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.
Automatons like this musical clock in the form of a ship were used as festive table decorations intended to amuse and entertain the diners. The effect was increased when they were designed to mechanically imitate real-life action and could produce a melody as well. Gradually, the traditional centerpieces lost their original function and developed into mechanically moving toys and gadgets, and finally into automatons proper. A mechanism and a musical clockwork allowed this ship automaton to roll across the table, while the tiny musicians on it could be heard and seen to play their instruments. The date 1585 in the inscription and the imperial double eagle on the flags and banners suggest that the ship was intended for Rudolf II. Hans Schlottheim, who built several of these mechanical ships, was staying in Prague in 1587.
A cabinet of curiosities was an encyclopedic collection in Renaissance Europe of types of objects whose categorial boundaries were yet to be defined. They were also known by various names such as Cabinet of Wonder, and in German Kunstkammer (“art-room”) or Wunderkammer (“wonder-room”). Modern terminology would categorize the objects included as belonging to natural history (sometimes faked), geology, ethnography, archaeology, religious or historical relics, works of art (including cabinet paintings) and antiquities. “The Kunstkammer was regarded as a microcosm or theater of the world, and a memory theater. The Kunstkammer conveyed symbolically the patron's control of the world through its indoor, microscopic reproduction.” Besides the most famous and best documented cabinets of rulers and aristocrats, members of the merchant class and early practitioners of science in Europe also formed collections that were precursors to museums.