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Cassone with painted front panel once thought to depict the Conquest of Trebizond

Attributed to workshop of Apollonio di Giovanni di Tomaso (Italian, Florence ca. 1416–1465)

A larger image of the ‘Conquest of Trebizond’ Cassone.

A detail of the left of the ‘Conquest of Trebizond’ Cassone.
A detail of the centre of the ‘Conquest of Trebizond’ Cassone.
A detail of the right of the ‘Conquest of Trebizond’ Cassone.

Cassone with painted front panel depicting the "Conquest of Trebizond"
Attributed to workshop of Apollonio di Giovanni di Tomaso (Italian, Florence ca. 1416–1465 Florence) and of Marco del Buono Giamberti (Italian, Florence 1402–1489 Florence)
Date: after ca. 1461
Culture: Italian, Florence
Medium: Poplar wood, linen, polychromed and gilded gesso with panel painted in tempera and gold
Dimensions: H. 39-1/2 x W. 77 x D. 32-7/8 in. (100.3 x 195.6 x 83.5 cm)

The old interpretation
This fifteenth-century front panel of a chest, or cassone portrays a contemporary historical event—the conquest of Trebizond, the last major outpost of the Byzantine Empire, by Mehmed II in 1461. The painted front may originate from another chest. It it depicts an event that unfolds before two identifiable cities of the Byzantine Empire. In the left background, clearly labeled on its walls, is Constantinople. An attempt has been made by the artist to suggest a number of the city’s landmarks and distinguishing topographical features, some of which are also labeled. There is the Latin church of San Francesco; the monumental column of Justinian in the Augustaion and the Egyptian obelisk (evidently topped by a crescent) in the Hippodrome originally laid out by Emperor Septimus Severus in the third century AD and further embellished by Constantine; the Hagia Sofia; the nearby sixth-century church of Saint Irene; what must be intended either as the Blachernae Palace or its thirteenth-century annex, the Palace of Porphyrogenitus, which served as the imperial residence for the last Byzantine emperors (the fragmentary inscription may possibly have been intended as [PALAZZO] DEILO [IM]PER[AT]ORI); the Golden Horn—the city’s fabled inlet that was protected by a chain that could be drawn across it—with western ships (carracks) moored next to the Genoese quarter of Pera, the walls of which are dominated by the great circular Galata tower, atop which the Genoese flag can be seen. Other boats in the Golden Horn and the Sea of Marmara may be either Greek dromons or Ottoman. Further back, on the European side of the Bosphorus, is the CHASTEL NVOVO (the "new fortress" of Rumeli Hisari built by Mehmed II in 1451–52 in preparation for the seige of Constantinople; its distinctive towers are still a landmark today). Across the Bosphorus is another walled city designated as LO SCUTARIO—Scutari, present-day Üsküdar (the name, Skutarion, derived from the leather shields of the Roman soldiers stationed there; it fell to the Ottomans almost a century before Constantinople). Then, dominating the hill on the right is the walled city of Trebizond (modern-day Trabzon). Located on the southern coast of the Black Sea, it became the seat of a separate Byzantine empire when it was conquered by Alexios Komenos in 1204 — the year Constantinople fell to the crusaders—and was the last outpost of the Byzantine Empire following the conquest of Constantinople by the Ottomans in 1453. It fell to the Ottomans in 1461, marking the final demise of Byzantium. Although hardly an accurate depiction, it seems clear that for his depiction of Constantinople the artist was supplied with descriptions and maps, such as the one included in Cristoforo Buondelmonti’s Liber insularum Archipelagi of 1420 as well as, possibly, drawings by that inveterate traveler Cyriac of Ancona and the reports of other visitors to the city.

The new interpretation
Before the walled city of Trebizond is depicted a battle. An encampment of tents is shown on the far right, in front of which the leader of one of the armies is seated on a triumphal chariot drawn by two white horses. He wears a turban, as do other members of his army, including the troops emerging behind Scutari, and he points his white baton towards a gesticulating, bearded figure who, dressed in blue, wears the sort of cylindrical hat splayed out at the top that was associated in Western Europe with the Byzantine Greeks; he rides a black steed and is plainly either reporting on the progress of the battle or taking orders. Prior to 1980 it was presumed that the figure on the chariot was Mehmed II and that the battle depicted the Ottoman defeat of the Byzantines in 1461 — hence the designation of the chest as the Trebizond Cassone. However, as has been pointed out by Paribeni, Trebizond was taken by Mehmed II without a battle: it capitulated without bloodshed. Moreover, a close examination of the costumes reveals that it is the Ottomans who are being vanquished (for the costumes, see especially Refs. Paribeni 2001, Paribeni 2002, and Lurati 2005). Clearly shown among the captives and those in retreat are members of the Ottoman elite infantry, the Janissaries, wearing their distinctive white conical hats with the top folded over. Other conical hats are gold, some with a feathered decoration (for similar Turkish costumes, see Cesare Vecellio’s De gli habiti antichi et moderni di diverse parti del mondo libri due . . . , Venice, 1664, book 7, pp. 297–302). Their commander is almost certainly the turbaned figure to the left of the melee, dressed in gold, holding a scepter and mounted on a black horse. He is defended by Janissaries, one of whom turns around while pointing with his left hand. Scimitars are wielded by both armies, as are the distinctive recurved composite bows of Ottoman warfare. In front of the triumphal chariot five captives, two of whom kneel, are being presented to the victorious army commanders. The characterization of the two armies should have been enough to refute the common identification of the figure on the triumphal chariot as Mehmed II. And, in fact, a careful examination with the aid of infrared light in 1980 revealed an inscription identifying him as TAN[B]VRLANA—Tamerlane, or Timur (1336–1405), the celebrated Mongol emperor and commander who defeated the Ottomans under Bayezid I at Ankara in 1402 (Bayezid was taken prisoner). The battle, then, would seem to be Tamerlane’s victory over Bayezid at Ankara, but anachronistically shown against the backdrop of Trebizond. As remarked by Gombrich [see Ref. 1955], "it cannot have been the intention of the painter simply to represent a Greek disaster." And, indeed, the setting of a battle that took place in 1402 in front of a city that fell to the Ottomans in 1461 signals an emblematic intent.
In the minds of Europeans, Tamerlane’s victories assured him a place among the "worthies". As such, his image was included in a fresco cycle of famous men commissioned about 1432 by Cardinal Giordano Orsini for his palace in Rome. A number of interpretations have been suggested to explain the apparent anachronisms (see the thorough summary in Ref. Krohn 2008). One would have it that the figure is not actually Tamerlane but the Turkmen rival of the Ottomans, Uzun Hasan (1423–1478), who was known in his time as a second Tamerlane [see Ref. Paribeni 2001 and Baskins, as reported in Ref. Krohn 2008]. Uzun Hasan made a pact with Mehmed II not to aid the Byzantine forces and thus to assist the Ottoman conquest of Trebizond. How this relates to the actual battle scene depicted remains problematic, but it may be worth noting that the Venetians sought Uzun Hasan as an ally against the Ottomans. What cannot be doubted is the intention to conflate historical events, using the past as a template for the future by reminding viewers that the Ottomans—now a threat to Europe—were not invincible. Paribeni [see Ref. 2001] has indicated a pair of cassoni panels commissioned from the workshop of Apollonio, apparently in 1461, that illustrate the triumph of the Greeks over Xerxes’ invading Persian army in 480–79 BC. Given the date of the commission, there would appear to be a reference to the conquest of Trebizond, the collapse of the Byzantine Empire, and a hoped for reversal. At the Council of Mantua in 1459, Pius II promoted a crusade against the Turks. An army was assembled in Ancona in 1464, but dispersed when Pius died there on August 15. There were, of course, also mercantile interests, and Paribeni [see Ref. 2001] has pointed out that in December 1460 an accord established a Florentine commercial presence in Trebizond. The presence on the MMA cassone of the two cities of Constantinople and Trebizond would thus seem to transform Tamerlane’s victory at Ankara in 1402 into an emblematic prognosis for the defeat of the Ottoman conquerors of Trebizond. As noted above, the painted front may have belonged to another chest so that the attempts to link it with the Strozzi remain speculative. Moreover, it has not been proven that the chest itself came from the Strozzi palace, though it contains Strozzi emblems. Several Strozzi marriages have been suggested as appropriate moments for the commission: Caterina Strozzi, who married Jacopo degli Spini in 1462 [see Ref. Nickel 1974]; the brother of Vanni di Francesco Strozzi, who traveled to Constantinople and Trebizond in 1462 and who commissioned a cassone from Apollonio for the marriage [see Ref. Paribeni 2001]; Strozza di Messer Marcello degli Strozzi, who married in 1459; Benedetto di Marco degli Strozzi, who married in 1462 [Baskins, reported in Ref. Krohn 2008]; and finally, most prominent of all, the wealthy Filippo Strozzi—the builder of Palazzo Strozzi—who married Fiammetta degli Adimari in 1466 [Beatrice Paolozzi-Strozzi, in Ref. Krohn 2008].
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Accession Number: 14.39

A detail of the left of the ‘Conquest of Trebizond’ Cassone.
A detail of the centre of the ‘Conquest of Trebizond’ Cassone.
A detail of the right of the ‘Conquest of Trebizond’ Cassone.

Referenced on p.47, Byzantine Armies AD 1118-1461 by Ian Heath & Angus McBride
The fall of Trebizond, from a painted Florentine cassone of c. 1462. The Byzantine defenders, armed with composite bows, curved sabres and spears, can only be distinguished from their Ottoman opponents by the substitution of tall, plumed hats for turbans.

Referenced on p.4, ELI - 058 - The Janissaries by David Nicolle and Christa Hook
Byzantine infantry on an Italian painted chest of the mid-15th century, showing ‘The Ottoman conquest of Trabzon’. Their appearance is different to that in archaic Byzantine art of the period, but is probably an accurate reflection of late Byzantine costume and weapons. The similarity between their tall hats and those worn by early Ottoman infantry is striking.

See Battle of Issus (cassone panel) by Apollonio di Giovanni, Italy, early 15th century with similar tents and shield patterns
See also 2 similar archers in robes on Horatius Cocles Defending the Sublician Bridge (cassone panel) by Francesco Pesellino, Florence, Italy, ca. 1450
Other 15th Century Illustrations of Costume & Soldiers
Illustrations of Ottoman Costume & Soldiers

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