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Italian wedding chests illuminate Renaissance marriage customs in Ringling museum exhibit

SARASOTA

It's the old story: a fight for love and glory.

"The Triumph of Marriage," an exhibition at the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, illuminates that message as it was played out in 15th century Tuscany, prime time Renaissance in the part of Europe we now know as Italy.

The bearers of this glimpse back in time are painted panels taken from large chests called cassoni (meaning, of course, "large chests") that were commissioned for affluent brides by their menfolk.

A cassone was practical and decorative. After the wedding, it accompanied the bride on a grand procession through city streets to her new home. It was a visible marker of a family's status, packed with trousseau items such as linens, and would be the first thing she brought to her new home. But it was more than a ceremonial moving crate. Closets were scarce, so the cassone would remain in the couple's bedroom for storage. As we learn in this show, its painted embellishments were not about pretty pictures to please the eye; they had moral lessons to dispense.

Marriage was a complex web of social aspirations and financial imperatives. Families considered it a way to advance themselves in both realms by making advantageous matches. As coldblooded as the deal sounds for women, they generally bought into the rules without question for the good of the tribe.

The themes on cassoni were often allegories or stories taken from writers such as Petrarch that illustrated duty to the institution of marriage. Cupid, the naughty meddler, is shown on several panels as a vanquished miscreant stripped of his power, subdued by a virtuous Chastity or Venus. All were daily reminders that for women, temptation doesn't pay.

Just another typical, hypocritical example of the double standard, you could say with justification, since men could take mistresses with impunity and are not exhorted to fidelity in any of these panels.

Yet men, too, were called to task, albeit more subtly. In contrast to women as weak vessels, the male-dominated narratives focus on triumph in battles and generosity in victory.

Still, it seems odd for a wedding chest to commemorate the siege of Naples in the 1440s, during which King Alfonso of Aragon ousted Rene of Anjou from domination of the city (and odder still, a war story about Naples rather than Florence, where the chest was made for a local wedding).

Historians believe this cassone was made for the marriage uniting two Florentine families whose heraldic arms are shown in the painting. One family had close ties to Alfonso, and this subject would have been a reminder of the prestigious connection. The Triumph of Alexander and the Women of Darius emphasizes the ruler's magnanimous treatment of captive noblewomen after his defeat of King Darius III of Persia. It was, perhaps, used as encouragement for chivalrous behavior.

All the paintings conform to the artistic conventions of the Renaissance: a growing mastery of perspective that gave the illusion of three dimensions to a flat surface, greater realism in portraying images and a humanistic rather than overtly Christian subject matter. (Think of Gothic icons and medieval madonnas that were so stylized in comparison.) Study the paintings for details — the animals, though bit players, provide some fabulous small moments.

A device used in a number of the panels is the incorporation of multiple parts of a narrative into a single painting. As a story flows from left to right there is little or no indication that a page has turned. The Coronation of Frederick III in Rome is told in three parts that merge seamlessly; first he's crowned, then leads a parade and finally knights his brother at a castle entrance. You realize you're looking at three separate scenes only because Frederick appears in each with his crown.

Very few intact cassoni remain in the world, and none is in this exhibition. The custom itself waned over the next 100 years as elaborate public displays of wealth became unfashionable, and by the 19th century the chests themselves, much used as furniture over time, were not conserved. Instead, wealthy collectors, especially Americans, bought the painted panels that had been salvaged from the battered chests. Ancient Battle and Procession wasn't "cleaned up" as most panels were, so we see the tongue-and-groove joints, the key hole and the indented spots on the wood where the chest's keys banged against it.

The number of panels in the show is small — 20 or so — and the Ringling has supplemented the show with three galleries suggesting typical rooms in an upscale casa in 15th century Florence: sala (public room); camera (bed chamber) and scrittoio (study) using furniture from the museum's collection.

A teaching gallery offers fun family activities. Kids can make and decorate their own cassoni from cardboard forms and make their own heraldic crests on a large magnetic board. You can learn to play Biribissi, a popular Renaissance game similar to bingo, with a take-home sheet. Curators demonstrate on a video screen the steps in creating a typical cassone painting with panels, tools and materials in nearby cases.

Those components give vitality to this art from a distant time and place where attitudes about relationships were so different. But just when we think we have these people figured out, we come upon The Story of Antiochus and Stratonice in two panels. Each is divided into three scenes, in which Antiochus, a lovesick swain, pines for the beautiful young Stratonice, married to his father Seleucus. Rather than the expected, tragic Phaedra-like outcome, the old man steps aside and allows the lovers to be married. They dance with joy and, in the final frame, she sits with her ladies, all looking amazed at this turn of events, the bride appearing to have a telltale bump.

The world has always welcomed lovers, even in times gone by.

Lennie Bennett can be reached at lennie@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8293.

. IF YOU GO

The Triumph of Marriage: Painted Cassoni of the Renaissance

The exhibition is at the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, 5401 Bay Shore Road, Sarasota, through April 19. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily. Admission, which includes the Circus Museum and Ca d'Zan, is $19 for adults, $16 for seniors and $6 for children 6-17. (941) 359-5700 or ringling.org.

Italian wedding chests illuminate Renaissance marriage customs in Ringling museum exhibit 02/21/09 [Last modified: Saturday, February 21, 2009 3:30am]

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