Rare Cuir Bouilli Figural Case

Tooled leather, wood, paint
Italy or France
Circa: 1550
Size: 11 1/8 (h)" x 4" (d)
An important and remarkable case in the form of an African-European man's head. The portrait features stylized eyes, a well-groomed mustache, a head wrap (turban), or a cap with radiating lines on the top, possibly representing strung pearls or gemstones.

The container separates at the lips and reveals a cylindrical cavity inside.

African-Europeans during the Renaissance were both free and enslaved. While many Black persons were enslaved, there was a working and merchant class of free Black persons throughout Europe—with some Black persons working as African ambassadors. Venice, in particular, had one of the more diverse societies.

"Revealing the African Presence in Renaissance Europe," an exhibit at The Walters Art Museum in 2012, showed numerous works of African-Europeans as subjects or players in paintings and decorative works of art during this time.

Two portraits of unknown black men, painted in the early 16th century, either of which may be the earliest paintings depicting a particular African-European person. Both show expensively dressed men of wealth, standing, and respect. Similar to the figure on the case, both have facial hair and caps.

Though stereotypical "blackamoor" or "moor" subjects are depicted in Renaissance period decorative arts and paintings as exotic "others," the subject of this leather case feels personal and specific—as if it is a portrait custom made for the owner or a gift representing a particular likeness.

The case is made of cuir-bouilli or "boiled leather." A thin wood armature and cork provide the "bones" of the case while the whole is covered with a thin leather that is heated and tooled and then finished with linseed oil. Heating the leather as such makes the skin durable and able to hold a tooled decoration.

Figural cases as such are exceedingly rare; in fact, this is the only anthropomorphic case I have come across (N.B. an ichthyomorphic case is in the Jacques Hollander cutlery collection (n°695).

Though this case's purpose is unknown, the maker possibly created it to house important personal documents relating to its owner. Regardless of utility, it serves as an important secular Renaissance object.

Provenance: Sylvie Lhermite-King, A La Façon de Venise, Paris, France.

Condition: Excellent condition with expected wear from age and use. An ancient hole to one side near the base as seen in images.


Price: $24,000.00