Tales of love, virtue, fidelity, and matrimony: what is more fitting for an exhibition that opened the week of Valentine’s Day?

Love and marriage in Renaissance Florence: The Courtauld wedding chests is on view at the Courtauld Gallery in Somerset House, London, until May 17. The exhibition explores one of the most important and historically neglected art forms of Renaissance Florence: the lavishly decorated and painted wooden chests specially commissioned to celebrate marriage alliances between powerful families.

Love was not necessarily part of the tale in 15th-century Italian Renaissance marriages, however. If love developed after marriage, that was fortunate. Instead, marriage was a legal contract agreed during lengthy discussions between the families of the couple: a dynastic alliance informed by wealth, power and prestige.

The commissioning of a pair of wedding chests — or cassoni (cassone: singular) — by the husband to celebrate the marriage was an integral part of that process, a visual metaphor for the wealth and status of the union.

Cassoni were not merely for the eyes of bride and groom. Yes, they stood in the camera, the husband’s bedchamber, and were used to store valuable items such as clothes and textiles, but they were much more than that. They were one of the most precious pieces in the home, and meant for display.

For the camera was a public place in Renaissance homes, a place to entertain and show off in as well as to sleep in, and apart from the bed and its draperies in the early Florentine Renaissance bedroom there was little else to show off with. Wall-hung paintings and other decoration came later.

“No one object gives so much insight into the way the Florentines lived their lives,” says exhibition curator, Caroline Campbell. “We are used to seeing detached panels as long narrow paintings [the Ashmolean’s famous Uccello painting, The Hunt in the Forest, being one], but we’re not looking at flat art here. We are looking at objects from a Renaissance home — that tell us about social history and social anthropology.”

“We know they cost a lot,” she says. Cassoni were the highest quality, the richest objects that the Renaissance could buy. “Their cost was equivalent to a very large altarpiece made for a great church, or the salaries of two skilled artisans for a year.”

One pair of wedding chests stands out in this delightful small exhibition: those made in 1472 for the marriage of Lorenzo Morelli, a 30-year-old silk merchant from Santa Croce, and his bride, Vaggia di Tanai Nerli, who came from the opposite end of Florence, bringing with her a sizeable dowry of 2,000 Florins.

The celebrated Morelli-Nerli chests are among the most important surviving examples of Renaissance furniture, and the only pair of cassoni still to be displayed with their original painted backboards (spalliere).

They are also fully documented. Lorenzo kept records of all his expenses: these chests, the redecoration of the Palazzo Morelli, a massive inlaid, richly decorated day-bed, and more, recording for fortunate future researchers the “expenses when I took my wife home”.

He clearly got a lot of satisfaction from the job of preparing his home for his bride. He noted that the spalliera “worked like a white floral damask cloth with little stories in the middle”. And so they do: their fictive curtains are drawn back to reveal episodes from Livy’s History of Rome that complement the paintings below.

Generally, while wedding chests were the fashion from around 1380 to 1520 in Florence, the painted panels set into them tell tales of ancient Greece, Rome and Palestine, as well as the literature of the day, the work of Italian poets for example, Petrarch, Dante, Boccaccio. The complex scenes were intended to entertain and educate, and carry moral messages.

The Morelli chest ostensibly telling the story of Camillus chasing the Gauls from Rome, shows how the man is meant to behave. The Nerli chest, on the other hand, with its story of the treacherous teacher who offers the children in his charge as hostages and gets his come-uppance, shows that virtue pays and vice doesn’t; it’s also a message to the new bride about looking after children properly.

In two panels on display, long removed from their original chests, one telling the story of the Siege of Carthage and the other the Reconciliation of the Romans and Sabines — both tales incidentally reinterpreted according to 15th-century wedding practice — you see the moment of betrothal. The young man and woman’s hands are brought together by the marriage broker (the mezzano) to exchange rings, echoing the Florentine ring-giving ceremony that could provide legal proof of marriage if necessary.

It’s all rather fun, you can read into the pictures as much as you like. But the tale of Ginevra, Bernabo and Ambrogiuolo on the fronts of a pair of cassoni reconstructed in the 19th century pleased me most. The story comes from the second day of Boccaccio’s Decameron and is all about trust, chastity, virtue and fidelity, and a happy ending reached against the odds.

Last but not least, these panels would function as story books for the couple’s children. The pictures were the perfect height for that.

Let’s not forget this was a world where most could not read or write. Take a look at Solomon meeting Sheba in one panel hung on the wall here and you’ll see damage (restored) not only from years of keys dangling against the wood, but also scratches on Solomon’s face. I can’t help but think if that’s all the children did they were lucky.

lLove and Marriage in Renaissance Florence: The Courtauld wedding chests runs until May 17. www.courtauld.ac.uk