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Old And Sold Antiques Digest Article


THE vargueno, that decorative Spanish desk introduced to America by the recent vogue for Spanish interiors, has proved as useful to its owners in adaptation as it once was in old Spain. Externally still sixteenth or seventeenth century Spanish, it may today house a radio, phonograph or telephone. It serves decoratively in the music room as a music cabinet, and in the living room it may contain, for example, Toby jugs or golf trophies. It may also serve as a cellarette.

Excellent reproductions are being made, some in this country and some in Spain, by craftsmen who follow faithfully the early methods of construction. Old walnut planks are often incorporated, and the ironwork may come from varguenos beyond repair.

The vargueno has a chestlike upper part with drop front lid supported when open by two sliding supports or pulls. And there is the stand. In some old examples this lower part is a chest with the front carved and decorated in the form of four panels. The upper two panels are the fronts of drawers, the lower two concealing small cupboards.

Many of the varguenos, however, are supported by a table. This may have legs at the ends or pedestal supports splayed outward and held in place by iron stretchers. Or the table may have heavily carved trestle supports connected by a stretcher of carved wood or of wrought iron. How closely the vargueno is related to the traveling chest from which it undoubtedly developed is disclosed in the end handles, placed there for ease in transporting. Its compactness and the use of the protective iron which is worked into so many decorative forms are other indications. In Spain one name for the vargueno is still the "mule chest." In the small table with light legs and iron stretchers one end of the iron support may be unhooked and the legs taken off, thus making it compact for transportation. Earlier stands, of which only a few examples have been discovered, show a simpler folding arrangement of crossed legs.

The vargueno was probably of Moorish inspiration. The ease with which it could be transported might well have made it part of the furniture the Moors took with them in their restless, warring life. The decoration of the interior of the early varguenos clearly shows Moorish influence in the rich display of carving. Gilded and painted wood and inlay of bone and ivory are characteristic of the early examples.

The making of varguenos was largely in the hands of Moorish artisans, even after the fall of Granada, when Moorish rule was overthrown. For a hundred years they were still the best woodworkers in Spain. Not even the onrush of the Italian Renaissance could cause completely to disappear the characteristics of Moorish design in the forms and details of the vargueno. The ironwork on the vargueno is in itself full of interest. The long hasps that slide into the face of the orna mental lock on the front; the curious little fasteners found on some examples at the upper corners of the drop lids; the small side bolts, placed to give additional support to the wide cover, are all individual pieces of design. Corner pieces and lozenge-shaped plaques of cut-out iron decorating the front, often with red velvet under them, deserve close inspection.

An interesting touch on the part of the craftsman was the use of the little shell-shaped pieces of iron to cover the ends of the nails that hold the two hinges. These appear in two groups of three each along the lower edge of the front on many old pieces. Generally the ironwork is in its natural color, although gilded metal work andduring the great days of the Spanish conquest of America -silver repousse work were used on the vargueno produced for the very wealthy.

The carved fronts of the little drawers and cupboards are marvels of miniature architectural design. Especially interesting are the tiny doors that conceal drawers. These, with columns and cornices, simulated entrances to buildings. Under Italian influences, which gave a classic touch to the inside in place of the Moorish, these portals became little entrances with walls of mirrors and floors laid with tiny black and white tiles.

Small paintings, miniature replicas of wall decorations, ornamented the fronts of the drawers in varguenos made under the influence of the Italian Renaissance.

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