Exhibiting Historical Art: Out of the Vault: Stories of People and Things

Real or Fake?

The chest featured in this exhibit was purchased in 1986 from a local dealer, under the pretense that it was a sixteenth century cassone once belonging to the noble Roman Colonna family. However, its authenticity has been questioned by several professors in the History of Art Department, as well as a conservator. While the classical features of this cassone including paw-like feet, its oblong rectangular shape, and wood color, might suggest to the untrained eye that this is an original Renaissance piece, several elements are not consistent with other examples. The chest features scalloped wood moldings along the edges and a more intricate, scrolled design in the center of the front panel, but these details are much simpler than on other cassoni that were entirely encased in elaborate carvings. Although it is possible that a groom from a modest background might have commissioned a simple cassone, the simplicity of this piece does not correlate with its supposed association with the Colonna family. Rather, it would make sense for a family with the Colonna’s economic and political power to own an ornate chest with elaborate carvings or paintings with opulent gold gilding. Thus, even if the piece is truly a sixteenth century chest, it was likely not a possession of the Colonna family. 

Closer examination of the chest reveals evidence to doubt whether the piece was created during the sixteenth century at all. Between the front and back legs of the chest, the degree of insect infestation varies starkly. On the front legs of the chest, deep, round holes indicate apparent insect damage, while the hind legs retain their smooth exterior finish. This variance is particularly suspicious when coming from a piece that is supposedly five hundred years old, which would likely display decay throughout. Furthermore, the condition of the wood is uneven, as several areas on the surface appear dull or marred, while others appear almost glossy. There is even more inconsistency along the edges of the chest, as those on the side and base moldings are crisp, whereas those near the top are blunted. Although cassoni were valuable pieces of home decor, they were subject to everyday wear, and thus did not remain in the pristine condition that much of this chest did. Experts agree that the parts of chest in the best condition appear to be from at least the nineteenth century, and that the piece is a more modern work rather than a Renaissance cassone.


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