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Interior Decorating - The Renaissance

( Originally Published 1919 )



IN taking up this first influence we may, very practically, ask: How did it manifest itself in the arts —in short, what was it? The popular superstition is that when the great awakening took place in Italy the masters of the Renaissance period simply brought to life the art of the Greeks and Romans which was their heritage—a very convenient formula for those who do not think. The truth, briefly, is that during all the centuries which lay between the fall of Rome and the year 1400 the wide internationalism to which we have referred was quietly doing its work; treasures of Oriental art were continually finding their way thither both direct and through the Copts and Spanish Moors. Renaissance architecture (and decoration) was never therefore the pure Classicism of Greece and Rome. It was the fusion of all three of the great artistic influences, the Gothic, the Oriental and the Classic, with the Classic for the time being as the inspiration and informing influence.

So practical is the aim of these chapters that no further will they go until they take into account a very prevalent circumstance of modern life.

The very term interior decoration is indicative of the fact that through all periods the interior architecture has had its share of attention and decoration. But a large proportion of tasteful people today live in rented apartments or houses, and few care to panel or decorate walls for the benefit of a landlord only too likely to seize the advantage given and increase the rental so soon as the lease expires. Even those of some considerable means and occupying their own houses may not, in these days of many uncertainties, care to go to the large expense involved in elaborate wall-decoration. What, then, shall be done if such persons wish to adopt the Renaissance style of furnishing—or that of any succeeding age ?

The answer must be that if period decoration is to continue in use, then it must show itself adapted to the changing conditions of modern life and circumstance; and that it is so adaptable is the very purpose of these chapters to demonstrate. Common sense teaches us that if we wish to surround ourselves with the beautiful objects produced by the genius of the past, or their reproductions, and yet that our walls must remain plain, the obvious course is frankly to combine the two conditions. And if any justification for such a procedure beyond the enlightened common sense, which must be the basis of all art and of all beauty, must be established, if a precedent must be found to back up all our proceedings, it is found right here—for, during the Italian Renaissance, one of the greatest art periods of the world's history, where walls were not decorated, they were entirely plain.

THREE METHODS OF TREATMENT

It is at once evident, therefore, that we may adopt, according to circumstances, any one of three methods of treatment; and these apply to the subsequent epochs as well as to that we are now considering.

I. If the premises are of elaborate character and the means of the owner in accordance, the more elaborate phases of the epoch may be chosen and followed.

II. With both large and small premises the simpler but still decorative phases of any period may be adopted. Or, as in some periods these simpler forms have not been largely preserved and pictured for our guidance, simplifications may intelligently be made.

III. As first mentioned, we may use period furnishings with walls entirely plain but appropriate in colour and treatment to the period chosen.

We may also combine any two of these three—employing the more elaborate decoration for public rooms and the simpler for bedrooms, morning rooms and the less public parts of the house.

ELABORATE WALLS

In order that the statement of this method of International-Inter Period Decoration may be complete in itself and readily comprehended, it has been written independently of Part I. That Part, however, gives a complete digest of all particulars regarding the decoration of the various periods during the four great movements, and for full details regarding any epoch it should be carefully considered. Illustrations are there also given of the architectural backgrounds of all the countries.

It is only necessary, therefore, to epitomise the matter of Renaissance backgrounds by saying here that the small square or the rectangular panelling of oak was the typical style of Renaissance England; that, while such panelling was used to some extent in the northern section during early Renaissance times, it was not typical of Renaissance. Italy, where the walls were plain, diapered, or highly decorated in colour and gilding; Spain, always influenced by Italy, largely followed the Italian ideals, but these were naturally modified by the powerful Moorish element prevailing in Spanish art; they were plain or plain on their upper portion, the lower being a dado of many coloured tiles or of painted canvas ; in France, walls were sometimes at first in the small panelling, but they were more generally of stone or plaster, which might be painted or frescoed, some-what in the Italian style. Hangings were largely employed with these walls. Later, these isolated hangings were less used and walls were panelled in larger panelling and often moulded and gilded. Or they might be frescoed or covered with tapestry or other hangings.

In the various countries under Renaissance influence there were also, of course, constructional and stylistic differences in ceilings, windows, doors and mantels—all duly treated in Part I.

EXTERIOR AND INTERIOR

In considering the use of the more ornamental back-grounds a question at once arises. As will now have been seen, great differences existed in the treatment of the interiors of the various nationalities under Renaissance influence, and in exterior architecture the dissimilarity was still more fundamental. It is obvious that, in general, exterior and interior architecture should agree, so that with our system of the use of international furnishings and furniture the enquiry at once springs to the fore : Is it permissible and is it feasible to employ the fixed architectural backgrounds of the various nationalities under Renaissance influence under one roof ?

To this question the writers are not going to give as answer a categorical, but a qualified yes. This procedure has been followed by Stanford White and a few other architects of great ability—and it requires genius of this order satisfactorily to combine such elements. We know that Italian architects and craftsmen working in England and France grafted Renaissance characteristics upon the national developments of architecture both exterior and interior, and did it successfully, too. How far such national characteristics may to-day successfully be mingled will depend largely upon the ability of the architect or decorator employed. Suffice it to say that if he be a genius his versatility will be tempered by discretion and the result of his efforts will in no wise resemble a museum or a melange. If architecture is to be more than correct archeology it is well to ask ourselves if it is not in this very direction of the blending of elements that are largely congruous, be-cause informed with the same spirit, that architectural life and development lies. Absolute originality—a start de novo, a breaking with the traditions of the past —means foredoomed failure; intelligent combination may put new vigour into the architecture of to-day. Especially might this be true of American architecture —America being itself a combination, and, by its associations in the past war likely to become still more cosmopolitan.

In deciding upon any period decoration it is not only interesting but necessary to learn how far our choice is free and unhampered and how much it is determined for us by existing exterior architectural conditions. Where this exterior is definite it must naturally exert a largely determining influence. But this general rule is, like every other, subject to qualifications. It does not follow that because a New York apartment house is in style French Chateau or Flemish, each one of the fifty or hundred apartments it contains must preserve that style of decoration—in apartments we may choose any style desirable in other respects. Nor, if we are reasonable and liberally inclined, should the narrow front of a city house not pronouncedly definite be allowed to impede our catholicity. The old brown-stone front of New York is of a debased period that we may well ignore, and the brick houses of Philadelphia and Boston, though derived from the earlier Georgian, need not cause us many qualms. What there is good in them is mainly classical and so sufficiently adapted to most styles of decoration. A country house, with all sides exposed and of definite exterior architecture, is another story. If one does not care to live in an interior in accordance with the epoch of its outward appearance he had better secure another house. The mere mention of an Elizabethan house with Rococo panelling will be sufficient to point the lesson.

TREATMENTS OF MODERATE SCOPE

As has been said, we may choose the less elaborate phases of Renaissance, or any other wall decoration. In such cases also, unless one has knowledge and facility, the services of a decorator will be required. If the architectural lines and details are not already quite approximately correct they should be made so before panelling or decoration is applied. Either may be comparatively simple but should be according to the period. Elaborate carving of mantels, cornices and door-jambs may be omitted, but architecturally they should be right. In rented apartments or houses, in-consistencies, if not pronounced, may be excused. If the Italian Renaissance style is chosen, the diapered wall is an excellent resource. What may be done in the way of intelligent adaptation is admirably shown in the living-room illustrated by Plate 70 B in the chapter on Wall Treatment, where also is described the manner in which this attractive effect was gained.

PLAIN WALL TREATMENTS

Italian walls, when plain, were in sand-finished or smooth-finished plaster and in natural tones or of creams, ochres, light chocolate or grey. It is, therefore, evident that any such existing wall will admirably answer for a Renaissance interior. If the walls have been papered, a sand-finished paper may be applied. If the property is rented and the existing paper is in too good condition to be replaced, it would answer, providing that it has the general appearance of a perfectly plain surface in the right colouring—such as a cream felt or granite paper would afford.

An illustration is shown (Plate 128) of a remodelled farmhouse with plain walls, in which the Renaissance effect is excellently given by the tapestry and well-chosen furniture of England and Spain, with an Oriental touch in the lamp and rug.

FURNISHINGS AND FURNITURE

At this point the decorator, retailer or householder arrives at much easier going than hitherto ; for it is a fact that all movable decorative objects are in all ages much more likely to be affected by the decorative influence then prevailing than is the more massive and fixed architectural structure; and so the furnishings and furniture under that influence approach each other much more nearly, though always somewhat differentiated by national characteristics. It is this very difference that adds variety and charm in our system of inter-national decoration and gives it its value. By this plan also, as has been intimated, we are enabled to bring within our scope many beautiful objects from other lands, or their reproductions, which would be forbidden us by a closer adherence to the one-period, one-country method of furnishing. How far this immense advantage will still further be enlarged we shall realise when we come to the consideration and addition of the inter-period element of this method.

It has been felt advisable, in these chapters, to give as many illustrations of the furniture of Continental Europe as limits permit rather than to exhaust space with cuts of the well-known English furniture. Those who wish to make comparisons can readily do so by referring to "The Practical Book of Period Furniture" by Eberlein and McClure, where British and American forms are described and illustrated in detail.

There is little of the movable furnishing of strictly Renaissance provenance originating in one country that may not be employed in the interiors of another. The word "strictly" is here used because not a great while after the full flowering of this influence another movement arose—the Baroque—which blended with it. For the avoidance of all confusion, however, this will later and separately be treated, so that for the present we may confine ourselves to the furnishings of the Renaissance.

As has been mentioned, wall hangings were largely employed and may be considered one of the notes of Renaissance furnishing. These were of tapestry, brocade, velvet or embroidery. Any such Renaissance pieces, or reproductions thereof, may be used.

Floors were largely uncovered. In England, however, rushes were spread over them, and when these were, to phrase it gently, soiled, more rushes were spread over these again, till sanatory conditions be-came what would be as horrifying to us as we trust the present state of our streets would be to those living a few years hence. Oriental rugs have always been employed to some extent and may be used in Renaissance interiors to-day. Plain or bordered rugs might also well be employed provided the borders are plain, or of lines, or of a dignified design appropriate to a Renaissance setting (Plate 80).

The fact that the furniture of other nations in a particular period may be introduced in the interiors of any one, is fortunate for the owners of Elizabethan or Tudor houses. Probably the most creditable action of Henry VIII of tainted memory was the introduction of the Renaissance into England. There it had its influence, but England was then a less polished nation than Italy in the domestic arts, and till early Stuart times the furnishings of British houses were few. Wall furniture (chests, buffets, cupboards and cabinets) composed its bulk. Tables were but few, their place being mostly supplied by boards on trestles. Benches and joint-stools usually comprised the seating furniture. Chairs were most infrequent and were at first of the character known as wainscot chairs, and there was little upholstered furniture till the Restoration or near it. The bedsteads always occupied a position of state, and these were immensely large and heavily carved. The furniture of Renaissance England must, therefore, be supplemented from that of the succeeding epoch or from other countries under Renaissance influence if we are to have what is now considered an habitable home.

With such barrenness and to some extent rudeness as has been described we may contrast the dignified and elegant furnishings of Continental Europe during the same period. There, too, the rooms were of enormous proportions, and anything approaching the crowding of furniture was sedulously avoided. The pieces were large and generally of the same materials—oak and walnut. Wall furniture there also occupied a position of much importance, but tables and seating furniture existed in great variety and beauty, the latter being upholstered in rich velvets, brocades, damasks and needlework. In addition to wall-hangings there were mural ornaments, pictures and carved ornaments of wood, often painted and gilt. Sculpture and pottery were abundant. Candlesticks and candelabra were of carved and gilded wood and of iron with ornament of colour and gilt.

The chests, or cassoni, were frequently carved by the great sculptors of Italy, the panels often embellished by the painters whose names are household words with us. These and other wall-pieces were often treated with gesso and then with colour and gilding.

No one knowing the indebtedness of English literature to Italian sources, realising the spread of Renaissance influence, and appreciating that only time and the march of progress were necessary to bring this added refinement to England, will hesitate to select from such furnishings and add them to those, belonging to a British interior of Tudor times.

Common sense will give us the general precept that the correct course is to use principally and as a foundation the furniture appertaining to the nationality of the architectural background, supplementing it by that of other nations under the same influence. Where there is no distinctive background we may choose as a basis what we will, and give variety by the addition of these other pieces. National characteristics will always assert themselves through a general resemblance, and they give us a happy many-sidedness and versatility of decoration impossible of being realised when we con-fine ourselves to an absolute reproduction of an English, French, Italian, Flemish or Spanish style. A study of the pieces of furniture illustrated herewith will demonstrate both this unity and variety. In viewing them we shall at once see their generally rectilinear character. Curves there are, to be sure, but we shall only have to become familiar with those of the succeeding Baroque and Rococo influences, to realise the Classic features everywhere informing Renaissance design. It is by this comparison of varying forms that stylistic differences are quickly apprehended, rather than through reams of detailed description.

THE ASSOCIATION OF FURNITURE OF VARIOUS NATIONALITIES

In Plate 89 is a grouping of an excellent Italian cabinet flanked by two Italian chairs of the most rigidly formal type, with runner beneath the feet, and properly upholstered in velvet with gold galons. The upper finials of such chairs are almost always gilded. The candelabra are of iron.

The adaptability to association of nearly all the pieces selected for illustration will be evident. Instead of the cabinet, just mentioned, might be used with good result such a piece as the Italian armoire or the longer credenza in Plate 129, the double cabinet in the same plate, the French cabinet (Plate 131 B), the Elizabethan coffer (Plate 132 B) or one of the Spanish Varguenos (Plate 133 B or Plate 134 A). Even the Italian pillar-base table (Plate 130 F) placed between these chairs and aided by a pair of tall Renaissance candle-sticks would do well. Associated' with such furniture in imposing rooms might be the large Italian armoire (Plate 129 A), the French armoire (Plate 131 A) or the Spanish armoire showing Moorish influence (Plate 133 C).

It is equally evident that if one of the pieces foreign to Italy were chosen, the result would be more interesting than if the cabinet remained, for of recent years the strictly Italian Renaissance period has been extensively treated and has lost its novelty. Furthermore, if one is the possessor of such a foreign piece of furniture he is by this method enabled to employ it to the greatest advantage, whereas he could not use it if he were adhering to an exclusively Italian Renaissance style of decoration.

On the other hand, should we allow the cabinet to remain, we might, by the present system, appropriately use with it the Italian scroll-arm chairs in the Davanzati room with plain walls (Plate 13) the curule chair in the interiors shown in Plate 15, the English wainscot in the remodelled farm-house (Plate 128), the French Renaissance (Plate 132 A), the chair in wonderful needlework (Plate 130 A), that adjoining it, or those in Plate 134 B, C and D. The Spanish chair, with brass mounts (Plate 134 F), would be of special interest in such surroundings.

Much other interesting Renaissance furniture will be seen in the rooms of the various nationalities under that influence in Part I and in Plates 127 and 135 in this chapter. They excellently illustrate the points of re-semblance and difference which make for unity and variety in the furniture of different nations. A comparison of these pieces will be illuminating and will familiarise the reader with national characteristics.

Even during the Renaissance there were smaller or more homelike pieces of furniture than those so far mentioned, and some of these also are illustrated. The English gate table used in the remodelled farmhouse (Plate 128) has proved so universally useful that we may well wonder why there are no reproductions of such pieces as the non-folding but certainly most desirable Italian circular table shown in Plate 130 D. The chair to its right is attractive, and that on the left would make an admirable hall chair. The Spanish chest and small chairs,. with tapestry, in. Plate 133 are good pieces, and the Spanish table (Plate 134 E), of which there are many variations, would impart decided interest into a Renaissance home.

Bedsteads are not so interchangeable as other furniture. Some of the French and Italian beds resemble each other, but the introduction of one of the well-known bulbous-posted Elizabethan bedsteads in an interior so definitely Italian and restrained as that of the Davanzati bedchamber (Plate 15 A) would be a mistake. It has already been mentioned that not every piece of furniture of Renaissance inspiration will go with every other piece, and it may be added that such discrimination as the above is necessary as regards their use in the interior to be furnished.

It is to be noted as a general principle that the introduction of but one piece of foreign furniture may be a disturbing influence : it is better to "back it up" with one or more additional pieces of the same or a different nationality, for by this procedure the intention of a varied furnishing is made evident and the room with all its different elements becomes immediately interesting.

The arrangement characteristic of Renaissance rooms, with the absence of any superfluity and crowding of decorative elements, is well shown in all the original Renaissance interiors illustrated and in the modern interior shown in Plate 135.

THE PRACTICALITY OF INTERNATIONAL FURNISHING TODAY

While, naturally, original pieces of furniture of the highest type or even of lesser elegance are beyond the reach of all but the wealthy, it is encouraging that good reproductions are being made. "Adaptations" are still more frequent than faithful reproductions, but the latter can be secured of good English and Italian forms, some French and Spanish may be obtained, and more will doubtless be placed upon the market as manufacturers perceive the demand. It is also to be hoped and expected that the practice of adapting will die out with the advance of knowledge on the part of buyers, their insistence upon authentic styles, and their refusal to accept the vagaries of commercial present-day de-signers in lieu of the forms and proportions provided by the masters of the past. It may here be mentioned that international furnishing in the eighteenth century periods is less expensive than Renaissance furnishing or that of other early epochs.

CHARACTERISTICS OF THE RENAISSANCE

The adaptability of Renaissance furnishing to our uses to-day may be gathered from its main characteristics. Perhaps its most outstanding qualities are spaciousness, dignity, formality and richness. Its earlier manifestations were marked by more simplicity and its later by increasing magnificence—which should be noted by those who are considering its use. That its qualities are not inconsistent with home feeling to-day is shown in all three of the modern examples referred to in this chapter.

That this style is not adapted to modest houses with small rooms, or to larger ones where the occupants lead a happy-go-lucky or merely frivolous existence is self-evident. It implies a certain amenity of life, a certain degree of self-respect, culture and appreciation. It is well suited to spacious apartments, particularly of the duplex variety, and to studios. If the rooms are fairly large, even though few, it would be admirably suited to the apartment of a family of scholarly or artistic attainments, because it would fit into their natural mode of life.

THE INTER PERIOD ELEMENT

The international (horizontal) phase of this system has now been considered, and we have seen how fully the furnishings of all the nations under Renaissance influence may be used together. We must now take up the inter period (perpendicular) element and learn to what degree the interiors and furnishings of the succeeding movement may be combined with those of the Renaissance.

This next influence is the Baroque. As the Renaissance did not utterly rout the Gothic, so the Baroque in its turn did not put to flight the Renaissance, but grafted itself upon it. Most curious and interesting is the manner in which a new artistic impulse, totally different in spirit from the old though it be, yet amalgamates itself with it to the production of a result not chaotic but still beautiful. The Baroque movement has been unduly condemned. Though erratic and disproportioned in its most extravagant phases, many of its developments are interesting and of permanent artistic value.



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