The cabinet appeared during the last quarter of the 16th century. Originally designed as a writing desk fitted with compartments designed to hold letters or documents, it is equipped with lateral handles allowing it to be transported and set down upon a table. The cabinet’s façade of monumental dimensions, designed like that of a palace, is underlined by its simplicity and its purity of lines. The three-leaf base, restored and rebuilt in the 18th century, is marked with four harpies, mythological creatures with the head of a woman and the talons of an eagle. The upper part is organised around an arc de triomphe, flanked by Corinthian columns and pilasters on two levels. A flat, overhanging cornice crowns the piece of furniture. Cardinal Alexander Farnese’s (died in 1589) coat of arms decorates the tympanum of the central arch: two sculpted figures, dressed in the classical style, support the shield topped off with a Cardinal hat. Heraldic fleurs-de-lys sit atop each broken pediment.
The architecture of the 1580’s strongly influenced this Italian cabinet, which probably came from the palace of the Prelate in Rome, where the same powerful and sober style can be found. Referring to the palace inventory of 1644, the cabinet contained a large collection of coins, gems and semi-precious stones, engraved stones, statuettes, antique objects, bronzes, more than 600 drawings, as well as manuscripts in miniature. A masterpiece of furniture, this cabinet was the monumental setting for the precious collections of Cardinal Farnese.