Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
July 8, 1999
Cristelle L. Baskins Cassone Painting, Humanism, and Gender in Early Modern Italy New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997. 264 pp.; 59 b/w ills. Cloth $80.00 (0521583934)

Cristelle Baskins has emerged as a leading scholar in the field of Italian Renaissance domestic art. She has authored a series of fascinating articles over the past decade that deal with the varied issues implicit in the function and appearance of cassone (marriage chest) and spalliera (wainscoting) panels. These articles have helped both to stimulate the field and to lead it in new and exciting directions, negating some of its earlier, marginalized, status in relation to more traditional studies of monumental Renaissance art. With this new book, Baskins expands on many of the issues examined in her previous articles; it will serve as a standard text for scholars seeking interpretations for Renaissance domestic art.

Baskins begins with a cogent introduction to the problems inherent in the study of paintings made for Renaissance marriages. Through a clever use of Leon Battista Alberti’s Della famiglia (ca. 1430), she describes the importance of the marriage chest in the Renaissance home, and the ways in which it symbolized the new bride herself. This is followed by a look at the historiography of domestic art, to establish what makes her own approach different from earlier studies, most particularly those of Paul Schubring, Ernst Gombrich, Ellen Callmann, Paul Watson, and Brucia Witthoft. Books and articles by these five scholars have formed the basis for the study of Renaissance domestic art, and Baskins acknowledges their contributions while setting herself apart from them. The main difference is her method: she examines these panels using recent feminist and gender studies and literary criticism, as well as selected work in social history. This wide-ranging interdisciplinary approach provides significant new information about the domestic setting and its viewers.

In her earlier articles, Baskins explored many of the popular themes for marriage panels, from battles to Old Testament heroines to contemporary literary figures. Given the diverse subjects painted on these panels, and the lack of any one comprehensive interpretation for all of them, Baskins wisely focuses this book on a narrower grouping. According to her estimates, between one-third and one-half of the known panels made for cassoni and spalliere are painted with heroic women from the ancient world. She therefore divides her text into a series of case studies, dealing with six of the most popular ancient women or groups of women: the Amazons, Dido, Camilla, the Sabines, Lucretia, and Virginia. The question of the impact of humanism on the viewers of these stories is thoroughly investigated, and literary analysis complemented by visual analysis. Unfortunately, each chapter is treated as an independent study, a characteristic also evident in the endnotes, where information is occasionally repeated from chapter to chapter. And I was disappointed to find no conclusion tying together her disparate interpretations of these ancient women in Renaissance domestic space.

Despite this shortcoming, Baskins’s innovative interpretations are valid on a number of different levels. I hesitate to agree wholeheartedly with her assertion that the purchase of these chests was part of the future husband’s marriage expenses after the middle of the fifteenth century, rather than the father’s. We simply do not have sufficient evidence to state this equivocally (and, indeed, her interpretation of the story of Camilla, discussed below, almost demands a paternal patron). But Baskins is able to situate these panels in the social, economic, and literary context of patrician marriage in a new way, providing a range of reasonable explanations to fit many different circumstances. In doing this, she explores a number of the apparent dichotomies that result from the depiction of these rather problematic women on furnishings destined for the home of a new—and ideally chaste, submissive, and fertile—bride. Among the more interesting examples, we see how careful manipulation of the ancient story allows Amazons to become ideal models for the shift from natal to conjugal obligations. Similarly, representations of the virginal Volscian warrior Camilla and her father Metabus demonstrate reassuring paternal solicitude during a time when young girls often grew up motherless. And Virginia’s tragic early death warned against unchaste behavior and advocated patriarchal order. Seen in this light, marriage panels reveal much about familial and interfamilial roles in fifteenth-century Italy, and in particular about the problematized relationships between the sexes.

I must admit, however, that none of this comes easily. This is a provocative book, but it is also a difficult one. At times, Baskins’s prose is so dense with vocabulary borrowed from other disciplines that the object—and her interpretation of it—is lost. I do not, for example, think that Foucault’s discussion of the incest taboo adds much to our understanding of paintings of Camilla, especially after Baskins has analyzed the iconography more than adequately in light of contemporary Neoplatonic texts and commentaries on The Aeneid. The book is part of the series “Cambridge Studies in New Art History and Criticism,” so this methodology is not wholly unexpected. Indeed, it is often welcome, since there is such a rich and complicated subtext for almost every image. But this does not justify what seems at times to be a deliberate inscrutability in vocabulary and phrasing; greater clarity would have made this study more accessible to a much wider variety of readers. Baskins’s analysis is strongest when she focuses on plainly stated and explicated information from Renaissance history and literature to provide a context for these panels.

Methodology, of course, is a personal issue, and Baskins’s approach to these objects is sure to find many to praise it. There is little to praise, however, in Cambridge University Press’s design of this book. With such fascinating material, it is a pity the panels are not reproduced better: all are in black and white and the quality varies enormously. After glancing through this book, even the most forgiving reader might agree with Giorgio Vasari’s opinion, that these objects, while charming, are not worthy of careful examination. Most of the panels are today only known to specialists, with good reason: they are rarely illustrated in traditional studies of the Renaissance, and many are in private collections or lost. In fact, a number of them have not been published since they were first included in Paul Schubring’s Cassoni (Leipzig, 1915 and 1923). All the more reason to expect higher quality reproductions in this, one of the first scholarly studies dealing exclusively with fifteenth-century marriage chest and wainscoting panels in recent years. Both cassone and spalliera panels are longer than they are high, making them difficult to reproduce across a standard octavo page. But the solution offered here, with more than half of the panel on the left page and the remaining portion and caption on the right, and a wide space in the gutter, is very deceptive, and it prohibits reading the panel as a cohesive whole. This is especially true when the photograph is not cropped exactly, and the two sections do not match up, or when the reproductive quality varies significantly from one section to the next (see, for example, fig. 59, a victim of both problems). Since Baskins asks us to read the stories across the panels, as they were read in the Renaissance, this is especially problematic. The current design does the objects, and Baskins’s text on the whole, a grave disservice. Given the price of the volume, the reader expects better quality reproductions to aid in the elucidation of the argument.

Jacqueline Marie Musacchio
Associate Professor, Department of Art, Vassar College

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