world, from different time periods and I will show them here along with some very interesting history.
Some of the oldest chests known, those found in the tombs of ancient Egyptian pharaohs, are also some of the most sophisticated. Four thousand years ago, Egyptian craftsmen were using dovetails, mortise and tenon joints, frame-and-panel construction, inlay, veneers, hinges, and drawers; the state of the art of the ancient Egyptian chest is not far removed from the state of the art today. The Greeks and Romans, too, judging by the record left on vases, in carved scenes, and in writing, had a sophistication equivalent to the Egyptians in furniture-making design and technique. Animal feet were often used as legs, influencing European furniture design when Napoleon returned from Egypt. Some of the most beautiful surviving ancient chests come from King Tutankhamen’s tomb 1332-1323 BC.
One of the most intricately decorated objects in the tomb, this wooden chest, which was found in the antechamber, illustrates the innovation of the frenzied battle. A fierce confrontation takes place on both sides of the box; pictured here is the king in his chariot fighting against the Asiatics. On the other side the king battles against the Nubians. The curved lid is divided into two sections, each of which has a horizontal panel portraying the king pursuing wild animals. The smaller sides each have two representations of Tutankhamun as a sphinx treading upon his enemies. There are no hinges, the lid lifts off, although there are examples of hinged ancient Egyptian chests.
Decorated with ivory, ebony, Egyptian blue faience, and gilding, this wooden chest was found in the tomb of Yuya and Tuyu, great-grandparents of King Tutankhamun.
In the shape of a cartouche, this gilded wood chest from King Tutankhamun’s tomb is inlaid with ivory, ebony, and various colored pastes. A cartouche is an oval figure enclosing a sovereign’s name.
The Musée de Cluny has some wonderful inlaid ivory small chests such as the one pictured above. It is 16 x 7 x 4.5 inches, inlaid with ivory. This just shows that the eastern Roman Empire was alive and well around the turn of the first century. It shows mythological and combat scenes and was probably used at home for jewelry and/or small valuables.
The 10 inch long “Assault of the Castle of Love” was acquired by the Musée de Cluny in 2007, as a profane box representing a set of scenes related to courtly love. This was just after the Hundred Years War (1336-1433) but guns had still not taken over and there probably were still knights in armor. On its cover, the assault of the castle is in fact represented allegorically: the ladies let fly flowers by way of arrows while fighting tournament figure lovers. The figurative scenes on the sides show some famous episodes of chivalry, such as Lancelot at the bridge of the sword (from the poem “Knight of the Cart” by Chrétien de Troyes) and Tristan and Isolde at the fountain (from the poem “Tristan” by the Norman poet Béroul). The outer ivory reliefs are protected by elevated brass straps at the corners and on the sides. It has mitered joints, hinges, a handle and a lock, probably meant for travel with jewelry and/or other small valuables.
Numerous works of art, natural objects and curiosities were stored in the drawers of this cabinet. The program of the silver decoration, with representations of the elements, continents and celestial gods, likewise alludes to the microcosm of a “miniature Kunstkammer”. The labors of Hercules and the allegories of virtue refer to Ferdinand and his second wife, Caterine Gonzaga.
Known as a Kabinettschrank (“display cabinet” in German), this type of furniture is sometimes called a cabinet of curiosities or wonders. It was designed to accommodate miniature examples of all the artistic and natural wonders of the world. Such systematic categorization, which developed in the 1600s as a response to historic and scientific discoveries, represents the genesis of the modern museum. Well-preserved cabinets, such as this one, are rare. They were eagerly commissioned by European rulers such as Emperor Rudolf II (1552-1612) who used them to display their collections of curiosities, demonstrating their intellectual and aesthetic prowess.
The front of this cabinet features numerous drawers to store small objects d’art. The wealth and variety of objects contained inside turned such a piece of furniture into a miniature Kunstkammer in itself. The rich decoration is dominated by reverse side glass painting in lacquer paints with gold foil. It depicts the months of the year, the Muses and the Virtues after engravings by the Nuremberg draughtsman and engraver Virgil Solis.
Cabinets to store small objects d’art evolved from a type of furniture that was also still young in the 16th century, the writing cabinet. The front of this cabinet was originally protected by a board that folded down to serve both as a shelf and a writing table. Reliefs with allegories of virtue and vices are portrayed in gold on the drawer’s front.
This is an example of a silver writing box with matching silver writing utensils made by the famous goldsmith Wenzel Jamnitzer (1507-1585) who frequently worked for the House of Habsburg. It is lavishly adorned with casts of small animals, shells and plants. Archduke Ferdinand II particularly valued this technique, distinguished by its amazing lifelikeness.
Attributed to Antonio Maffei (Italian, active about 1554-1601). Most Renaissance cassoni (chests) were given to newly married couples to help furnish their homes. These chests were often dark and elaborate, and their grandness depended on people’s different classes (wealthier people had more sumptuous ones, while poorer classes’ cassoni were often far simpler). The coat of arms, below the lock, identifies the owner as a member of the de’ Conti family of Foligno. The family shield is flanked by two dragons that with the grimacing masks on the corners of the chest, reveal a Mannerist interest on elegantly contorted forms. The shape of the chest is based on ancient sarcophagi (stone coffins).
The Renaissance, meaning “Rebirth” in French, began in Florence and spread unevenly in speed around Europe. The furniture of the early Italian Renaissance is often restrained, with beautiful, simple designs carved in walnut. The furniture of France was among the first to be influenced by the Italian Renaissance. Louis XII (1462-1515) and many of his court visited Italy and soon took Italian artists and craftsmen and works of art into France. The French Renaissance of furniture can be divided into two stages. First was a period of transition and adaptation; during the reign of Louis XII and the first part of the reign of Francis I (1494-1547), the pieces were basically Gothic in form, and Gothic ornament was mixed with the cupids, medallion heads, and grotesque decorations of the incoming Renaissance style. During the second phase, from the end of the reign of Francis I, the new style displaced the Gothic. The more exuberant arabesque shapes of Renaissance decoration, however, gave way to increasingly architectural design, and oak was almost entirely superseded by walnut, willow and even more exotic woods.
Like most Loire Valley estates, Azay-le-Rideau (built 1518-1527) was only inhabited in the summer. The Berthelots visited only occasionally in winter, just to inspect the progress of the work, as the castle was uncomfortable and difficult to heat in that season. The same held true of all the kings and lords who only saw in their castles a way to escape the capital’s stifling heat in summer. Therefore, these castles had very little furniture. During a period of history which sometimes required a quick getaway and when all was packed up during these frequent moves, the trunk (the precursor of the closet) quickly became the most important piece of furniture. Necessary cooking utensils were piled up in the trunk in the kitchens, then servants added dishes and silverware, while in the bedrooms, clothes, blankets and books completed the belongings. The trunk could also serve double-duty as seating or even as a table. Tables actually didn’t exist back then, so when the owners entertained guests, they would “set the table” by laying a board on top of trestles. The servants would then cover it up with a linen tablecloth, which aside from its decorative function would double as one big napkin!
Cabinets (meaning small “cabins” or compartments) are among the earliest forms of European furniture. They derive from boxes used to store small household objects such as linens and tableware. Elevating a box onto a stand allowed stored objects to be within easy reach while protecting them from hazards such as flooding and infestation. By the 1500s cabinets were among the most sumptuous pieces of furniture in the house. Very few examples of functional furniture dating from the Renaissance still exist.
This 16th century Italian cabinet, exceptional with its mother-of-pearl and fountain-pen engraved ivory incrustations and caryatids in the stand was a wedding present offered to Francis II and Mary, Queen of Scots (April 24, 1558).
These are three different cabinets from three different countries in about the same Baroque time period (17th century) from Château D’Azay Le Rideau. In informal usage, the word baroque can simply mean that something is “elaborate”, with many details, without reference to the Baroque styles of the 17th and 18th centuries. The French cabinet looks like an early Italian Renaissance piece with just carving and caryatids. The Portuguese cabinet shows definite Moorish influence. The Italian cabinet shows the they were becoming more sculptural and branching out in terms of style with elaborate marquetry for which they and French cabinet makers would become world renowned. The French countryside furniture takes a different path from Parisian makers and would eventually evolve its own category, Country French. Of course these are only examples not necessarily representative of each country.
Pierre Golle (1620-1684) was an influential Parisian ébéniste (cabinet maker), of Dutch extraction. From 1656 onwards, Golle is described in documents as maître menuisier en ébène ordinaire du roi (master ebony furniture maker-in-ordinary to the King). By 1681 he had a workshop at the Gobelins Manufactory (Royal Factory of Furniture to the Crown). From 1662 he supplied marquetry cabinets and numerous other pieces of case furniture for the use of the Louis XIV (1638-1715) and the Grand Dauphin at Versailles (built 1664-1710) and other royal châteaux. The two stunning cabinets shown here represent the range of his abilities. The top cabinet (1650) is black deeply carved ebony on the outside but when the doors are opened, the viewer is overwhelmed by a colorful tableau based on the Old Testament. The bottom cabinet (1665) in a variety of rare woods, tortoise shell , and ivory is one of the most vivid and beautiful examples of marquetry I have seen. An inventory of Golle’s stock at the time of his death described almost two hundred pieces of furniture of various forms.
This spectacular cabinet by André-Charles Boulle (1642-1732) can be dated to the late 1600s, although it probably underwent slight alterations in the nineteenth century. The natural depiction of flowers and insects in the wood marquetry reflects the popularity of Dutch still-life painting in the last few decades of the 17th century. This is combined with more imaginary elements of Baroque architecture. The medal of Louis XIV at the front of the cabinet is by Jean Warin (1606-72). Such cabinets were made largely to impress but might also have been used for the storage of small pieces of art and jewelry.
Here is another Baroque cabinet on a stand by André-Charles Boulle. The marquetry on the door shows the cockerel of France above the eagle of the Holy Roman Empire and the lion of Spain and the Spanish Netherlands. This seems to symbolize France’s victory over the combined forces of those countries in the Dutch War of 1672-78. The figures supporting the cabinet are Hercules and Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons, who represent strength and bravery.
Yet another masterpiece by André-Charles Boulle, I really love his work, this time a pair of coffers. He was the French cabinetmaker who is generally considered to be the preeminent artist in the field of marquetry, even “the most remarkable of all French cabinetmakers.” He did pieces for Louis XIV and the French court. His fame in marquetry led to his name being given to the fashion he perfected of inlaying brass and tortoiseshell, known as boulle, boule or buhl. Intended to hold jewels or small precious items, these coffers have interiors lined alternatively with brass or pewter and tortoiseshell. A jewel coffer of similar form and decoration was listed in the 1689 inventory of the Grand Dauphin, son of Louis XIV. It is described as having been made by Boulle. The stands were originally designed to hold rectangular cabinets. They were probably combined with the coffers in the late 1700s or early 1800s.
Jean-François Leleu (1729 – 1807) was a leading French furniture-maker (ébéniste) of the eighteenth century. When working for marchands-merciers (dealers), he commonly used inlays of Sèvres porcelain and lacquer as seen above. This cabinet is oak veneered with tulipwood with Sèvres porcelain inlays. The clock movement is by the famous Parisian clockmaker Julien Le Roy (1686-1759).
This cabinet caused me to do a lot of research to verify it was made in the 19th century with etched ivory panels from Jacques Callot (1592-1635). Callot was a baroque printmaker and draftsman from the Duchy of Lorraine (an independent state on the north-eastern border of France, southwestern border of Germany and overlapping the southern Netherlands). His technique was exceptional, and was helped by important technical advances he made. He developed the échoppe, a type of etching-needle with a slanting oval section at the end, which enabled etchers to create a swelling line, as engravers were able to do. I am still not sure if ivory panels were made by Callot or adapted from his work although I think Callot made them.
One of a pair, thIs cabinet is an example of the luxury furniture supplied by Adam Weisweiler (1744-1820) through the merchant-mercier (dealer), Dominique Daguerre. It incorporates 17th century boule marquetry and exquisite Pietra dura panels depicting fruit and flower garlands. Pietra dura or pietre dure, is a term for the inlay technique of using cut and fitted, highly polished colored stones to create images. Pietre dure is an Italian plural meaning “hard rocks” or hardstones; the singular pietra dura is also encountered in Italian. In Italian, but not in English, the term embraces all gem engraving and hardstone carving, which is the artistic carving of three-dimensional objects in semi-precious stone, normally from a single piece, for example in Chinese jade. The circular bronze plaque depicts a nymph helping an infant, who is carrying a thyrus or staff of Bacchus to ride a satyr, a light hearted classical scene. Even though the stones are supposed to be natural color, you can see in the close-up that the blue was painted. The natural stone to use for this shade of blue would have been lapis lazuli which would have made the piece too expensive.
This chest of drawers is veneered with purpleheart, sycamore, satiné, holly and other woods, mounted in gilt-bronze. This chest of drawers is the one delivered to Marie Antoinette on December 9, 1780 for her private study. The delicate gilt-bronze flowers, including the private cipher, all which greatly appealed to the Queen. Jean-Henri Riesener (1734-1806) was the French royal ébéniste, working in Paris, whose work exemplified the early neoclassical “Louis XVI style”. He and David Roentgen (1743-1807) were Marie-Antoinette’s favourite cabinet-makers. This is not a complete history of chests and cabinets, that would require a book. This is just an introduction to some of my favorites seen in our travels although due to the length of the post, I did not even manage to show all of those. This is a small departure for the blog, I have decided to add a category on decorative arts, with additional posts to come. There are a number of unusual terms as well, I plan a follow up post on cabinetmaker materials and techniques. Let me know what you think.
History of Woodworking: http://www.wagnermeters.com/wood-moisture-meter/woodworking-history/
Met Museum Furniture: https://www.metmuseum.org/pubs/bulletins/1/pdf/3258451.pdf.bannered.pdf
Tut Traveling Exhibit: http://m.touregypt.net/museum/tablepage.htm
Tut’s Chest: http://www.nilemuse.com/muse/TutBoxE.html
Faience (Egyptian Blue): /the-first-egyptian-glass-frit-and-faience/
Medieval and Renaissance Chests: http://www.medievalwoodworking.org/roe/roe07_s.jpg
Lock History: http://www.locks.ru/germ/informat/schlagehistory.htm
Knight of the Cart: http://www.geocities.ws/dagonet_uk/poemab.htm
Tristan and Isolde: http://cla.calpoly.edu/~dschwart/engl203/tristan.html
France Monthly D’Azay Le Rideau: http://www.francemonthly.com/n/1104/
Wood Designs: https://lwooddesigns.wordpress.com/
History of Furniture Styles: http://www.worldguide.eu/wg/index.php?StoryID=148&ArticleID=20608
Cabinet Images: https://marinni.dreamwidth.org/526527.html
Met Louis XIV Period: http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/lofu/hd_lofu.htm