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Horatius Cocles Defending the Sublician Bridge (cassone panel)

by Francesco Pesellino, Florence, Italy, ca. 1450

A larger image of Horatius Cocles Defending the Sublician Bridge (cassone panel) by Francesco Pesellino, Florence, Italy, ca. 1450.

Panel - Horatius Cocles Defending the Sublician Bridge (cassone panel)
Object: Panel
Place of origin: Florence (painted)
Date: ca. 1450 (painted)
Artist/Maker: Pesellino, Francesco, born 1422 - died 1457
Materials and Techniques: tempera on sweet chestnut panel
Museum number: 7897-1863

Pesellino (Francesco di Giovanni, ca. 1422-1457) son of the painter Stefano di Francesco was the grandson of the more famous Florentine painter Pesello who trained him. By the early 1440's he joined Fra Filippo Lippi's workshop and in 1453 he went into partnership with Piero di Lorenzo Prates and Zanobi di Migliore. His reputation grew in the mid-15th century and brought him the commissions of large-scale painting. This front panel of a Florentine wedding chest (cassone) shows the story of the Roman hero Horatius Cocles defending the city of Rome, depicted in the background, from the attack of the Etruscan army. He is shown at the entrance of the Sublician bridge warding off the attackers. This panel is a fine example of lavishly decorated cassone, usually given by pair on the occasion of marriages.
Descriptive line: Cassone Panel painted with the scene of Horatius Cocles defending the Sublician Bridge, Follower of Pesellino, ca. 1450
Physical description: A tangle of soldiers and horses at a river with a bridge on the left and an encampment with golden pointed tents on the right; in the background a view of Rome.
Museum number: 7897-1863
Purchased: 1863
Historical significance
This painting constituted the front panel of a Florentine cassone (wedding chest), now dismantled, which represents the story of the Roman hero Horatius Cocles who saved Rome from capture by the Etruscan army led by Lars Porsena. This subject from the Roman Republican history is mentioned by Livy (2:10), Valerius Maximus, (3:2) and Virgil (Aeneid, 8:650). Horatius Cocles is here shown on the left defending the bridge across the Tiber, sword in hand, warding off the attackers while the Romans demolished the bridge behind him. On the right hand-side, Lars Porsena, the Etruscan commander, wearing a beard and a turban, sits before his tent while an emissary informed him about the development of the battle. In the background is depicted the city of Rome with, from far left, the Pantheon, the Castle S. Angelo and the Pyramid of Caius Cestius. At the last moment, when the bridge was finally destroyed, Horatius plunged into the river (bottom left) and crossed the river to safety. Originally attributed by Schiaparelli (1908) to a follower of Pesellino, and by Schubring (1915) to the 'Master of the Tournament of S. Croce' (to whom he also attributed 5804-1859), this cassone panel was catalogued by C.M. Kauffmann as 'Florentine school, third quarter of the 15th century'. Another version, of similar composition but clearly executed by a different hand, is in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam (SK-A-3302) and another, known as ‘Morelli cassone’, attributed to Biagio d’Antonio and Jacopo del Sellaio, and dated 1472, is in the Courtauld Gallery, London (F.1947.LF.4). A third version was formerly in the collection of Mr Michael de Laszlo, New York. The colour scheme of this cassone, dominated by a greenish blue, is particularly intriguing and differs notably from other surviving pieces. The figures are quite clumsy and not very well-proportioned which denotes a workshop's product. However the sense of movement provided by the weapons pointed in different directions and the tangle of horses is reminiscent of the art of Paolo Uccello (1397-1475) and Francesco Pesellino (ca. 1422-1457) in such examples as David and Goliath, ca. 1450, The National Gallery, London (NG6579) and the famous three panels for the 'Battle of San Romano' (National Gallery, London; Louvre, Paris; Uffizi, Florence). Battle scenes for wedding chests were not rare in the 15th century and illustrated mostly heroic virtues such as the dedication of a hero for the protection of his city, an act of bravery that was particularly praised and sought after by the humanists of the time. Particularly interesting are the outfit of the Etruscans dressed in the fashion of Constantinople during the last year of the Byzantine Empire (fall of Constantinople: 1453). These costumes were meant to distinguish the Roman army from the Etruscans but also echo the fascination of the Florentines for these resplendent robes they had seen during and after the Council of Florence (1439) where Byzantine high-ranking dignities came to discuss the possible reunification of the Eastern and Western Catholic churches. For instance a cassone panel illustrating the 'Conquest of Trebizond', attributed to Apollonio di Giovanni (Metropolitan Museum, New York, No.14.39) shows identical tents and similarly dressed figures, not Florentines but Turks. These dresses added some festive note to the cassoni, which particularly suited such merry event as weddings.
Historical context note
The term cassone stands in Italian for chest and relates to large and ornate pieces of furniture made in Italy from the 14th to the end of the 16th centuries. They were generally made on the occasion of a relatively important wedding and contained the bride's trousseau. Writing in the mid-sixteenth century, Vasari describes cassoni thus:
'…citizens of those times used to have in their apartments great wooden chests in the form of a sarcophagus, with the covers shaped in various fashions…and besides the stories that were wrought on the front and on the ends, they used to have the arms, or rather, insignia, of their houses painted on the corners, and sometimes elsewhere. And the stories that were wrought on the front were for the most part fables taken from Ovid and from other poets, or rather stories related by the Greek and Latin historians, and likewise chases, jousts, tales of love, and other similar subjects…'.
(Giorgio Vasari, translated Gaston du C. de Vere, Lives of the Painters, Sculptors and Architects, vol. 1, London 1996, p.267)
These lavishly decorated cassoni, often combined with pastiglia decoration, were generally commissioned in pairs. Florence, which specialised in the decoration of the front panel, was at that time the main centre of production, even though Siena and the Veneto also supplied cassoni. The painted decorations usually represented episodes from classical or biblical history or mythology appropriate for the newly wed. The most flourishing cassone workshop in Florence was run by Marco del Buono Giamberti and Apollonio di Giovanni but major artists such as Domenico Veneziano and Botticelli may have decorated cassoni on occasion. Painted cassoni went out of fashion towards the end of the 15th century when carved oaken chests came into vogue.
Source: Victoria and Albert Museum, London, Museum number 7897-1863

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