Art/ Collection/ Collection/ Art Object
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Sacristy cabinet

Date:
ca. 1450–80
Culture:
Italian, Florence or Siena
Medium:
Poplar wood and walnut inlaid with various woods; iron locks, handles and key
Dimensions:
H. 45-1/2 x W. 86 x D. 25 in. (115.6 x 218.4 x 63.5 cm)
Classification:
Woodwork-Furniture
Credit Line:
Rogers Fund, 1945
Accession Number:
45.39
On view at The Met Fifth Avenue in Gallery 500
Like many of his contemporaries, the historian Benedetto Dei (1418–1492) admired the illusionistic effects that the Florentine artisans who specialized in wood inlay, or intarsia, were achieving. In his Memorie (1470) he remarked that he had been in Florence at the time when these craftsmen began making "intarsia perspectives and figures in [such] a way that they seemed [to be] painted."[1] By this he meant that, like the Florentine painters, they had learned to construct scenes, objects, and three-dimensional patterns according to the rules of perspective.

The intarsia cutters worked with a "palette" of small pieces of wood of many different types and colors, inserting and gluing them into cutout hollows of a wooden matrix, such as the walnut carcase of this cupboard. The woods used for intarsia were generally available locally from timber merchants, or they might be supplied by the patron-perhaps a wealthy individual who had ordered a chest inlaid with scrolls in the Moorish style, or a religious body or communal institution that required doors, cabinets, or choir stalls inlaid with pictorial scenes.[2] Federigo da Montefeltro (1422–1482), the duke of Urbino, had the walls of his small study, or studiolo, at Gubbio covered entirely with intarsiated paneling, which is today one of the glories of the Metropolitan's collection.[3].

Several of the decorative motifs seen in the intarsia of the Museum's cupboard are executed in a form of inlay called tarsia a toppo. For this type of work the craftsman would assemble hundreds of tiny pieces of wood of different species and various geometric shapes, glue them together to form a solid block, and cut them into slices, which he then inserted in geometric patterns into a solid wooden matrix.[4] That the work of manipulating the minute pieces required intense concentration and extraordinary dexterity is evident when one looks below the doors of this cupboard at the base, whose pattern recalls water- or wind-driven machinery or bridges. The perspectival and mechanical studies of Leonardo da Vinci, Piero della Francesca, and Francesco di Giorgio come inevitably to mind.[5] The equally intricate tarsia a toppo inlay on the doors is in the abstract Moorish interlace style, reflecting influence from the Islamic world.[6]

If the tarsia a toppo decoration on the cupboard attests to the skill of the human hand, the large, finely grained walnut panels in the center of the doors may be said to represent the simple beauty of natural materials. Like the slabs of alabaster on top of the Farnese table (see 58.57a-d) they center and balance the whirl of ornament around them.

Credenze (sideboards or cupboards) are frequently mentioned in Italian inventories of the fifteenth century, and there is pictorial evidence that the form with two doors was fully developed by this time.[7] For example, a painting of 1482 by Filippino Lippi (ca. 1457–1504) shows the Virgin Mary kneeling in a contemporary bedroom setting beside a cupboard much like the Museum's example.[8] The type developed from simple trestle tables that were set against a wall and often covered with sumptuous textiles.[9] The undecorated top of the Museum's cupboard may once have been covered by an Arabian or Coptic carpet with colorful interlace border designs like those that are imitated in the door inlay.[10] Such textiles would have made an appropriate backdrop for the display of choice objects and fine plate. A similar "credenza of cupboard form" appears in a Venetian woodcut of 1517 showing a room for dining and living.[11] The doors of the cupboard are ajar, suggesting that precious and practical objects like metal candlesticks or the large basin standing on top could be stored within.

Rather than furnishing a domestic interior such as the two just mentioned, the Museum's cupboard may have been made for a church or monastery, where it would have been used to secure embroidered vestments or liturgical vessels. Neither the wrought-iron handles on the doors nor the design of the inlay nor any other detailing, however, identify the piece as a "sacristy cabinet," as it was classified when the Museum acquired it.[12] The ornamental vocabulary of the intarsia cutters tended to be much the same for ecclesiastical and secular furniture.

In whatever setting it found a place, undoubtedly the cupboard's role was to affirm the prestige of the owner through the beauty of its craftsmanship and to protect the contents committed to it from thievish fingers. By good fortune, it is still accompanied by a contemporary, finely crafted key that fits the iron locks perfectly.

[Wolfram Koeppe 2006]

Footnotes:
[1] Quoted in Antoine M. Wilmering. The Gubbio Studiolo and Its Conservation. Vol. 2, Italian Renaissance Intarsia and the Conservation of the Gubbio Studiolo. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 1999, p. 3. See also Creighton E. Gilbert. L'arte del Quattrocento nelle testimonianze coeve. Bibliotheca Artibus et Historiae. Florence, 1988, pp. 202-3.

[2] Antoine M. Wilmering. The Gubbio Studiolo and Its Conservation. Vol. 2, Italian Renaissance Intarsia and the Conservation of the Gubbio Studiolo. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 1999, p. 3.

[3] Acc. no. 39.153. On its acquisition by the Museum, see Olga Raggio. The Gubbio Studiolo and Its Conservation. Vol. I, Federico da Montefeltro's Palace at Gubbio and Its Studiolo. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1999, pp. 3-11.

[4] Antoine M. Wilmering. The Gubbio Studiolo and Its Conservation. Vol. 2, Italian Renaissance Intarsia and the Conservation of the Gubbio Studiolo. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 199, p. 64; see also pp. 68-73.

[5] Giovanni de Toni. Macchine dei Leonardo: Mostra di modelli. Exh. cat., Ateneo di Brescia. Brescia, 1987; Olga Raggio. The Gubbio Studiolo and Its Conservation. Vol. I, Federico da Montefeltro's Palace at Gubbio and Its Studiolo. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1999, p. 125, fig. 5-82, p. 155, fig. 5-131.

[6] Patterns similiar to those in the toppo borders of the Museum's cupboard doors appear on the paneling in the sacristy of Santa Croce in Florence.

[7] Peter Thornton. The Italian Renaissance Interior, 1400–1600. New York, 1991, pp. 205-206.

[8] Filippino Lippi, Annunciation, Museo Civico, San Gimignano; ibid., p. 182, pl. 200.

[9] Frick Collection. The Frick Collection: An Illustrated Catalogue. Vol. 9, Drawings, Prints, and Later Acquisitions. New York, 2003, p. 470 (entry by Wolfram Koeppe).

[10] Alain Gruber. "Interlace." In The History of Decorative Arts: The Renaissance and Mannerism in Europe, ed. Alain Gruber, pp. 21-111. Trans. John Goodman. New York, 1994, pp. 54-57, 70, 110; and Paolini 2002, pp. 70-72, no. 10, detail photograph on p. 71.

[11] The term was used by Peter Thornton in a discussion of the many forms and uses of these cabinets; see Peter Thornton. The Italian Renaissance Interior, 1400–1600. New York, 1991, p. 196 (the woodcut is illustrated as p. 220).

[12] On "sacristy cabinets," see Anna Maria Massinelli. Il mobile toscano. Milan, 1993, p. XV; Claudio Paolini. Il mobile del Rinascimento: La collezione Herbert Percy Horne. Florence, 2002, pp. 57-61, nos. 4,5. See also related "sacristy" cabinet in the Detroit Institute of Arts (acc. no. 35.60).
[ Stefano Bardini ] ; Carl W. Hamilton ; [ Parke-Bernet Galleries (until 1945; sold to MMA) ]
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