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Italian Renaissance

For the first glimpse of the new art produced under such favourable conditions in Europe we turn naturally to Italy where the Renaissance took its rise. In earlier times Grecian ornament had influenced Roman and early Italian art. In Rome and Naples there were many existing monuments, serving as object lessons for later artists. In the fourth century Byzantine art was in the ascendency, influencing makers of furniture as well as architecture. Then came the mediaeval or Gothic which to some extent was incorporated or embodied with the classics with which Roman artists were imbued. Then came the days of darkness when art was at a standstill. It was the same everywhere. There was an air of anticipation abroad, however, and Italy, the home of so much that was great and glorious in the past, found the base-line of her Renaissance among the ruined splendours of the old. In the fifteenth century the great teachers of architecture recognised the grandeur of the Grecian and Roman schools of art which had been almost forgotten ; and then came the Italian Renaissance in its full force.

It was a time of great revival of early inspirations in which classical influence was strong. Doric and Ionic columns were made use of, the style evolved being a re-creation of the ancient on lines more adapted to the architecture of the Renaissance, and better suited to the wood-work then required. It was a splendid revival of art, and those who had greater opportunities of studying its possibilities, and living amidst different_ surroundings, used the new art to wider purposes than were possible in the more restricted age in which ancient art flourished.

This newly-developed art was applied in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries by such artists as Palladio, Michael Angelo, Raphael, and Cellini. In the fulness of its glory splendid tapestries, velvets, and gilded leathers, adorned the walls of the rooms wherein was to be found furniture of Italian walnut and chestnut, which then supplemented cypress and other soft woods. Then a little later came the magnificent inlays and veneers of marble, ivory, and ebony, which helped to make some of the furniture of the Italian Renaissance so grand. The workmen of Milan, Venice, and Florence made exquisite inlays of stone and marble, adding mother-of-pearl and metal.

The inlays of the Renaissance are often compared with the mosaics of Pompeii and of ancient Rome, so many of which are to be seen in the Museum of Naples, the comparison not always redounding to the credit of the workers of later times. It is noteworthy that Florentine mosaics are bold, but they lack the minute detail of the older work. The real beauty of Italian and especially of Florentine mosaics lies in the careful selection of various coloured stones, and in their clever grouping. The artists by the use of these materials formed vases of fruit and flowers and typical pictures like that of the well-known group of Vatican pigeons.

The remarkable effects produced by the use of gesso (plaster) coloured and gilded are very noticeable upon the early coffers and marriage chests. Of these there are some beautiful examples in the Victoria and Albert Museum, more particularly referred to in chapter xxi.

It was in bold and striking designs, and sometimes grotesque carvings, that the wood-workers of Venice struck out such a distinctive line. About this work there are some characteristic features which make it very remarkable. The small carved chairs are especially pleasing, and they show great individuality both in design and workmanship. The wood-carver's art was applied in many ways, and it was directed in household objects to cabinets, tables, mirror frames, and even to the domestic bellows. Some of the chairs with X-shaped frames were upholstered with Genoa velvet and other costly textiles from Venice and the Levant. Walnut was much used, and was introduced with especially pleasing effects. The wood-carver had a free licence, and elaborated beautifully modelled female figures as supports and columns, intermingled with elaborate scroll work. In addition to walnut the Venetian cabinet-makers used other woods as the groundwork for their inlays and veneering, in which they employed costly materials ; the chief woods thus used for the foundation of furniture, carved and overlaid, were willow, sycamore, and lime. Brown walnut, although much used by the carver, was frequently inlaid with ivory and bone by a process known as certosina, for which Milan was famous. Artists in woodwork also made use of ebony and ebonised woods which they inlaid with ivory, producing many remarkable effects.

It is noteworthy that most of the grandest specimens were carried out by workmen under the direction of superior designers, many of whom were architects ; indeed throughout the Italian Renaissance architecture was the dominating influence upon furniture designs, just as throughout mediaeval days ecclesiastical influence had prevailed, causing the use of Gothic design in furniture for secular purposes as well as for the embellishment of cathedrals and churches.

The Italian towns where furniture was chiefly made at that time were Florence, Pisa, Bologna, and Siena. Museum specimens indicate the furniture then in use, although the exceptional pieces which are to be seen in the Victoria and Albert Museum (see Fig. 9) and in some of the more important collections in this country, and in the museums on the Continent of Europe came mostly from the palatial halls of Italian nobles and prelates, and do not indicate the furniture of the lower or middle classes—if such can be said to have then existed.

The beautiful Florentine folding chair of X-like form was the forerunner of the seigneurial or state chairs, which were in many instances but replicas of the stalls in Italian churches. In the Victoria and Albert Museum there is a folding chair dated 1560, and another with leather seat and back of black walnut of an earlier date, probably about 1530. Some of the pretty carved chairs are very dark with age, being almost black, especially so those from Venice. In the same museum there is a remarkable chest of drawers of rather later date than the Renaissance period. It is a fine example of the wood-worker's art, embellished in high relief with panels representing statuettes of warriors and workmen, and a group of mounted soldiers. The handles, too, are especially interesting, as they are in the form of grotesque boys seated on dolphins.

The tables were at that time oblong, and richly carved, like the cabinets which had evolved from chests. The beds were either an elaborate four-poster which usually stood on a raised dais or they consisted of a simple couch bed. The mirrors, too, were mounted in beautifully carved frames, of which there are many delightful museum specimens. Those who wish to follow up the study of Italian furniture as it was at a late period will be delighted with the early eighteenth-century Venetian furniture bequeathed to the Victoria and Albert Museum by the late Alexander Barker, Esq. The chairs, bed, and couches of this remarkable suite are indeed gorgeous with their gilded carvings, and rich needlework, upholstery, and hangings. The art achieved during the Italian Renaissance was so splendid, and it so worthily reproduced Greek art in its purest and best forms, in its applied crafts, that a writer summing up the art of that period says : So dazzling was the Renaissance by its brilliancy, so con-fusing by its changes, that moral distinctions were obliterated in a blaze of splendour, an outcome of new life."

The rebirth of art in Italy was indeed far-reaching, as is seen in the influence at work upon the art of other countries. Not only did it inspire artists in every branch of craftsmanship, but it stimulated the Reformation in Germany, inspired Columbus, the discoverer of a New World, and it is said to have turned men from war and savagery to the more peaceful arts and the developments of their respective countries. Such was the Italian Renaissance destined to affect the arts and crafts of the world.

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

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