Visualizing the Text: the Cassoni stories

Giovanni Boccaccio's Decameron, written in the Tuscan vernacular between 1348 to 1350, was a major source for Florentine cassoni paintings of the late fourteenth century and the first decades of the fifteenth century. The explanations for this phenomenon are many. The Decameron was accessible to readers of all social classes, and was a part of a body of literature that would have been familiar to all educated Florentines. Other works by Boccaccio, particularly his Genealogia deorum, De casibus virorum illustrium, and De mulieribus claris, made ancient history and mythology accessible to a wider audience than that of texts from the classical period. These works are considered to have contributed to the revival of ancient subject matter in literature and the visual arts that took place in the fifteenth century. It is ironic that it was precisely this surge of interest in classical imagery and stories that led to a decrease in the number of cassoni panels depicting scenes from the Decameron.1

The stories of the Decameron deal with themes, characters, and locations that would have been familiar to readers even a century after its writing. The explicit way in which Boccaccio addressed the issues of marriage, love and adultery make many of the Decameron's stories apt selections for the decoration of marriage chests. It is no coincidence that the stories of Griselda (X.10) and Nastagio degli Onesti (V,8), which appear most frequently on cassoni and spalliera panels, highlight the necessity of a woman's obedience, virtue and chastity. The moral message of these scenes is in keeping with the didactic role of cassoni as teachers decorated with stories intended to inspire newly married couples, particularly young brides, to abide by a strict moral code. Depictions of Boccaccio's many playful stories featuring adulterous relationships are conspicuously absent from the body of fifteenth century secular paintings.

Nearly all of the stories that appeared on cassoni end happily and illustrate aspects of the moral code to which women in the Renaissance were expected to conform. Much as paintings of religious subjects illustrated biblical stories, cassoni depicting scenes from the Decameron would have served as textual illustrations to men and women reading the work in the privacy of their own bedchamber. Similarly, visual representations made stories accessible to those who were not well educated enough to read the textual sources.

Cassoni themselves are also narrative elements in several of Boccaccio's stories, most notably in the stories of Bernabò and Zinevra di Genova  (II.9), Zeppa and Spinelloccio  (VIII.8), the Abbess and the priest  (IX.2) and the King of Spain and Messer Ruggieri  (X.1).

Boccaccian Themes in Italian Secular Painting, 1400-1550

In surveying the available literature on imagery derived from Decameron themes, Paul F. Watson's "A Preliminary List of Subjects from Boccaccio in Italian Painting, 1400-1550" proved particularly illuminating. Despite the fact that more and more comprehensive compilations of "visualized" boccaccian themes are available each year, scholars still tend to restrict their examinations of visual renditions of certain tales to long available masterpieces. In doing so they disregard multitudes of images which shed light on Renaissance artists' exegetic attempts to interpret Boccaccio's text.

Three tales from the Decameron seem to have been particularly popular among Italian Renaissance painters, Cimone's story, the story of Griselda  (X.10) and Nastagio degli Onesti  (V.8). In the following excerpt from Watson's list we have included only those references which pertain to these themes. They constitute over thirty works of art out of approximately one hundred extant images of boccaccian content from the time period. The large proportion of artistic energy devoted to these three specific tales by the same author, or perhaps the favored preservation of these specific works by their patrons, points to some form of Renaissance fascination with the textual themes as they were rendered visually. Due to the preponderance of imagery surrounding these stories, it behooves the scholar interested in questioning image-text relationships to examine as many different visualizations as possible in order to arrive at a more comprehensive view of social and cultural attitudes toward the original text and its interpretation.

A selected bibliography of articles and books on Decameron visualizations has also been compiled for your reference, along with a list of Decameron related paintings by Italian artists between 1400 and 1550. Watson's list is divided into two parts, paintings by unknown masters and those by known artists.

  1. Callmann, Ellen. "Subjects from Boccaccio in Italian Painting, 1375-1525" Studi sul Boccaccio, Firenze: Sansoni Editore, 23 (1995):19-78. 

(S. A. & C. C.)