At first glance this sixteenth-century wooden box might seem like a straightforward although elaborately ornate and precious container. However, there is more to it than meets the eye, both in terms of its iconographic program and its materiality. In fact while the former can be perceived visually, the latter can never actually meet the eye, but only the nose of the beholder.
The rectangular box is carved from alder wood, which has been gilded and adorned with an intricate, detailed iconographic program. This object is a so-called pastiglia box, a type of object that was popular in sixteenth-century Northern Italy. The word pastiglia derives from the Latin pastillus da panis meaning ‘bread’, and later came to refer to a paste mixed from chalk and glue, or chalk and flour. The term is also equated with pasta di muschio, where the paste is infused with musk. The lightly coloured decorations on the box are made of this kind of material, thus adding an olfactory element to the object. But what were these objects for?
These boxes are thought to have been part of a woman’s trousseau – a chest she would take with her when leaving the home of her parents to either be married or enter the convent (a different kind of marriage altogether). Her dowry would accompany her inside this elaborately decorated chest, often in a public procession from her old home to her new one. The contents would vary according to previous agreements between families; however, very often items such as textiles and jewellery would be found in the trousseau, or cassone as it was called in Italy. It has been suggested that the pastiglia box would be included in the trousseau and hold precious pieces of jewellery, as well as combs, toothpicks, bottles of perfume, and other toiletries and cosmetics. It might also hold devotional objects such as a pater noster. Interestingly pater noster beads were sometimes made from musk paste just like the decorations on the box.
The addition of an olfactory component partly attests to the widely disseminated presence of ‘smelly objects’ in sixteenth-century Italy. Pomanders, scent cases, and perfumed gloves were popular accessories in Renaissance and early modern Europe, and thus a wooden box decorated with scented paste would not appear as an oddity. However, these aromatics were not exclusively added to objects in order to perfume the environment, but also for medical reasons.
Infectious diseases were thought to be carried in the air, and bad smells were an indicator of corrupted, diseased air. These were counteracted with pleasant fragrances, which were used in objects to create a scented, protective environment around their wearer and anyone in their presence. Therefore, the pastiglia boxes’ presence in the cassone would not only infuse other objects in it, such as textiles, with protective scent, but also function to provide a source of healing and protective fragrance every time one was in its proximity and every time it was handled.
Furthermore, certain aromatics were thought to aid in the conception of children, and more specifically the conception of boys. Historian Rudolph Bell shows that contemporary regimens of health recommend that “the room in which the couple plan to have intercourse should be sprayed with […] odours like musk of deer or civet cat, aloe, and amber.” As the pastiglia boxes were most certainly placed in the Renaissance bedroom they become not only a container for a woman’s cosmetics and jewellery, but a prominent reminder of her wifely duties concerning childbirth.
According to historian Marisa Zaccagnini “[t]he principal themes and references to supply subject matter included Love, Dance, Ovid’s Metamorphos[e]s […], Greek and Roman mythology as well as the Old and New Testament.” This particular box is decorated with two scenes from Roman mythology – the torments of Marcus Atilius Regulus and the sacrifice of Marcus Curtius – and two scenes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses – Diana and Actaeon, and Pyramus and Thisbe. The Roman mythologies are located on the longer sides of the box, while the Ovidian scenes decorate the shorter sides. The myths of the Romans Marcus Regulus and Marcus Curtius are stories of (self-) sacrifice and possibly function as a reminder for the bride to honour her family and sacrifice herself for it. The Ovidian tales are about an impure glance, which led to Actaeon’s death, and a forbidden love, which ends in the suicide of both Pyramus and Thisbe – a sacrifice for love. These stories reinforce the dangers of lust and of forbidden love, but simultaneously attest to love’s strength.
In addition to all these moral connotations made manifest on this small box, its ornaments also attest to the Renaissance love and admiration for the mythology of classical Rome, and the aim to convey through these morals valid for a contemporary Renaissance bride.
The fascination of this object, although it is ‘simply’ a container for other precious objects, is that its design – decoration and materiality – integrates a wide spectrum of Renaissance beliefs and aspirations. This relatively small object is loaded with ideas about love, desire, death and sacrifice; and implies ideas about scent that come integrated with female hygiene and upkeep, and duty as a wife, as well as the culture of medical belief.
It has been suggested that due to their rich ornament these boxes were clearly meant to be seen in the household, and would have surely made for a great conversation piece.
 Marisa Zaccagnini, Pastiglia boxes: hidden treasures of the Italian Renaissance, (Firenze: Centro Di, 2002), p. 9.
 Elizabeth Currie, Inside the Renaissance House, (London: V&A Publications, 2006), pp. 53 -54.
 For more information on the presence and meaning of scented ‘things’ in Renaissance Italy see Evelyn Welch, ‘Scented Buttons and Perfumed Gloves: Smelling Things in Renaissance Italy’, Ornamentalism: The Art of Renaissance Accessories, edited by Bella Mirabella, (Ann ArborL University of Michigan Press, 2011), pp. 13 – 39.
 Rudolph M. Bell, How to do it: Guides to Good Living for Renaissance Italians, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999), p. 39.
 Merry E. Wiesner, Women and Gender in Early Modern Europe, (Cambridge, New York, Melbourne, Madrid, Cape Town, Singapore, Sao Paulo: Cambridge University Press, 2000), p. 78.
 Zaccagnini, Pastiglia boxes, p. 9.
Have you seen any objects that intrigued you lately? Perhaps you have encountered something that piqued your curiosity in a museum or gallery (or in a shop or in the street?), or as part of your art or design practice, as part of your research, or as part of your daily life. Please don’t be shy! We welcome submissions on objects of all sorts, between 500 and 1,500 words, and we do ask that you own the rights to your images or use those belonging to the V&A. If you aren’t sure if your idea is right for our column, it certainly never hurts to ask, so please get in touch with us: firstname.lastname@example.org
Luisa Coscarelli –
Luisa did her BA in History of Art and German Literature at the Humboldt University in Berlin. Although completing it with a focus on contemporary art, she has now joined the Renaissance strand and is now interested in the relationship between smell and design. For her dissertation, Luisa is asking questions about ‘smelly objects’, and how olfactory environments were designed in the Renaissance period.
© Luisa Coscarelli 2014. All Rights Reserved.