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Decoration And Design - The Renaissance In Italy

( Originally Published Early 1900's )



The Gothic period has been treated in later chapters on France and England, as it is its development in these countries which most affects us, but the Renaissance in Italy stands alone. So great was its strength that it could supply both inspiration and leaders to other countries, and still remain preeminent.

It was in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries that this great classical revival in Italy came, this rebirth of a true sense of beauty which is called the Renaissance. It was an age of wonders, of great artistic creations, and was one of the great epochs of the world, one of the turning points of human existence. It covered so large a field and was so many-sided that only careful study can give a full realization of the giants of intellect and power who made its greatness, and who left behind them work that shows the very quintessence of genius.

Italy, stirring slightly in the fourteenth century, woke and rose to her greatest heights in the fifteenth and sixteenth. The whole people responded to the new joy of life, the love of learning, the expression of beauty in all its forms. All notes were struck,— gay, graceful, beautiful, grave, cruel, dignified, reverential, magnificent, but all with an exuberance of life and power that gave to Italian art its great place in human culture. The great names of the period speak for themselves,— Michelangelo, Raphael, Botticelli, Titian, Leonardo da Vinci, Andrea del Sarto, Machiavelli, Benvenuto Cellini, and a host of others.

The inspiration of the Renaissance came largely from the later Greek schools of art and literature, Alexandria and Rhodes and the colonies in Sicily and Italy, rather than ancient Greece. It was also the influence which came to ancient Rome at its most luxurious period. The importance of the taking of Alexandria and Constantinople in 1453 must not be underestimated, as it drove scholars from the great libraries of the East carrying their manuscripts to the nobles and priests and merchant princes of Italy who thus became enthusiastic patrons of learning and art. This later type of Greek art lacked the austerity of the ancient type, and to the models full of joy and beauty and suffering, the Italians of the Renaissance added the touch of their own temperament and made them theirs in the glowing, rich and astounding way which has never been equaled and probably never will be. Perfection of line and beauty was not sufficient, the soul with its capacity for joy and suffering, "the soul with all its maladies " as Pater says, had become a factor. The impression made upon Michelangelo by seeing the Laocoon disinterred is vividly described by Longfellow—

"Long, long years ago,
Standing one morning near the Baths of Titus,
I saw the statue of Laodion
Rise from its grave of centuries like a ghost
Writhing in pain; and as it tore away
The knotted serpents from its limbs, I heard,
Or seemed to hear, the cry of agony
From its white parted lips. And still I marvel
At the three Rhodian artists, by whose hands
This miracle was wrought. Yet he beholds
Far nobler works who looks upon the ruins
Of temples in the Forum here in Rome.
If God should give me power in my old age
To build for him a temple half as grand
As those were in their glory, I should count
My age more excellent than youth itself,
And all that I have hitherto accomplished
As only vanity."

"It was an age productive in personalities, many-sided, centralized, complete. Artists and philosophers and those whom the action of the world had elevated and made keen, breathed a common air and caught light and heat from each other's thoughts. It is this unity of spirit which gives unity to all the various products of the Renaissance, and it is to this intimate alliance with mind, this participation in the best thoughts which that age produced, that the art of Italy in the fifteenth century owes much of its grave dignity and influence."

* Walter Pater: "Studies in the Renaissance."

It is to this unity of the arts we owe the fact that the art of beautifying the home took its proper place. During the Middle Ages the Church had absorbed the greater part of the best man had to give, and home life was rather a hit or miss affair, the house was a fortress, the family possessions so few that they could be packed into chests and easily moved. During the Renaissance the home ideal grew, and, although the Church still claimed the best, home life began to have comforts and beauties never dreamed of before. The walls glowed with color, tapestries and velvets added their beauties, and the noble proportions of the marble halls made a rich background for the elaborately carved furniture.

The doors of Italian palaces were usually inlaid with woods of light shade, and the soft, golden tone given by the process was in beautiful, but not too strong, contrast with the marble architrave of the doorway, which in the fifteenth century was carved in low relief combined with disks of colored marble, sliced, by the way, from Roman temple pillars. Later as the classic taste became stronger the carving gave place to a plain architrave and the over-door took the form of a pediment.

Mantels were of marble, large, beautifully carved, with the fireplace sunk into the thickness of the wall. The over-mantel usually had a carved panel, but later, during the sixteenth century, this was sometimes replaced by a picture. The windows of the Renaissance were a part of the decoration of the room, and curtains were not used in our modern manner, but served only to keep out the draughts. In those days the better the house the simpler the curtains. There were many kinds of ceilings used, marble, carved wood, stucco, and painting. They were elaborate and beautiful, and always gave the impression of being perfectly sup-ported on the well-proportioned cornice and walls. The floors were usually of marble. Many of the houses kept to the plan of mediaeval exteriors, great expanses of plain walls with few openings on the outsides, but as they were built around open courts, the interiors with their colonnades and open spaces showed the change the Renaissance had brought. The Riccardi Palace in Florence and the Palazzo della Cancelleria in Rome, are examples of this early type. The second phase was represented by the great Bramante, whose theory of restraining decoration and emphasizing the structure of the building has had such important influence. One of his successors was Andrea Palladio, whose work made such a deep impression on Inigo Jones. The Library of St. Mark's at Venice is a beautiful example of this part. The third phase was entirely dominated by Michelangelo.

The furniture, to be in keeping with buildings of this kind, was large and richly carved. Chairs, seats, chests, cabinets, tables, and beds, were the chief pieces used, but they were not plentiful at all in our sense of the word. The chairs and benches had cushions to soften the hard wooden seats. The stuffs of the time were most beautiful Genoese velvet, cloth of gold, tapestries, and wonderful embroideries, all lending their color to the gorgeous picture. The carved marriage chest, or cassone, is one of the pieces of Renaissance furniture which has most often descended to our own day, for such chests formed a very important part of the furnishing in every household, and being large and heavy, were not so easily broken as chairs and tables. Beds were huge, and were architectural in form, a base and roof sup-ported on four columns. The classical orders were used, touched with the spirit of the time, and the fluted columns rose from acanthus leaves set in an urn supported on lion's feet. The tester and cornice gave scope for carving and the panels of the tester usually had the lovely scrolls so characteristic of the period. The headboard was often carved with a coat-of-arms and the curtains hung from in-side the cornice.

Grotesques were largely used in ornament. The name is derived from grottoes, as the Roman tombs being excavated at the time were called, and were in imitation of the paintings found on their walls, and while they were fantastic, the word then had no unkindly humorous meaning as now. Scrolls, dolphins, birds, beasts, the human figure, flowers, everything was called into use for carving and painting by genius of the artisans of the Renaissance. They loved their work and felt the beauty and meaning of every line they made, and so it came about that when, in the course of years, they traveled to neighboring countries, they spread the influence of this great period, and it is most interesting to see how on the Italian foundation each country built her own distinctive style.

Like all great movements the Renaissance had its beginning, its splendid climax, and its decline.



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