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Episodes from the Aeneid

Photo: Paul Macapia

Episodes from the Aeneid

ca. 1470

Paolo Uccello

Italian (Florence), 1397-1475

Muse, tell me why the Queen of Heaven
Was so aggrieved, her godhead so offended,
That she forced a man of faultless devotion
To endure so much hardship. Can there be
Anger so great in the hearts of gods on high?

The Aeneid, 1.12-16

In his rendering of scenes from Virgil's epic poem The Aeneid, which tells of the founding of Rome, Paolo Uccello presents a colorful world of galleons, pageantry and a bloody battle in which virtuous female warriors are defeated by armored soldiers. The painting originally adorned a storage chestor cassonemade in honor of a wedding uniting two powerful Florentine families. It was common for cassoni to be decorated with scenes from epic narratives, which had enough dramatic episodes to cover the extensive surface of the long panel. Because the paintings were not seen at eye level, artists often sacrificed narrative clarity for decorative variety. They frequently chose themes that commented on marriage and civic duty.
Egg tempera, oil, and gold on wood panel
16 1/8 x 61 1/2 in. (41 x 156.2 cm)
Samuel H. Kress Collection
61.173
Provenance: (Possibly Mameli, Rome); Count Alessandro Contini Bonacossi (1878-1955), Florence; sold to Samuel H. Kress (1863-1955), New York, June 18, 1937, as Paolo Uccello and Assistants; gift to the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, 1939 - deaccessioned 1952; returned to Kress; gift to Seattle Art Museum, since 1952, accessioned 1961
Photo: Paul Macapia
location
Now on view at the Seattle Art Museum

Condition of the Cassone

Conservation photo of scratches, 61.173
Conservation photo showing oxidation, 61.173
Conservation photo showing glaze and punched gilding, 61.173

What is a Cassone?

Cassoni are lavishly decorated storage chests, commissioned for a marriage in pairs by the parents of the bride or groom. They were presented to the bride and used to transport her dowry goods in a ceremonial procession through the streets from the home of her father to the home of her husband. They were often the most expensive article of furniture in a bedroom. Because Renaissance homes were sparsely furnished by today's standards, these chests served multiple uses--storage, seating, transporting household goods--and two of them could even be pushed together to form a small bed.

The stunning cassone to the left is one of a pair known as the Nerli-Morelli Cassoni. It is notable for having a spalliera, the back panel, which gives the chest greater monumentality.
Nerli Cassone, 1472, Zanobi di Domenico and Jacopo del Sellaio
Courtauld Institute of Art Gallery, London, F.1947.LF.5

The Story

Photo: Paul Macapia
Detail of King Evander and Pallas greeting Aeneas, 61.173
The Aeneid was written by the Roman poet Virgil (70 BC-19 BC) in the last ten years of his life. He died before it was finished. In twelve books, the epic poem tells of the founding of Rome by the Trojan hero Aeneas. Aeneas pursues his goal by building alliances with key figures who help him combat local leaders defending their homeland. In book eight, he is offered hospitality by King Evander, a Greek who had settled the Palatine hill in Rome, and his son Pallas. On the left side of Uccello's panel, we see Aeneas being greeted by King Evander and Pallas on the banks of the Tiber River.

Continue the story by clicking on the second image below.
Photo: Paul Macapia
Detail of battle between Aeneas and the Latin troops and their allies, 61.173
Following a battle between Aeneas' troops and those of Turnus, leader of the Rutulian people, Pallas is killed by Turnus. Aeneas challenges Turnus to one-on-one combat, but before that match can take place, Turnus' ally Camilla, a warrior princess of the Volscians, joins the battle against Aeneas. She is shown on foot.

Why Camilla?

When she was an infant, Camilla's father, Metabus, dedicated his daughter to the goddess Diana. She was brought up in the wild and learned to hunt, spurning all offers of marriage, although many men were interested in her.

It may seem strange that a chaste warrior-huntress who dies in battle would be celebrated in a painting commissioned for a marriage. Virgil's account describes a strong woman of character and chastity, but one who does not fit the traditional model for a wife. The influential Florentine writer Boccaccio (1313-1375) reinterpreted and softened Camilla's character in Concerning Famous Women (ca. 1360), presenting Camilla's self-discipline and chastity as a model of prim decorum: "I wish that the girls of our time would look at Camilla and…learn from her example what is proper for them in their parents' home, in churches, and in theaters where most onlookers and harsh judges of behavior congregate." Giovanni Boccaccio, Concerning Famous Women, trans. Giudo A. Guarino (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1963), p. 80.
Detail of Camilla, 61.173
Photo: Paul Macapia

Love and Battle?

It was surprisingly common for cassoni to be decorated with battle scenes. Battle imagery as a metaphor for love's conquest was not new in the late fifteenth century, when Uccello painted this panel. For example, a thirteenth-century work in SAM's collection--a mirror back decorated with a scene of the Siege of the Castle of Love--shows a mock battle between men and women in which "conquest" equals victory for both parties.

As in Uccello's cassone panel, love and conflict are inseparable in this masterfully carved ivory panel, which originally was the casing for a mirror owned by a wealthy woman. Horsemen enact a mock siege of the "castle of love," while smiling ladies pelt them with roses, the flower associated with love; one even welcomes a soldier who has scaled the battlement.
Siege of the Castle of Love, ca. 1320-50, French, 49.37

Whose Wedding Was This Cassone Made For?

Uccello helpfully embedded an anachronistic detail that reveals the names of the families whose marriage is commemorated in this panel. The galleons of Aeneas' fleet are decorated with the coats of arms of two powerful and rich Florentine families, the Antinori and Soderini families. It was common for artists to incorporate heraldic information as part of the decoration, which also links the new union to the grander scope of civilization.
Upper: Antinori coat of arms; lower: Soderini coat of arms; 61.173
Photo: Paul Macapia

Media

Linda Williams, Professor of Art History, University of Puget Sound, on imagery in works made for Renaissance weddings
Linda Williams, Professor of Art History, University of Puget Sound, on the role of women in Renaissance Florence
Linda Williams, Professor of Art History, University of Puget Sound, discusses the role of cassone
Stuart Phyrr, Distinguished Research Curator of Arms and Armor, Metropolitan Museum of Art, discusses the armor depicted in this cassone
Chiyo Ishikawa, Susan Brotman Deputy Director for Art and Curator of European Painting and Sculpture, Seattle Art Museum, on the importance of this painting to SAM

Resources

Exhibition HistoryWashington, D.C., National Gallery of Art, 1941-1951.

Seattle, Washington, Seattle Art Museum, Italian Art: Samuel H. Kress Collection, 1952. Text by William Suida and Sherman Lee, pp.5-6. Cat. no. 10.

Seattle, Washington, Seattle Art Museum, 2500 Years of Italian Art, Nov. 10 - Dec. 8 1958. Cat. no. 33.

Seattle, Washington, Seattle Art Museum, Medieval, Renaissance & Baroque Galleries, Dec. 24, 1998 - Dec. 24, 1999.

Seattle, Washington, Seattle Art Museum, Renaissance Art in Focus: Neri di Bicci and Devotional Painting in Italy, 2004. Text by Nicholas Dorman and Elizabeth Darrow. No cat. no., pp. 8-9, reproduced fig. 1.

Published ReferencesIshikawa, Chiyo. The Samuel H. Kress Collection at the Seattle Art Museum. Seattle, Wash.: Seattle Art Museum, 1997; fig. 33-34; pp. 53-54.

Melli, Lorenza. "Nuove indagini sui siegni di Paolo Uccello Agli Uffizi: disegno sottostante, tecnica, funzione." Mitteilungen des Kunsthistorischen Institutes in Florenz, 42. Bd., H. 1 (1998): pp. 1-39; pg. 35, reproduced fig. 32.

Seattle Art Museum: Bridging Cultures. London, England: Scala Publishers Ltd. for the Seattle Art Museum, 2007; pp. 56-57.

Zach von Naumann, “From Renaissance to Modern. A Comparison,” Paper, Seattle Pacific University (2012). Munich, Germany. GRIN Verlag, http://www.grin.com/en/e-book/298320/from-renaissance-to-modern-a-comparison

Ishikawa, Chiyo. "Seattle Art Museum." In Italian Treasures in the U.S.: An Itinerary of Art. Edited by Renato Miracco. Rome. Italy: Gangemi Editore International Publishing, 2015; p. 200, reproduced p. 203.

Franklin, Margaret. “Imagining and Reimagining Gender: Boccaccio’s Teseida delle nozze d’Emilia and Its Renaissance Visual Legacy.” Humanities 5, no. 1 (2016): p. 35, reproduced fig. 4.

The Seattle Art Museum acknowledges that we are located on the ancestral land of the Coast Salish people.