The Portland Vase, £5.00
Length: 156.000 cm
Width: 43.500 cm
Gift of Major-General Augustus Meyrick
Room 46: Europe 1400-1800
Wooden panel from a cassone (marriage chest)
From Florence, Italy, around AD 1450
A battle scene for a marriage chest ...
This wooden panel is all that survives of a cassone, or chest. Cassoni were usually made and given in pairs as part of a marriage contract, and were commissioned by the groom.
This panel is from the workshop of Apollonio di Giovanni (1415/17-65). Apollonio was a partner and head of an important workshop in Florence specializing in the making of cassoni.
The scenes on the front of a cassone would have been painted by the master artists in the workshop, and provide moral examples for the couple. This one is painted with a scene depicting the Battle of Issus (333 BC), where Alexander the Great won a decisive battle over Darius III, last king of the Achaemenid dynasty (reigned 336-330 BC). The story illustrates the maxim that pride comes before a fall, and shows Alexander's clemency in his victory.
The scenes sometimes continue around the sides of the chest, though these are more often decorated with armorial bearings or isolated figures, probably carried out by workshop assistants. The interior of the lid would also be painted: one decorative scheme shows a reclining, often semi-naked figure of a male or female, perhaps alluding to the bridal couple or as a general allegory of love; a second scheme with a pattern in imitation of textiles. The painted exterior of the lid could also represent textile patterns of the period. Cassoni stood against a wall, and the backs therefore do not always have the same extensive decoration as the front and side panels and the lid. Detached panels were later kept and valued as paintings.
E. Callmann, Apollonio di Giovanni (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1974)