I am now a paid assistant in the bottega, having mastered all the skills that the master has taught me, including the “perspective” of which Master Paolo is so obsessed. Unfortunately, this obsession with perspective occupies much of his time and our large commissions are few. I am pleased to say that we recently completed a much needed commission, of which Master Paolo has put me in charge as I was recently admitted to the Guild of Arte dei Medici e Speziali. A wealthy wool merchant by the name of Astole Capitelli has arranged a splendid marriage of his daughter, Isabella, to a member of the Strozzi banking family.
While the groom, Massimo, is a member of a minor branch of the family, his father is a cousin to the illustrious Filippo, this marriage will greatly enhance the prestige of the bride’s family and will enrich the coffers of the groom’s family as her dowry is reported to be 500 gold florins in coin. In addition, she will bring jewelry and household goods worth another 500 florins. Among these possessions will be two cassoni that her father ordered and I painted with the help of the apprentices and, on occasion, Master Paolo himself.
Our bottega is well known for the quality of our cassone painting. The two cassoni were built by the foremost joinery shop in Florence. They were constructed of the finest walnut with fluted pilasters at the four corners and carved friezes of vegetal motifs in the classical manner around the front of the panels, which I painted. They are 1. 5 meters across, . 5 meters tall and . 5 meters deep. The center panel containing the painting is 440 cm by 480 cm. The end panels were carved with the crests of both families and they sit upon simple bracket feet.
The wood was gilded here in the bottega by the apprentices to further enhance the painted panels. The gilding of the wood greatly increased the cost, but the cassoni should make an impressive display when they are paraded through the streets of Firenze as the bride makes her way to her new home with the groom’s family. The ironsmith forged the hardware, which was added when the paintings were completed. The contract for the painting between Signor Capitelli and Master Paolo was explicit as to the subject, composition and materials to be used:
That this day 13 March 1442 Signor Astole Capitelli commits and entrusts to Paolo Uccello the painting of two panels on cassoni to be provided by the said Signor Capitelli; the panels which the said Paolo is to color and paint in the manner shown in drawings on paper with those figures and in that manner shown in it, in every particular to what I, Astole Capitelli, think best, not departing from the manner and composition of the said drawings; and he must color the panel at his own expense with good colors and with powdered gold on such ornaments as demand it and all carved wood surfaces, with any other expense incurred on the same panels, and the blue must be ultramarine of the value about four florins the ounce; and he must have delivered complete the said cassoni within six months from today, and he must receive as the price of the cassoni as here described 115 florins if it seems to me, the abovesaid Astole Capitelli that they are worth it.
The initial proposal that Master Paolo made to Signor Capitelli for the cassoni were scenes from the battle of Heraclius and Chosroes as Heraclius retrieved the true cross which Chosroes had stolen in Jerusalem. The initial drawings were replete with horses, flags, scenes of battle and the warriors wearing the mazzocchi so characteristic of Master Paolo. They were to have showcased Master Paolo’s talents for scenes of action and his mastery of perspective. One panel would show Heraclius storming the astrological tower of Chosroes and the other should show Heraclius as he decapitates Chosroes on his throne. Signor Capitelli rejected these designs as inappropriate scenes for a young bride. He desired images that would instruct his daughter in her proper role as a wife and mother, primarily maternal piety and fertility.
Signor Capitelli also specified that no images be painted on the underside of the lid, as has become common. He specifically requested an annunciation and requested new drawings before the contract could be presented to the notary. The second set of drawings presented to Signor Capitelli, shown below, depicted an annunciation with all traditional elements he requested, the angel Gabriel holding a lily, the Virgin wearing a blue cloak and the dove. Master Paolo proposed a background of city buildings and the patron agreed. The second panel depicted the visitation of the Virgin to St. Elizabeth to be blessed when she finds out she is to bear a child.
The patron seemed very happy with these traditional themes for a newly married couple and was obviously desirous of Strozzi grandchildren. Since the cassoni are not to be exhibited publicly, such as a painting in a church, and will be seen only in the rooms of the newlyweds, I was able to experiment with the new and exciting techniques of perspective and foreshortening. The panels were prepared for painting with application of gesso by the assistants and they also ground the minerals for the tempera. I began with the annunciation panel by sketching the scene as the patron agreed to in the drawings presented with the contract. There were colonnaded loggias on either side of the panel which draw your eye to the Florentine cityscape in the background.
The buildings represented in the background were based on actual buildings in Florence, though not in their actual locations. I was anxious to paint the tower of Giotto somewhere in the painting as it is a Florentine landmark. The floor was painted with an intarsia design of black marble quatrefoils inset in white marble in order to demonstrate my mastery of the science of perspective, as the design became smaller as it reached the center of the panel. The vanishing point in the center of the panel was an archway through which a small landscape was visible. The virgin was depicted on the right hand side of the panel, in front of one of the loggias. The angel Gabriel was depicted on the left in front of the other loggia.
The virgin was standing and leaned back with her arms raised in a gesture of astonishment. She wore a red gown with a blue cloak and at the advice of Master Uccello, her gold halo was foreshortened in the new manner. While on the left, facing the Virgin, the Angel Gabriel was dressed in a red gown with gold bands at the neck and hem. His golden halo was also foreshortened. He was leaning forward with one hand raised to his mouth as he delivered the news of her pregnancy. In his other hand he held a lily signifying the purity of the Virgin. The dove signifying the holy spirit flies over the Virgin’s head. The Angel’s wings were also gilded at the tips. The second panel depicted the visitation of the Virgin to St. Elizabeth.
It was a natural progression of the story of the Virgin because, as is well known, at the same time the Angel Gabriel announced to Mary that she was with child, he also told her that her cousin Elizabeth was also with child, the infant St. John the Baptist. In this panel I painted a landscape with hills and the trees of Tuscany. St. Elizabeth’s house was on the right and she was shown emerging from the doorway with her hands raised in a sign of greeting. The Virgin was depicted on the left with her head bowed and her arms folded. To her left I painted Joseph leading a donkey as, according to the legend, he traveled with the Virgin on her visit. This gave me an opportunity to work with the Master on the foreshortening of the donkey as that is what he enjoys painting the most.
The Virgin wore the same clothing as in the first panel, a red gown with a blue cloak. In this way I tried to establish a continuing narrative of her story. St. Elizabeth wore a lighter blue gown (a much less expensive pigment) with a cloak of red. The donkey was brown with a red blanket. St. Joseph wore a gown of white with a brown cloak and carried a staff of rough wood. Master Uccello advised me to place a road in the middle of the landscape, which leads to a small city on a hill in the background. This would be a small homage to the center predella panel of the Strozzi Altarpiece painted by Gentile da Fabriano in the Strozzi family burial chapel in the Sacristy of Sta. Trinita.