Putting Your Hope Into Something Solid

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The ability to give the perfect gift is an elusive one; it’s an ability where the absence of which is not usually noticed, but the presence of which is much celebrated. Today, a gift can easily be checked off the list: kitchen knives for the cook, traveler’s guides or apparel for the adventurer, homemade lavender scrubs and soaps for the DIY enthusiast. Every flick of the mouse leads us, in some way, to an idea for a gift, which only leaves us with too many options and too little experience with perfect gift giving. It is not that you want to show up with the third set of monogrammed His & Hers towels, but shopping anxiety kicks, the Nordstrom worker had something against you, and, whether from panic or exhaustion, you grab something often overdone. Breathe; and take a note from 15th century Italy.

Stretching well into the 16th century, it was customary for the parents of the bride to present her with a wedding gift called a cassone. In English, this is translated as caisson, meaning a large water tight chamber used to store valuables and goods. Often built out of a solid, single piece of cedar wood to protect against outside elements, a cassone is a sizable chest containing the bride’s precious belongings sent with her on her wedding day. The chest would be elaborately decorated by rich merchants and aristocrats, often inlaid or carved then painted and accented with gold leaf or gold paint. The cassone became a show of wealth and prestige, a wish the parents hoped her their daughter.

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The Metroplitian Museum of Art. Cassone (chest), pair with 1975.1.1947. Robert Lehman Collection, 1975. Italian. Walnut, carved and partially gilded.  2.4 X 5.6 X 2.1.

Depictions of the Quattrocento (cultural and artistic events within Italy during the 15th century) or nudity were commonly seen on the interior of the cassone, while scenes of courtly romance decorated the side panels. More popularly, Greek mythology graced the chest’s panels. By the 19th century, the panels of ancient chests were removed from remaining cassones and preserved by dealers as examples for potential buyers. The choice of keeping only the panels was for practicality rather than out of disregard, as these chest were highly immobile due to their weight. Traditionally, a cassone would be placed at the foot of the wedding bed, enclosed by a chamber and curtains, and remain there even upon moving homes. Rarely, these immaculate works of art also provided a sitting place when other means were sparse.

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The common method of transporting cassoni to the wedding for presentation, then to the residence for its permanent resting place. If the couple were to move homes, the cassone was often left behind as it was too cumbersome to travel with.

Though a cassone is traditionally given by the parents of the bride, a bit of modernization may do this lovely gift some good. For my sister’s wedding, I have planned to recreate this wonderful treasure. My uncle is a carpenter and my father is just simply handy; they will serve as the builders, while all of her friends and our family can contribute by filling the box with letters and linens, heirlooms and intimates, memorabilia and unique trinkets. A bit of an artist myself, I will paint the exterior to blend with her new home! What a lovely memento to be able to put on display as a reminder of all those who love and care for you, and wish you all attainable happiness.

Thinking this is a fun idea, but not wanting to wait to find The One? Consider a glory box. The band Portishead came out with the song “Glory Box” in 1995 that describes a woman who has decidedly given up her ways as a temptress in desire for settling down with a man to love.  This cassone family member, more commonly known as a hope chest, is a trunk used to collect trinkets that marks the decision of a desire for marriage. Items often include clothing, household linens, lingerie, table sets, and occasionally the wedding dress itself. This is completely personal and becomes a cherished gift to oneself on the day of her own wedding as an emblem kept throughout the years, much like today’s wedding book.

Also coming to us from the 15th and 16th centuries, many hand-made the items that were to be stored within their Hope Chest.  A certain romance lies with creation, and what is a better way to craft a unique home-life than to fashion it with your own hands. Most often, these would include knit quilts and lace trimmed underclothes. A key difference in design is that hope chests were intended for usage and mobility.

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Opposite of the cassone, a Hope Chest does not intrinsically have to be extraordinarily designed and crafted, this element is left to the owner’s preference. While Italy stayed true to the name and used the form of a chest, the Dutch and German opted for tall wardrobes for functionality. This open-ended design springs from the base message that a Hope Chest is only a physical representation of one’s own dreams for her future marriage. A Hope Chest becomes a time capsule of romance to be opened and put to use on that very special day, making it more cherished as you move closer to the Big Day.  In the words of Sarah Breathnach: “Faith is the very first thing you should pack in a hope chest.”

We are giving a bit of inspiration to get started, but the most cherished gift are often the most personal. Take your own creative freedom, and get started on a gift that will be adored for years to come.

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