An Exquisite French Inlaid Casket

An Exquisite French Inlaid Casket

This exquisite rectangular wooden casket – leaning on four flattened ball feet, a moulded lower border and and a protruding lid with moulded border as well – is characterized by lavish decorations on the lid and on the four sides, all fully adorned with refined and partially polychromed mother-of-pearl inlays and very thin brass wires.


Its state of conservation is also remarkable, given the substantial integrity of the decorative apparatus as well as of all the original partially gilded iron mountings: the handle on the lid, the escutcheon on the front, the flattened ball feet, the lock, the key and the hinges.
The entire external and visible surface of the box is covered by very fine spirals with tiny brass wire leaves intertwining with mother-of-pearl decorations, consisting of round and oval medallions, small buds, berries, flowers, birds and other animals.
On the front – under an elegant gilt iron escutcheon – stands out a mermaid with a cornucopia, a symbol of abundance, flanked by two imaginary creatures within oval medallions; round medallions with a flower appear centrally on the short sides; on the back we find the same oval medallions with fantastic creatures decorating the front and a lily motif in the middle; finally on the lid -under a small double baluster iron handle with two embossed rosettes- there is a female figure picking fruit and smelling flowers in a rural landscape -an allegory of the Spring alluding to fertility- flanked by two small roundels with panoplies with weapons, armors and musical instruments.


Most probably, the present box belongs to the well-known category of marriage caskets, made in different European regions from the Middle Ages onwards, as shown both by the decorative motifs, alluding to fertility and abundance, and by the female figures alternating with martial triumphs, typically referring to the two members of a couple.

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Due to its geometric rigor of Renaissance taste, softened by the naiveté of the subtle, luxuriant and lively ornaments, the realization of this box must certainly be sought in the French context and is undoubtedly the work of an excellent craftsman, able of blending zoomorphic motifs and allegorical references with the arabesques, a motif arrived to France through the Italian artists called to the court by Francis I (1494-1547).


On the left: French Book Binding (from Thomas Mahieu’s library) of F. Nausea, Libri mirabilium septem, 1532. Princeton University Library (detail).

The arabesque, derived from Islamic prototypes, was in fact particularly loved and used in the various artistic fields of the so-called ‘Fontainebleau style’ and it is also interesting to note how the motif of the braided double-buttonhole ribbon surrounding the oval medaillons in our box, frequently recurs in the French bindings of the second half of the 16th century, as well as in some drawings by the great Parisian ornemaniste and architect Androuet du Cerceau (Paris, 1510 – Annecy, 1585).


On the left: Cabinet, Val De Loire, c. 1560. Paris, Private collection. | On the right: A. du Cerceau, Drawing of a cupboard, c. 1560. Ecouen, Musée National de la Renaissance.

Moreover, the French origin of our wonderful casket is based on a precise material and decorative analogy with a specific and rare type of furniture produced between the 16th and 17th centuries: the blond walnut, the iconographic repertoire and the luxury of the materials are in fact the same in certain cupboards inlaid, during the reigns of Henry IV (1594 – 1610) and Louis XIII (1610 – 1643), in the Loire Valley. Here, first Tours and then Orléans and Blois become famous – over a century – for a refined cabinetry, intended exclusively for the most prestigious customers.

Among the rare inlaid furniture of this type we can mention two wardrobes: one once belonging to the famous fashion designer Coco Chanel and another one documented half a century ago in an important Parisian collection.
Furthermore, the regional and chronological attribution of the piece is also confirmed by the rich iron accessories, showing a distinctly late-Renaissance French taste.

On the other hand, it should be remembered that the decorative technique of inlaying a light wood with mother-of-pearl (or ivory) and brass, was not exclusively French but appeared also in other parts of the continent at that time, such as in Venice and especially in Germany; more generally, it was very frequent in weapon decoration.
In this regard, in a late 1500s French powder flask kept at the Philadelphia Museum of Art we find the same graphic style in the engravings and even a fantastic animal, that is identical to the one on our box.


On the left: Powder Flask, France, c. 1600. Philadelphia Museum of Art (detail)

In conclusion, apart from some important boxes similar but not identical on a stylistic level such as the one signed by the Alsatian gunsmith Jean Conrad Tornier, kept at the Wallace Collection in London, we can affirm that at the present state of our knowledge the casket illustrated here has no equal and it is therefore configured as a valuable and unprecedented testimony of late Renaissance French cabinet-making.


Wood inlaid with brass and engraved mother of pearl
France, Loire Valley
Late 16th century
Cm 32 x 20 x 18h
References: T. Lenk, Flintlåset, dess uppkomst och utveckling, 1939, pl. 106; J. Boccador, Le Mobilier français du Moyen Age à la Renaissance, Ed. Monelle Hayot, 1988, p 264 ; P. Kjellberg, Le mobilier français du Moyen Âge à Louis XV, 1978; D. Alcouffe, Il mobile francese dal Rinascimento a Luigi XIV, Milano 1981.


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