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Interior Decoration in Italy Prior to the 18th Century

( Originally Published 1919 )

INTRODUCTION.—The golden age of Italian wall decoration, furniture making and furnishing began about the middle of the fifteenth century and continued through the sixteenth and seventeenth. It was veritably a golden age in point of virility, freshness and fertility of conception and the national genius was manifested in the vigorous design of the furniture, in the way in which it was disposed and in the preparation of the background as well as in other important branches of art. Added to the native well springs from which flowed a copious stream of Renaissance inspiration was the powerful impetus derived from the diaspora of Byzantine culture resulting from the fall of Byzantium before the Ottoman onslaught in 1453.

Prior to the period at which we begin our consideration of interior decoration in Italy, wars and rumours of wars, petty though they were compared with the magnitude of modern military operations, chiefly occupied the minds and energies of the princes and the rulers of the small republics and there was almost incessant strife between two or more of the various in-dependent states or civil jurisdictions among which the Italian peninsula was parcelled. Under the unstable conditions consequent upon the chronically disturbed state of society there was comparatively little opportunity for either the accumulation or spending of private wealth and it is scarcely to be wondered at that a native taste for household luxury and refinement found cant scope for gratification when the development of the arts of domestic embellishment was so seriously retarded. In the majority of cases men's minds were either almost wholly centred upon political and military affairs or else their mental and physical activities were directed into ecclesiastical channels. Cultural development in the secular world was badly handicapped.

With the advent of an era of greater political stability, however, commerce revived and flourished apace, personal and civic wealth accumulated, the resources of the municipalities were less constantly drained by the heavy exactions of internecine warfare, and the spirit of creative art, never wholly dormant even during the times of greatest strife and turmoil, came quickly into its. own again, drawing renewed inspiration from the abundant treasures of Italian antiquity and deriving likewise a quickening impulse from the culture of Byzantium, the remnants of whose rich heritage were brought to Italy by the numerous refugees from the fallen capital of the Eastern Empire. The re-birth of art, in all its phases, experienced the strong impetus of natural reaction after a period of repression. Domestic and industrial arts blossomed and throve in new-found security. Private wealth fostered the efforts of artists and craftsmen while princes and potentates vied with each other in liberal patronage of the arts both fine and applied. The story of the Medici in Florence affords an illuminating commentary on this phase of Italian cultural history and the story of many other great contemporary families might likewise be appropriately cited to the same end.

Architectural Background and Methods of Fixed Decoration.—In this golden age of restored tranquillity, stately villas, that often rivalled the splendours of their ancient Roman prototypes, rapidly succeeded to grim castles and fortified houses. Nobles and wealthy merchants and landowners felt free to forsake the crowded restraint of urban life for the larger liberty of residence among the groves and gardens of their estates. The abodes they built, with the aid of the best architects of the day, were broad and lofty and fully expressive of the urbane, though withal vigorous, elegance of the age. The rooms were commonly of great dimensions and their height is one of the most impressive features of their proportions. It was, indeed, the era of the great hall (Plate 13) and princely salon. Such were the habits of domestic life that the small drawing-room and intimate boudoir had little place in the household scheme and the personal requirements of the immediate members of the family were easily satisfied with the simplest of provisions. Classic conceptions of design were everywhere asserting themselves and we find a strong rectilinear emphasis (Plate 13) predominant in nearly all of these imposing apartments. There were, of course, plenty of round vaulted ceilings (Plate 20 A and B; Plate 18) and round arched windows or doorheads enriched by a counter-sunk semi-circular tympanum (Plate 15 A) above them. But, notwithstanding all this and the occasional presence of round-arched arcades, the dominant emphasis was rectilinear and this same quality was reflected in the contour of the furniture that was designed to equip these spacious interiors.

In the matter of fixed decoration and interior enrichment, Italian interiors of the period under consideration may be divided into two classes. The first class is composed of the interiors where all or a great portion of the background—walls, ceiling and floor—was highly decorated and rich in colour (Plates 15 B, 16, 18, 19 and 139). The second class is composed of interiors where only a minor portion (Plates 13, 15 A, 20 A and B, and 127) or none of the background is decorated and where the physical setting presents an aspect of severe restraint and, sometimes, even of austerity. In the first class belong the rooms whose walls and ceilings are gorgeous with frescoes and gilding (Plates 16, 18 and 19), the encrustation of coloured marbles or the poly-chrome and parcel gilt enrichment of diaper work (Plate 15 B) and heraldic blasoning, while the floors accord with the rest of the scheme in their display of multi-coloured marbles (Plates 18, 19 and 139) or mosaic. In the second class belong the rooms whose walls and vaulted ceilings are severely plain and whose floors are of plain stone, tiles (Plates 13, 15 A and B and 16) or boards. The points of architectural embellishment are the carved fireplace (Plates 15 A and 20 A and 111 C) and its hood or chimney piece, the doorways (Plate 14, 1; 15 A, 18 and 19) and, if there be a flat wooden ceiling instead of vaulting, the beams and corbels (Plates 13, 15 A and B and 127). Occasionally, also, a niche (Plate 127) with doors to enclose a shrine might be given architectural emphasis. In such interiors colour was frequently introduced on the doors themselves (Plate 14, 2), in a countersunk tympanum above the doorway, if perchance this bit of diversity were added, on the beams and boards of the ceiling (Plates 13 ; 14-3, 4 and 5 ; 15 A and B) and on the in-side shutters of the windows. It need scarcely be pointed out that such an interior provided an admirable foil for the advantageous display of hangings and furniture (Plates 13 and 15 A and B). No matter, how-ever, whether an interior was elaborately ornate or severely simple, the Italian furniture of the period possessed such flexibility of character that it looked equally well against either background and to this peculiar quality we shall have occasion to refer more at length in a subsequent division.

Furniture and Its Decoration.—From the middle or latter part of the fifteenth century onward, the display of movable furniture in the regal rooms of Italian pal-aces and villas, and in the scarcely less regal rooms of the lesser country houses and town dwellings of the well-to-do citizens, was scanty when judged by modern standards. "When the walls of the galleries and saloons were covered with frescoes (Plates 16, 18 and 19), or hung with arras, tapestry, brocades (Plate 17), rich velvet from Genoa, or with stamped and gilt leather; when the ceilings were painted (Plates 16, 18 and 19) or heavily carved and gilded ; when the floors were inlaid with the choicest marbles and mosaics, many objects about would detract from the magnificence of the whole and leave a confused impression on the, mind. This the unerring taste of the sixteenth century decorators fully realised. The few pieces of furniture that were admitted, however, were in keeping with their surroundings, and are marvels of workmanship. Every kind of splendid material was employed in their manufacture and adornment." The chests or cassoni, which from the earliest times were conspicuous and highly significant pieces of furniture in Italian furnishing schemes, placed in the halls and corridors or salons, "were used to pre-serve tapestries, clothes, plate and most of the valuables used by wealthy Italians." Carved with scrolls, foliage and figures in high relief or richly embellished on the front and cover with paintings, "either illustrative of the lives of saints, scenes taken from classical mythology or historical incidents" and blasoned in the proper tinctures with family armorial bearings, the eassoni were indeed impressive pieces of furniture and well calculated to compel and centre attention. They were often lined inside with linen or even with gorgeous silks and brocades strained tightly over the wood. The cassone was one of the most valuable presents given to a bride, and when it fulfilled the role of a dower chest it was generally adorned by picturing some incident taken from one of the well-known love tales. To some, indeed, it may seem that these cassoni—and, for the matter of that, not a few of the other articles of Italian Renaissance furniture—were "almost overpoweringly decorated" without ever giving the eye a single spot on which to stop and rest. Many such profusely ornamented pieces placed in the same room, it is true, would have been unbearable. But the Italians did not so use them. The cassone was designed and decorated with a clear perception of the principle, so characteristic of much of the best Italian and Spanish work, whether architectural or mobiliary, of concentrating enrichment in one spot and isolating it against a background either simple, at times to the extent of austerity, or else so fully covered with elaborate repeats (Plate 15 B) that it assumed the quality of a richly coloured texture of virtually neutral action in affording the necessary contrast to whatever clearly defined object, whether simple or elaborately adorned, might be placed against it. There was wealth in the golden age of the Italian Renaissance to devote to a liberal patronage of the decorative arts and the patronage bestowed encouraged the development of furniture design and execution by the most eminent craftsmen and artists of the period. They deemed it worthy of their best ,efforts to design a single piece of furniture and execute it with the utmost study and care as an independent and complete work of art. Under such circumstances the making of a cassone was a finished and marvellous achievement in itself. Among the painters of panels for cassoni may be mentioned such masters as Botticelli, Andrea del Sarto, Pesellino, Pietro di Cosimo and the most capable of their pupils while, for the carvers of these same amazing chests, Jacquemart reminds us that we must seek among the foremost sculptors of the day—Donatello, Bernardino, Ferrante, Canozzo and others of equal renown. So far as furniture was concerned, they were the Adams, the Chippendales, the Hepplewhites, the Angelica Kauffmanns and the Cipriani of their era, but far greater; only, unlike the Adelphi, they did not merely draw de-signs for others to work from but they worked at the furniture with their own hands and thought no shame of the task. They esteemed the making of a chest or cabinet an honourable and legitimate work of art and that is why so many of the pieces from their hands are surpassingly beautiful and full of finished grace. Be-fore passing on, it will be as well to note that there was not a little variety in the forms of the cassoni so that their decorative furnishing potentiality was increased thereby : some of them were merely rectangular chests, with or without feet, and being flat-topped served for seats as well as receptacles ; some were shaped like a sarcophagus and had either flat or rising tops; some were low enough to sit upon comfortably; some were as high as consoles, and some were raised on stands.

While cassoni were undoubtedly the most omnipresent, the most conspicuous and the most lavishly decorated pieces of cabinet work, there was be-sides a wide variety of wall furniture that went to make up the nobiliary equipment of sixteenth and seventeenth century Italian rooms. There was the madia, a hutch-like cupboard with doors, and perhaps several shallow drawers above them, the whole structure sup-ported by trusses at each end. This piece of furniture was often used for the stowage of food in much the same way as the dole cupboards and kindred articles in England. There was the credenza (Plates 20 B and 15 A and 89 B), an imposing and much used article about four feet high and of varying length, with doors in front and with or without shallow drawers above the doors. In composition and decoration it was an object of distinctly architectonic value. It served the purpose of a sideboard or buffet or, in apartments not used for dining, it answered equally well the office of a console. Occasionally a superstructure was added at the back with one or more shelves and in this form it was really the historical precursor of the very ugly nineteenth century sideboard. In this connexion it is worth noting that the furniture designers of the nineteenth century, who perpetrated so many of the painful monstrosities of the Victorian era in black walnut, were not an ignorant set of men unacquainted with historical precedents. They did know somewhat of furniture history, but with their knowledge they combined an amazing degree of colossal bad taste which impelled them to choose the least-inspired models of sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth century Italian, French and Spanish provenance and add thereto their own fantastic aberrations of contour and embellishment. Illustrations of some of the Victorian "chefs doeuvre" parallel with other illustrations of their Continental prototypes would constitute a body of the most damning evidence.

Akin to the credenza in its general scheme of structure was the small console or cabinet with doors, about three or three and a half feet high by two feet or a little more in width. It served as a stand on which to place a casket or some other article of decorative significance. The exact reverse of this was a similar piece of cabinet work, with a small drawer beneath the doors instead of above them, and this was set upon a table or stand; in other words, it was the forerunner of the larger cabinet, with doors and drawers, upon a stand which figured so prominently in furnishing schemes of a much later date. A combination of these two pieces sometimes occurred in a two-storey structure with doors in both the lower and upper parts. This double cabinet was somewhat wider than the console first mentioned and the upper part was not quite so broad as the lower. Altogether it was a dignified and desirable article in any well-appointed room.

Not dissimilar to it in general appearance was the writing cabinet, of which examples occurred at an early date, with doors in the lower part and a falling front in the upper which, when let down, provided a place to write. A related piece of writing furniture was the cabinet with falling front which stood upon a table or stand. There were also various wider and larger cabinets and presses, either divided in two by lower and upper sections or with full length doors, in the latter case being virtually wardrobes, as we understand the term. Chests of drawers, very like in disposition to the analogous article of the eighteenth century, were by no means unknown.

Bedsteads, as was the wont of the period, were often-times ponderous affairs ; others, again, were not of cumbrous proportions. The larger bedsteads were frequently raised a pace or two above the floor on a dais (Plate 15 B) and were both of the post and canopy (Plate 21 B) or tester type and also of the, sort that had headboard and lower footboard but no canopy. Another piece of wall furniture that was not seldom elevated on a dais to give it greater state was the cassa panca, a kind of ceremonial bench (Plate 15 B) that was in-variably given a position of prominence and seems to have been the forerunner of the drawing-room sofa of a later date as regarded certain points of etiquette in seating honoured guests. The cassa panca was really a long chest with high, solid, massive arms and back, the seat, which was hinged at the back, being the lid. Occasionally there was an high, throne-like back and sometimes the arms were wanting. The former type, however, was the more usual. A specimen in the Metropolitan Museum is eight feet, ten inches in length, twenty-one inches in depth, has a back and arms rising nineteen inches from the seat and stands on a dais nine and a half feet long and five inches high.

From both their structure and design it is quite obvious that not a few of the banconi or tables with drawers were intended to stand against the wall and many of the long tables, analogous to the English refectory tables, were likewise so placed and are, there-fore, under sundry circumstances to be reckoned as wall furniture. Clothes hangers and mirror frames were objects of careful design and workmanship and are not to be overlooked in an enumeration of wall pieces. The mirror frames were small as only small mirrors were available at all and these were scarce. Great care, nevertheless, was bestowed upon the frames and they possessed considerable decorative importance.

Besides the long tables, already alluded to, and the smaller wall or writing tables with drawers in them, there was the greatest variety in shapes and sizes, as might be expected in an age of exuberant invention, and all the occasional requirements in the matter of tables were well supplied. (For a detailed discussion of the sundry varieties of sixteenth and seventeenth century Italian tables and other pieces of furniture v. "The Practical Book of Italian, Spanish and Portuguese Furniture," Eberlein and McClure; now in preparation.) Chairs, settees, stools and benches were of numerous types, but all were dignified and impressive and well calculated to furnishing ideals in which dignity, as well as grace, was an indispensable requirement.

Other Decorative Accessories and Movable Decorations.—The actual movable furniture in a sixteenth or seventeenth century Italian salon did not by any means comprise all the furnishing of the apartment. The walls and ceilings, as mentioned before, might be gloriously chromatic with frescoes or mosaic and, in addition to many-hued and rich-toned pigments, there would be the glow of gilding bestowed in appropriate places. In case the walls and ceilings were not so adorned with fixed decorations on the surface, there was the universal delight in tapestries (Plate 13) and other large hangings of needlework which were prized doubly on account of the pleasure and satisfaction to be derived from the devices thereon depicted and likewise because of their wealth of mellow colour. Besides tapestries as suitable enrichments for plain walls, there was always the resource of pictures. Then, furthermore, there were the polychrome maiolica mural ornaments and mural ornaments consisting of wood carvings (Plate 15 A) painted and gilt. This wooden mural sculpture was an highly developed art and justly prized. Another decorative resource lay in the pieces of marble sculpture, always dear to the heart of an Italian, and in various pieces of pottery of agreeable shape and colour. Nor must we forget the carved, painted and gilt wooden candlesticks (Plate 19) and candelabra, some of them of great height; nor the iron candelabra (Plate 15 A), gracefully wrought and likewise coloured and gilt in their embellishment.

Equally effective in the matter of lending interest to the composition were the fixed decorative accessories such as the paintings upon the doors themselves, paintings in the tympana above doorways, paintings upon the wooden inside shutters or paintings upon the beams of the ceilings and the corbels that supported those beams. On the doors and shutters the painting and gilding might be only partial, to enhance the tone of the wood, or it might be in a continuous diaper pattern or, again, some mythological, historical or religious subject might be fully depicted. The painting of the ceiling beams was done in a purely conventional manner and was meant merely to give the relief and warmth of colour and gilding.

Oftentimes, when not much colour appeared on doors or shutters, interest was centred there by devices executed either in studding of iron nails (Plate 13) or by wrought iron, sometimes parcel coloured and gilt, applied in a rich and delicate decorative pattern. The sixteenth and seventeenth century Italian smiths were masters in their craft and their decorative creations are among some of the most treasured relics they have left us.

Last, but by no means least, as an item in the composition of the sixteenth and seventeenth century Italian interior was the carved mantel and likewise the carved chimney piece that so often accompanied it. These were wrought in stone and in marble with the utmost finesse and displayed all the characteristic decorative motifs of the period, including foliage, fruits, flowers, arabesques, grotesques, masques, amorini and the human figure. The carving was usually in high and bold relief.

Materials and Colour.—For the fixed architectural background, the materials most commonly used were stone, inlaid and multi-coloured marbles, tiles or wood for the floors. For the walls they employed plaster, either rough or smooth, or else encrustations of marble or mosaic. When the walls were to be painted they were coated with a smooth, hard plaster; hard plaster was likewise used when moulded decorations, in relief entered into the decorative scheme. These moulded decorations in plaster were often further enriched by the addition of colour. When sgraffito decorations were desired several successive coats of different-coloured plasters were laid on. For the ceilings either plaster or wooden beams, frequently carved and painted, were the usual materials. Cypress, oak, pine and walnut afforded the chief wood resources, although other kinds were occasionally put to use. For polychrome decorated doors it was customary to use pine, cypress or some similar soft and easily worked wood as a foundation. The surface was then carefully coated with gesso to give an absolutely smooth and suitable ground for the application of the pigment and gold.

For furniture, walnut was the staple wood just as oak was in England. For cassoni and other pieces, however, that were to be embellished with paint, poly-chrome decoration and parcel gilding it was customary to use pine or cypress and cover it with a preparatory coat of gesso before the paint and gilt were put on. If there was any carved relief, the carving was apt to be crudely done and the fine modelling was left for manipulation in the gesso. For furniture that was not to be adorned with gold and colour, oak, chestnut, acacia and other suitable woods from time to time made their appearance with the occasional introduction of sycamore, pear, rosewood and sundry other materials for purposes of inlay or marqueterie.

For upholstery, velvet of a full, rich red was perhaps the most favoured material. Besides this we find cut pile velvets, brocades, brocatelle and damasks of various colours as well as gros point and petit point needlework. Leather, both plain and decorated, was also used for the backs and seats of chairs. Much attention, too, was paid to fringes and gold galons which were freely employed. For the lining of cassoni and caskets it was. not uncommon to use silks and brocades of divers colours strained upon the wood.

Nothing contributes more to the enrichment of an apartment than the use of hangings on the walls. In old Italian interiors hangings were freely used and these hangings consisted of tapestries, brocades (Plate 17) or damasks with embroidered orphreys or borders at the sides, velvets ,enriched with gold embroidery and needlework' designs in bold motifs applique, and large pieces of multi-coloured needlework in floss or silk thread on background of silk, satin, damask or velvet. Cloth of gold and silver were also employed.

From a purely practical point of view, with reference to modern practice, it is to. be noted that the old Italians fully realised—they had doubtless found out by trial and experience—that when hangings were used on the walls back of large pieces of furniture, whether those pieces were of carved or plain panelled walnut, or of a gorgeous polychrome and gilt exterior, the very nature of the furniture in design and material demanded the association of a fabric of full colour and depth, of texture, such as tapestry or heavy red or purple velvet, and that thinner or flatter textures looked jejune and unsuitable. These pieces might, with perfect propriety of effect, stand against an austere and bare wall, but if fabric was added it had to be of warm hue and full texture.

In the choice of colours for interior decoration there was universal employment of strong, full-bodied tones and vigorous contrasts. While the reds were very red and the blues very blue, the combinations and gradations were blended into a most agreeably mellow ensemble. An examination of old Italian interiors and a close scrutiny of the methods the sixteenth and seventeenth century decorators used makes it quite evident that it was the practice to concentrate enrichment whether of objects or of colour at strategic points. It is also to be noted, with reference to their lavish use of gold, that they well understood that a great mass of gold is quiet and neutral, that a little gold at carefully selected places is quiet, refined and enriching, but that small amounts of gold distributed here, there and everywhere produce a flashy, cheap and noisy effect.

Arrangement.—One of the most striking things about fine old Italian interiors is the absence of crowding and fussiness. The decorators of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries seem fully to have realised that a few important pieces, well and logically placed, are all that are needed to make a room. If there are too many large pieces the effect of all is spoiled and the eye is apt to ignore the individual excellences of every object in the cluttered hodge-podge. Accordingly, a comparatively few pieces, properly distributed, were relied upon to produce the desired result. Unless a room was exceptionally large, and oftentimes even then (Plate 17), it was the custom to keep the centre of the floor clear of all obstructions. In some instances a long table (Plates 13, 15 A, 18 and 19) would be placed down the middle of a very long room or, instead of this, the length might be broken by several smaller tables placed equidistant from the ends of the room, with their appropriate accompaniment of chairs or stools in close proximity. The arrangements almost invariably displayed a due regard for principles of symmetry and yet, at the same time, there was a great deal of elasticity and very little inclination to methods of stiff and oppressive formality. The inborn habit of symmetrical placement might be seen in such a grouping, for instance, as a long wall table flanked at each side by two tall-backed chairs. This was a very common arrangement but very typical and serves well enough as an example. The brummagem ideal of stuffy and cluttered "cosiness" did not appeal to them and would have been utterly abhorrent to their conceptions of dignity and elegance.

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