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History's Influence On Italian Styles
( Article orginally published January 1945 )
Marco Polo's travels brought to Italy examples of Chinese and Byzantine highly advanced cultures, and id the foundations for the Renaissance.
The political power of the Church reached its height during the Gothic period, 1100-1500 A. D., and vast amounts of money were spent on cathedrals, but very little on furniture for the castles of the nobles. During this period tapestry weaving was introduced by the Crusaders.
Gothic was one of the few styles of man that sprung entirely from within the group of people who conceived it. The Renaissance adapted the traditions of Greece, Egypt and Rome, but the Gothic grew entirely from man's wish to beautify his surroundings. To the Romans or Italians or to cultivated Spain, Gothic architecture and furniture symbolized the barbarity An extremely fine Italian Renaissance table dating 1590. of the North.
Some of the most beautiful cathedrals in the history of man were constructed during this age.Domestic Gothic art and furniture came from the castles of the feudal barons. These gentlemen were practically always in a state of war, so their furnishings had to be highly portable.
The chest was one of the most important pieces of furniture. The French Gothic chest was always oak, as all Gothic furnishings were, without exception. One popular design the arched window motif was used to decorates the fronts of chests. It is strongly religious in character.
Chairs were at a premium, one for the lord and one for the lady usually being the only ones in an establishment.
Tables as such did not exist, but consisted of boards set up on trestles, hence our expression, "set the table."
Beds likewise were portable and consisted of draperies and fabrics, but very little wood until quite late in the period.By approximately 1500 A.D.the great power of the Church began to wane and the control of states was taken over by individuals rather than the feudal lords of the Gothic age, and the unification of nations as we know them today began. During this period, known as Italian Renaissance, Italy was the leading nation of the world. Her ships sailed from Venice and Genoa all over the world, bringing back new ideas to the craftsmen and great wealth to the merchants of the country. Soon a great national style began to develop, as the wealthy people demanded beautiful furnishings for their elaborate houses. Thus the foundation of household decoration as we know it today was laid.
The Renaissance was in two distinct parts. The Quattrocento from 1400 to 1500 was a period of simplicity and classical purity. The Cinquecento from 1500 to 1600 represents a flowering of the earlier styles. It is known as the High Renaissance and the first half of the century is generally considered to be the finest.
The rooms of Italian palaces of the age were extremely large, ceilings sometimes being as high as 35'or 40'. The furniture was proportionately large in scale, and practically none of the original pieces are usable in modern homes. However, they furnished the inspiration for much of our present day furniture.
The walls were often covered with bright red damask; or mosaic tile in brilliant colors from Spain might form the wall; in other cases Italian marble. stone or plain white plaster were used, depending upon the wealth of the family and the importance of the room.
The ceilings were in many cases beamed with huge unstained oak or walnut members. However, some times they were elaborately painted. As the furniture and rooms became more elaborate, the ceilings came to be heavily carved and gilded.
Floors were of stone or tile, and were bare except for a very few scattered Oriental rugs. These palaces as a rule were very sparsely furnished.
The marriage chest or Cassone-the hope chest of the time-contained the dowry of the bridesilver, jewels, clothing, rare silks and other things of importance to the people of that day.
The Vargueno or cabinet desk was another important piece of furniture. The top front dropped to for a writing space and there were dozens of little drawers and storage spaces in the top and bottom of this huge, elaborate piece of furniture.
Of the seating furniture the Cassapanca was of utmost importance. It was the forerunner of our settee and our present-day sofa. A long wooden bench, with wooden back and arms, it was built completely to the floor. Often the seat was hinged at the back and -lifted up to reveal storage space beneath it.
The Scabella chair was one of the important types of this period. It was based on the 3-legged stool with a broad wooden back.
The Savonarola chair was another popular type. This important piece of furniture was X-shaped with interlacing curved slats and a wooden back and seat. It was usually carved and inlaid with certosina work. Certosina work was simply the inlay of ivory or bone on a dark wood ground. Usually the pattern was geometric stars, crescents, triangles suggesting Moorish origin.
The Dante chair was another popular model. It also had X-shaped legs which curved up into wooden arms. The seat and back were of leather or velvet.
The Torchere was the most important lighting fixture of the age. Torcheres were tall stands of wrought iron or gilded wood which held eriormous candles for illuminating the huge halls.
A cabinet piece of importance was the Credenza, a large side table that was the forerunner of our present day sideboard or buffet.
There were many incidental tables of this period, but the most outstanding type was the trestle table, with large slab legs at the ends, elaborately carved. The beds of the period were 4-poster in type, without elaborate draping as was used in the colder parts of Europe.