The Triumphs of Love, Chastity and Death
Francesco Pesellino, Italian, about 1422-1457
In characteristic fashion, Bernard Berenson paid court to his patron, complimented her discernment, and spurred her acquisitiveness and rivalry with other collectors. Gardner was indeed lucky to get the two Pesellino panels since in the latter half of the nineteenth century, dealers and collectors had raised the demand for Renaissance painted wedding furniture. The cassone panels feature five parade floats, forming a grand procession that culminates in a celestial vision of God at the end of time. The imagery derives from Petrarch’s fourteenth-century allegorical poem, The Triumphs of Love, Chastity, Death, Fame, Time, and Eternity. In his letters to Gardner, Berenson singled out the final tableau for praise, but he referred to it as the triumph of Religion rather than Eternity; presumably this substitution of titles was calculated to appeal to Gardner’s deepening piety. Religious sentiment mingled with courtly love proved irresistible, so it’s no wonder that Berenson also deliberately tailored his description of the first panel to include the triumph of “Chivalry” rather than Petrarch’s more conventional Fame. With such coded language, Isabella Stewart Gardner and Bernard Berenson shaped history through imagination and fantasy; they engaged with the Renaissance past through scholarship, research, and travel, but they also enjoyed the role-playing of a good costume drama!