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Renaissance Textiles

( Originally Published 1930 )



A FEW years ago the Italian Renaissance burst upon an unprepared America that was either English or French in its dictionary of the applied arts. A few erudite and traveled people knew all about the artistic riches of Italy, but even they had no thought of introducing here the beautifying of the private home after the manner of the gifted people of the Renaissance. Principally they brought home from Italian sojourns an angel or two of Fra Angelico, framed in Gothic points of gold, or a few small copies of Della Robbia plaques in glazes of blue and white, placing these exotics amid the Nineteenth Century bibelots.

It was probably Italy's lack of brisk trade among small merchants at home that brought us the Renaissance in furniture and decoration. Thirty years ago, or the early years of the century, the Italian merchant of antiques in Italy languished among his wares, or else took up some occupation and only opened the shop when sent for by a customer. Americans were the usual buyers in Florence, Rome, Siena, Perugia, Venice. Tens of thousands of Italian immigrants were coming to America—why not send to America the old furniture as well?

It was done, and America received the beauty of the Renaissance into its homes and thrilled with the deep delight of it. Those were the days of the "Collections" much advertised by ,the auctioneer, the Davanzati, Volpi and many another. They came and came, until most of the old palaces and villas of Italy had lost their splendid treasure of carved wood, gilded and painted panels, forged iron, and treasure chests of textiles.

All these things needed the softening effect of fabrics, and so beautiful were all the velvets, the brocades and tapestries that the intellectual appeal they made could only be gratified by study. And study of the Renaissance leads one directly into a land of romance as fantastic as mythology but as real as history. Our belongings are grown a part of romantic history if we can attach to them a famous name, and it takes but a slight trick of imagination to fancy oneself in intimate association with the former owner and his times. There is not a piece of early fabric that has not its corollary of story about the weave, the material, the design, the use to which the stuff was put, the owner and his history.

When Italy emerged from Medieval necessities into Renaissance luxuries, she constructed villas and palaces which demanded furnishings in keeping. Gothic times had not been times of bodily ease, nor had the furnishing of the homes of great men been anything but scanty. The Renaissance; which embraced every expression of art as well as the growth of intellectual scope, required a new style of furniture for its new style of house. Greece and Rome, being the inspiration for all, the fittings of the house took on designs with the flavor of the classic. Furniture was made after the details of architecture of the ancients. A table was almost a temple with its columnar supports. A chest or cassone was distinctly like an elongated triumphant monument. A credence might be another temple, or at least the portal of a temple. Chairs copied the Roman seat.

Such furniture superb as it was in dignity and in intellectual value, without hangings and upholstery to soften and decorate it, made of homes mere museums of the cabinet-maker's art. Therefore the weavers were pressed for fabrics of a suitable richness that all this grandeur might be better displayed and that man might be more comforted in his hours of ceremony and of ease.

Translations and paraphrases of architecture, the furniture might be called, and seemed to demand textile designs of large size. Even the silks for costumes were woven in large and elegant patterns as one sees in the costume of Giovanna Tornabuoni painted into the religious fresco of Ghirlandaio.

This was a time when fabrics were lavishly used. Chairs of wooden seats gave way to those softer ones made by stretching a seat canvas over the chair-frame, this to be covered with velvet when not made of leather. In the Seventeenth Century this had grown to a fixed and stuffed upholstery. Backs of chairs no longer of wood were made of a flexible band of canvas stretched from one upright to the other and covered with velvet. When chairs had seats and backs of wood these were fitted with loose cushions not too thick.

These cushions were finished with galloon and narrow fringe and were tied onto the chair with cord and tassels. This fashion lasted through several centuries even after caning became the mode.

The cassone—that most suggestive article of Italian furniture—was dressed with a flat cover of brocade or velvet or with a thin long cushion. In no case did the cover conceal the work which was lavished on the cassoni by their makers, for this chest was the especial pet of the decorator—the designer being sometimes the architect of the building. It was the uses to which the cassone was put that made it seem worthy of an artist's consideration. It was often the receptacle which held the trousseau of a bride—one of those tenderly young brides of the Renaissance who wrote Latin poems to their fiances more easily than now one writes a Valentine's Day doggerel. Or, it held the treasure in linen and gold plate which she was bringing her husband as dowry. Once the cassone was a trunk into which to bundle all the Gothic tapestries of a castle when the master went to visit elsewhere or even to make his tent luxurious when he went to war.

The painters of the Renaissance who have decorated cassoni were among the most celebrated of Italy; the sculptors who carved the wood of cassoni were among those who carved in marble. Thus it is easy to see that a cassone as used today must have as woven deco-ration nothing which falls below the edge of its flat top.

Eminent architects such as Baccio d'Agnolo and Benedetto da Maiano occupied themselves with some of the furniture designs of the day, for it was the pleasant way of artists in those days not to draw too sharp a line between the fine and the decorative arts, and so the same man played with both. Thus grew the lovely bed of the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries, inviting to repose with its generous space, and lifting the thoughts with the mounting of its beautiful columns or posts, which were carved with the skill lavished on marble details of architecture.

A matter to be always held in mind for the under-standing of the draping of the bed is the wretched cold of the houses of the Renaissance. Space, enormous rooms, with ceilings high and windows large,, were the rule and gave "the blond assassin Frost" fine opportunitv to chill the human anatomy and to pinch until red the pretty noses of the very young beauties whose portraits are left for us to admire.

So the bed with posts and tester or baldaquin was a high favorite, for by drawing close its curtains it could be transformed into a tiny chamber, without draughts and getting gradually warmer from the heat of the sleeper. The top was covered with a lighter stuff, but the side curtains were of the large patterned silks which Italy was then making in her own factories.

In our day we lighten those curtains a bit, as their necessity is gone, and hang scanter lengths or none at all, or perhaps a short flounce around the top. The bed-cover thus takes on greater importance, and in fact is in a far better place to display the richness of old brocade or ancient velvet or their very cleverly made copies of our day. The formation of the bed deter-mines the fashion of the cover. If the sides and foot of the bed are carved or finished to demand display, the cover is merely an oblong to be tucked in and to flow easily over the rolled pillows. One does not think of the bed of the Renaissance as tense with neatness. Its heavy fabrics should have an effect of easy amplitude, thus suggesting the delicious luxury of wrapping the drapery of the couch about one and lying down to pleasant dreams.

If the bed must have its sides covered, then let the cover be extended in simple elegance with none of the flouncings and fripperies of the Eighteenth Century. The wide flat bed on the raised dais looks best with a simple square falling into natural folds at the corners instead of having them shaped or cut. About this bed there is the dignity of a throne, and plain elegance suits it best.

Old pictures of the Renaissance show ever a great simplicity in draping, but the fabrics used reach the highest point in richness. It is to these textiles we turn to reproduce the atmosphere of the golden days of Italy in its highest years. Curtain-hangings—whether for bed or doorway, for window or for background—were merely straight breadths straight-hung. No looping in bunches, nor straining at effects through multiple lines, but all simple. It makes one laugh with glee to see in a Fifteenth Century fresco the use of curtain rings and poles exactly like our own, these on beds or on the, wall behind a bed-head.

Elegance was demanded in those times, for the gratification of the eye more than for actual comfort, it would seem. Wander into the Collegio di Cambio in Siena and look long at the high-backed bench in the entrance. Its marvelous carving in low relief, covering all surfaces but the seat, has served as inspiration to artists for four hundred years and will so continue. Upholstery, textiles are barred by such excess of beauty. What could be added more than a pad of velvet on such a seat, a pad as thin as a biscuit? Its covering must be plain, of a deep and self-effacing color lest it take the eye from the marvelous work of the sculptor in wood. Velvet is preferred, of a blue or green subdued yet distinguished, or of the hazy mauve of aubergine; and tufting is taboo. And this holds good of all benches of the nut-brown wood so loved by the Italians.

Unless the chair of the Renaissance is softened, it makes but an ascetic resting place. Over-stuffed chairs had not been created, but loose cushions were used as lavishly as ease and luxury demanded. They were piled on benches then as now, and tucked behind reclining backs, as well as being placed upon the floor for the greater comfort of those who were short in measure. The sedia Dantesca—that chair of little comfort made of crossed supports which must have been inspired by the letter X—was given a cushion on the seat and a softened stretcher in lieu of a back. Add cushions to window-seats as well as to furniture, and you have an array of softeners which may well display the brocades and embroideries of the time.

These homes of the Renaissance with their furnishings of a beauty that can only be called an intellectual product, it is impossible to think of them without falling into delicious reveries about the personalities who lived in those palaces and villas, the great families of Italy. Those kings among merchants, the Medici, how royally they spent the fortune made by their clever commerce. They may have been snubbed a bit at first as being "in trade" and newly sprung from the ranks, but that passed when Lorenzo Medici, the Magnificent, became one of the greatest patrons of art at this time of art's rebirth.

He and his father Cosimo built palaces in the new mode, palaces which abandoned feudal grimness for the finely finished interiors of carved wood-work and frescoed walls, and these he embellished with the fine furniture which reflected the architecture. Then to soften the whole, magnificent velvets and brocades, embroideries and tapestries were used with happy generosity. All the dark brown wood of rooms which might otherwise have been somber, was made glorious by the richness of draperies, covers and cushions, and in such surroundings Lorenzo the Magnificent held court. And his court was not a gathering of thought-less fashionables of the day; it embraced poets and artists who there found in Lorenzo a generous patron. We cannot think of this great man of the Quattrocento without remembering the exquisite fancies of Sandro Botticelli, whom he kept ever near him and whose frescoes adorned the Medici palace. His exquisite paintings of old Roman myth, Venus, Pallas, Mars, are full of a spirit of fantasy that transports one to Lorenzo's villa at Fiesole, where all art was joyous, and all life was poetry. The lovely Simonetta (la bella) so adored by Giuliano Medici and who married at fifteen and died while still but a girl in years, she it was who in-spired poets and painters—Botticelli among the rest—as she brightened the life of gay jousts and feasts of the intellect in Florence. Is it irrelevant to mention that one of our merchant-princes, Mr. Gordon Selfridge, acquired the business books of those merchant-princes, the Medici, that he might have them translated for the benefit of all who find romance in the practise of affairs?

Tornabuoni was then a name of prominence, one of them marrying into the family of Medici and becoming the mother of Lorenzo. The sons and daughters of this house also are concerned with the arts of Florence. Giovanna, in her full-length portrait, is arrayed in gorgeous brocaded velvet and is grouped with other women beautifully arrayed.

The name of d'Este is on the lips of all who visit Italy, or of those who study at home. It has magic, the power to bring back the personages of the brilliant years when girls of high birth were women at fifteen and toyed with original verse in Latin as now they toy with "cross-words." Isabella d'Este is called the most charming and brilliant woman of the Renaissance, though that is a statement where perhaps the use of the superlative may provoke the mention of a score of other names.

These women of the Renaissance seem to have had an intelligence—and intellect—far surpassing that of folk we know today. They were learned beyond our standard, they were able in emergencies to seize the reins of government and reign wisely in the place of dead or absent husbands, they managed with thrift their large establishments, they attended jousts and pageants where they were the toast of all, they fostered art in its various expressions, nor hesitated to ask artists of the highest rank to make for them the furniture of their rooms, to design the brocades for hangings or dresses.

In Mantua—still in the Fourteen Hundreds—the Gonzagas ruled, for North Italy was not then a united country but was a group of petty states each governed by dukes and despots. And it was to Mantua that womankind turned for the fashions in textiles and the manner of using them. The name of a dressmaker became a Mantua-maker, and that name was in use even in mid-Victorian times as all can see who read Dickens. Even the women of France turned to the Gonzaga's town of Mantua for their modes instead of to Paris, in the Fifteenth Century.

And so through all the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries in Italy, the lovely ladies of wit and beauty loved and sang, were exquisite in the way that Botticelli portrays them or serious with responsibility as Ambrogio de Predis paints them, and it is of these almost mythical beings that one dreams when left alone in a room which happily cheats one with its charm of ancient days.

And the men of those times—why do I not speak of the brilliant princes? Because ever and always the human habitation is made for woman, made to shelter her, embellished to delight her. And man stands by and glows with satisfaction at his work and with delight in her for whom it was executed.

Italy's Renaissance was founded on the old culture of Greece and Rome. Its first stirrings were a matter of the intellect. The original manuscripts of the old writers were unearthed and studied. Every one of education learned Greek that he might translate the drama, and Latin that he might know the poets. This was not the time when man could scan the backs of his several editions and pick his book. There were no books. An ambitious Medici set two hundred men at copying to make him a library. At the end of two years' close labor they delivered to him forty-five volumes—and that is no more than one gets at Christmas nowadays.

The men of the early awakening then went to the ancient manuscripts of the classics, and on these the new culture was formed. It was the new growth of a vigorous and intelligent people grafted on the old tree of Greek and Roman ideals. Soon the spirit of the invigorated classics was expressed in art, in design, in ornament. But the development was Italian and Italian only. After Italy had produced this prodigious revival, other countries—one after the other—took pat-tern from her, copied her, in other words. France, under Henri II, began to alter her designs and Francis I deliberately brought Italians to his court to practise their art for his palaces and chateaux. Henry VIII of England did the same. And thus the Renaissance traveled, but only in Italy did it properly, develop. In all other countries it was imported, not inherent. And as all the world of Rome's time followed Hellenic ideals, so all the world of the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries followed Italy's.



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