Description & Technical information

This oblong casket has low, bun feet and hinged lid. All visible surfaces are decorated with moulded pastiglia decoration of small figures in lead-paste composition, set against a gilded ground. Below the figurative compositions is a pastiglia ivy frieze on a gilt background and an acanthus base. The lid is decorated with garlands and grotesque decoration with a conical rosette surmounted by a ball. Boxes with such lids appear to come from a highly prolific workshop.
Scenes from Roman legends often decorated 16th-century objects, partly because their owners enjoyed finding new moral meanings in them. This casket is decorated with four stories from Ovid’s Metamorphoses: the front panel is the story of Pyramus and Thisbe, the stories of Daphne and Apollo and the Judgement of Paris occupy two side panels, while the back panel is the Rape of Europa. In additional to subjects drawn from mythology, this type of boxes also often contain purely ornamental designs ‘all’antica’, and a few scenes derived from the Old and New Testaments. 
Gilt pastiglia boxes were mostly made in Venice and Ferrara from about 1480 until 1550. Pastiglia or pasta is the name given to white lead paste, bound with egg white. This was often scented and described in contemporary inventories as pasta di muschio (musk paste). The pastiglia figures and motifs were shaped with a lead mould and then glued to the gilt surface of the box - hence their frequent recurrence on other boxes. Pastiglia boxes with relief scenes from Roman history are representative of the renewed Renaissance interest in Antiquity, and the shared ideals of lofty purpose and moral fortitude.
In the 15th and 16th centuries most people stored small belongings in a casket (cassetta) rather than drawers. Despite their locks, these caskets are unlikely to have contained valuables, as their light wooden frames and delicate ornament are not secure. Instead, they probably held trinkets or toiletries such as tooth and ear picks. 
The present casket shares many similarities with a box at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London (1565-1855), meaning it is possible the two caskets came from the same workshop.
Comparative material: 
Victoria and Albert Museum: 1565-1855 W.48-19115625-1859W.11-1912;
Mount Holyoke College Art Museum: MH 2015.1;
Bagatti Valsecchi Museum, Milan, Italy: Box;
Art Institute Chicago: 1951.264;
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York: 17.190.589;
RISD Museum: 51.272.

Stock number: A5383

Period:  Late 15th-early 16th century
Origin:  Venice or Ferrara, Italy
Medium: Gilded alder wood and moulded white lead (pastiglia)
Dimensions: 11 x 21 x 13.5 cm (4³/₈ x 8¹/₄ x 5³/₈ inches)
Categories: Works of Art