Lord Lee of Fareham was one of the most remarkable philanthropists of the early twentieth century. As well as bequeathing his country estate, Chequers, to the nation, he conceived England’s very first university department for the study of art history and persuaded his close friend, the textile millionaire Samuel Courtauld, to bankroll it. Not only was Lee the driving force behind the foundation of the Courtauld, he donated his own art collection to the fledgling institute, helping to establish one of the world’s most richly endowed university galleries.

Among the treasures of the Lee Bequest were two ornate Renaissance wedding chests, commissioned by the Florentine merchant Lorenzo Morelli on the occasion of his marriage in 1472 to Vaggia Nerli. The only Renaissance chests of this kind to survive, intact, with their elaborately decorated spalliere, or backboards, they are currently the focus of a small but fascinating exhibition at the Courtauld Gallery, “Love and Marriage in Renaissance Florence”.

Fashioned by the carpenter Zanobi di Domenico, gilded by Jacopo del Sellaio, and decorated with narratives of early Rome by Biagio da Antonio, these objects occupy a middle ground between furniture, sculpture and painting. They are rare survivals from the so-called “Golden Age” of Renaissance Florence – the era of Lorenzo the Magnificent, when Botticelli was reaching his maturity and the young Leonardo da Vinci was taking his first steps towards greatness. Strictly speaking, they belong to the realm of domestic life, rather than that of declamatory, public art. But they are no less engrossing for that.

Marriage between members of the Florentine elite was a solemn and sigificant occasion. It was through marriage that dynasties were secured, alliances were formed and power was acquired. The most significant item commissioned for the home of the new couple was, traditionally, a pair of...

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