Amazing articles on just about every subject...

Interior Decoration in Italy During the 18th Century

( Originally Published 1919 )

INTRODUCTION.—As the period before the eighteenth century had been an era of spacious dimensions, of great and lofty rooms, of dignified splendour and splendid dignity, of intense virility and vigour however rich and exuberant in the manifold manifestations of architectural setting and mobiliary equipment, of unmistakably masculine interpretation in all the phases of decorative art, so the eighteenth century was essentially a period of femininity in decorative conceptions, of intimate boudoirs and highly elaborated drawing-rooms punctiliously appointed with all the polished refinements of which fecund invention bent upon achieving an almost sybaritic degree of luxury was capable, of minute elegancy, of graceful pliability, of sunny, blithesome polychrome merriment. If the imposing amplitude and sweep of a former generation were absent, and if the foundations of decorative conception were less serious, the happy domesticity and facile playfulness of the prevalent genius, amounting at times to pure inconsequent frivolity, were very human and very fascinating and, withal, sincere, in that they faithfully mirrored the spirit of the age. The genius of the preceding age, notwithstanding all the gorgeousness of colouring and wealth of inventive ingenuity, was a trifle sombre; the genius of the eighteenth century, not less opulent in its own fashion, was fundamentally gay and debonair. Potency of colour and subtlety of form were no less keenly felt and no less assiduously courted than in former years, but their application was in a lighter vein.

In a measure, the eighteenth century was, a decadent period, for the quality of sturdy creative originality, which had so strongly characterised the work of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, was almost wholly dormant. Italy was borrowing back again the inspiration she had so lavishly poured forth in earlier centuries for the benefit of other countries and the inspiration thus borrowed back was become, in the course of transition, an indubitably second-hand commodity, bereft of fertility and verve so far as creative vigour and the divine spark of originality were concerned, like an outworn garment that has grown thread-bare through the usage of its temporary possessor. And yet, despite this promiscuous borrowing back, the eighteenth century Italian decorators, designers and craftsmen succeeded in imparting an abundant measure of national individuality to their interpretations so that their work stands quite apart from the performances of their contemporaries in other lands and is easily recognisable by its qualities of charm which the local genius rarely failed successfully to impart. While it is undeniably true that greatness of conception, architectonic dignity of contour and strong originality of design were usually wanting, the native fertility of the Italian craftsman temperament was constantly in evidence through the wealth of decorative motifs and the multiplicity of decorative processes lavished on surface embellishment, a wealth that asserted itself on every hand with an indomitable persistence comparable to that of tropical vegetation. These characteristics were equally to be seen in the fixed architectural decorative background and also in the execution of the movable furnishings.

Architectural Background and Methods of Fixed Decoration.—The diluted Baroque manifestations that had been observable in the latter part of the seventeenth century continued into the early part of the eighteenth (Plate 21A), to be succeeded, in due season, and in circles likely to be affected by new fashions, by the lighter, more playful and more involved Rococo influences patterned after the modes current in France, though slightly modified in the course of transition by- the action of local traditions and local preferences of interpretation, traditions and preferences that were exceedingly subtle and difficult of definition but nevertheless very real and, in the aggregate, very perceptible. In its own time, virtually synchronous with a like prevalence in other countries, came the absorbing vogue for "the Chinese taste," and it left a strong impress of Orientalism on the work done in the immediate period of its duration, while agreeable traces of its quondam ascendency and its. enduring appeal could be detected here and there long afterward.

In sharp contrast to all this stylistic medley, the middle of the century witnessed a vigorous revival of classic feeling (Plate 22 B)—the swing of the pendulum to the opposite extremity of the arc—in precisely the same way that we see the rise of the Adam influence in England and the transition to the Louis Seize mode in France. The Italian reversion to classic forms and precedents was not less vigorous in its expression than the contemporary comparable movements elsewhere, but again, as on former occasions, the local exhibition was tinged by local conception and local methods of adaptation.

The close correspondence of these successive phases of design in the several countries, and their almost exactly contemporaneous procession, reveal to us, in a particularly striking manner, the internationalism of decorative art.

In the eighteenth century the Italian salons and galleries were not less splendid and stately than they had been during the preceding era, but there was far more ample provision for the smaller and more intimate boudoirs and drawing-rooms as well. And whether we are called upon to consider the great salon, the smaller drawing-room, the boudoir or the sumptuously appointed and dainty bedroom of the eighteenth century grandame or beauty, we encounter the same general method of decorative treatment. The more permanent features, such as frescoes and encrustations of mosaic and inlay (Plate 21 A), and also the more enduring movables of the background such as tapestries and other gorgeous hangings of large extent, remained, but there was an added sumptuousness and fullness of appointments that had not hitherto existed. It is true that the earlier classification of fixed architectural backgrounds—richly ornate on one hand, and austere on the other—still held good, but the severely simple backgrounds were very apt to be much enhanced by the addition of numerous movables. In not a few instances walls were covered with fabrics (Plate 22 A) frequently held in place by mouldings fastened on so as, to form panels. Then, again, there was to be seen an extensive introduction of boiserie, analogous to French and English practice, with the panelling (Plate 21 B) embellished with carving and appropriately painted and parcel gilt. In many instances, large painted panels, sometimes on canvas, sometimes on wooden grounds overlaid with a smooth coating of gesso according to traditional Italian 'practice, were set into the walls and surrounded with mouldings. The subjects were warm-toned landscapes with prominent architectural features in the manner of Piranesi, pastoral scenes in emulation of the French creations of Watteau, episodes or scenes from classic mythology, fruit and flower devices or gaily coloured and sometimes gilt Chinese motifs. Not seldom, also, were mirrors introduced into the panel-ling as an highly effective decorative device. In the tale of mural resources must likewise be reckoned wall-paper, printed from wood blocks, with landscape, architectural and classic subjects executed in either polychrome or monotone effects. Nor should we for-get another expedient sometimes resorted to, especially for the embellishment of doggie or partially open-air apartments—the use of canvas hanging friezes and panels painted with classic motifs, fruits, flowers and landscapes. By every available means the sumptuousness and multi-colored gaiety of the background were ensured.

The tall and elaborately ornamented chimney piece, reaching from the mantel to the ceiling or nearly to the ceiling, gradually disappeared as an inseparable structurally incorporated factor of the permanent back-ground and was succeeded by lower mantels and fire-place surrounds reflecting in their decoration the successive Baroque, Rococo and Classic modes of the period that held sway in the procession of fashions al-ready enumerated. These mantels were made of carved stone, carved wood and carved and inlaid marble, the latter sometimes displaying an exquisite combination of colours in conjunction with the most delicate intaglio work. Above the mantels were set carved wooden panelling, paintings, hangings or elaborately framed mirrors.

Carved, panelled or inlaid doors still formed important parts of the fixed decorative background, but the methods of carving, panelling and inlaying all reflected the successively prevailing stylistic phases of the age. The doors were often divided into many panels of different sizes and each panel contained a different subject. Sometimes the doors were wholly without panels on one side and painted with a continuous poly-chrome landscape, while the obverse displayed numerous panels each one of which exhibited a landscape with an architectural feature or else, in the very small panels, a decorative repeat. The obverse of these interesting and characteristic doors is also a valuable study in mouldings. Again, there might be several large panels of Rococo outline enclosing polychrome and gilt decorative motifs. Doors of this description often bear eloquent evidence to the all-prevalent popularity of Chinoiserie during a certain epoch of Italian interior decoration. On the gold background are painted Chinese figures and sundry other Oriental motifs, but, curiously enough, the connecting arabesques are of unmistakably Renaissance provenance and betray the peculiarly local Italian touch of interpretation. No matter what method of ornamentation might be employed for the embellishment of doors, the Italian decorators were fully alive to the importance of the door as an effective means of enrichment and they failed not to make the most of their opportunities in this direction, a practice that we in our day are only beginning to appreciate.

Along with the decoration of the door, and closely related to it, was the use of the overdoor panel wrought with some painted motif or else the employment of some sculptured overdoor embellishment in wood or stone or marble. The painted overdoor panels showed much the same kind of treatment as was to be seen on the painted doors themselves or on the painted panels inserted in the walls and surrounded with mouldings.

During the eighteenth century vastly more attention was paid to carefully draped and hung door and window hangings than had formerly been the case. As a suitable capping to these hangings, carefully designed lambrequins and valances were often used and lent an additional touch of elegance.

Furniture and Decoration.—As furniture design is always more sensitive to stylistic changes than is architecture, and registers them much more promptly, we are prepared to find the eighteenth century Italian mobiliary record showing all the characteristic indications of the age (v. illustrations in Part III), which have al-ready been noted in the introductory section at the be-ginning of the chapter. The femininity of the period manifested in a variety of forms that were obviously designed to win the approval of feminine patronage ; the urbanity, subtlety and opulence of contour as contrasted with the strength of line, boldness and dignity of aspect, proceeding from vigorous conception, observable in the former centuries of heroic ability and originality; the plenitude of decoration and the diversity of decorative processes utilised—all these peculiarities figured prominently in the mobiliary ensemble of the era. While furniture proportions ranged all the way from studied elegance to downright dumpy stodginess reminiscent of the physique of some, of the conmtadini, it must be conceded that even the frequent stoutness of dimensions was generally coupled with great suavity, grace and subtlety of line. In almost all cases, the furniture of the day possessed the admirable quality of domesticity along with the amiable, sunny urbanity of its genial makers. And just because of its pliability of character and its easy domesticity it lends itself with peculiar readiness to modern uses in manifold environments where the architectural background is, not insistently rigid in its emphasis.

If we miss the well-nigh heroic qualities and vigour of so much of the earlier work; yet we are to some degree compensated by an ingenuous and companion-able informality, a measure of adaptability not there before, a frequent dash of refreshing playfulness and a facile decorative value. Whether eighteenth century Italian furniture was daintily elegant or most inform-ally domestic, it was always polite. The table manners of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were vigorous and effective, but not pretty nor pleasant; lacking what we nowadays consider the indispensables of table appointment, people fell back upon first principles, used their fingers freely, got greasy chins and even picked their teeth at the table. In the eighteenth century table refinements had very appreciably advanced and, though folk somewhat came short of the straightforward creative virility of an earlier day, their manners were vastly more elegant and agreeable. Furniture has always faithfully reflected the social life of the period. Eighteenth century Italian furniture was no exception to the rule and, though it may be accused of occasional artificiality and the lack of marked originality of design, it invariably exhibited that urbanity of aspect that was suited to the politer habits of the generation that used it.

At the very beginning of the eighteenth century, the last traces of old Italian vigour and individuality were observable in the lines of furniture that closely corresponded with a well-known contemporary William and Mary type in England—the type presenting straight, tapered legs, square, octagonal or round, and shaped stretchers—an heritage from the Baroque school of influence. This type was soon succeeded by forms of conspicuously curvilinear dominance (Plate 22 A) corresponding pretty closely with the Queen Anne and early Georgian manifestations in England. The mellowness of contour in much of this furniture is singularly commendable and engaging.

As to the great variety of contours to be met with throughout the century, it is well for the reader to remember that analogies in form between Italian furniture and contemporary types in England and France were sufficiently close to enable anyone with a fair knowledge of French and English mobiliary developments to classify Italian pieces chronologically and to understand their affinities and concomitant decorative phenomena. Whatever we find in English and French furniture—Queen Anne forms, evidences of "the Chinese taste," Chippendale elaborations, Adam, Hepplewhite and Sheraton refinements, Louis Quinze frivolities, Louis Seize classicism, the pedantic literalness of the Directoire or the pomp and occasional bombast of the Empire—that we are almost certain to, find echoed also in the Italian furniture of the same date.

The least happy and prepossessing of all the eighteenth century Italian furniture manifestations were the adaptations of the Louis Quinze Rococo extravagances and exaggerations. The French prototypes, when once they escaped from the discreet and cunning hands of master designers, might descend—a fact we have all too often been obliged to witness—to shallow weakness, flippancy, or even positive imbecility. The Italian emulators of the less inspired Louis Quinze models might arrive at any of the faults just mentioned and, in addition, complete the debacle by achieving a result either grotesque or simperingly flaccid. The foregoing strictures, of course, do not apply to well-executed pieces patterned after worthy Louis Quinze models—and there were such, endowed with real beauty. Unfortunately, however, the ill-favoured kind were in the majority.

Of altogether different calibre was the type of furniture that succeeded when the revival of Classicism made itself felt about the middle of the century. Thence onward there was genuine and almost universal artistic merit in the handiwork of the Italian chair and cabinet makers. The square-backed seating furniture is worthy of special praise and either originals dating from this time or reproductions are among some of the best decorative assets to which the present generation has fallen heir. A great proportion of the contemporary cabinet work was not less lovely both in point of refined contour and in the matter of the decoration bestowed. The later Directoire and Empire manifestations like-wise were dignified in contour and highly agreeable in their decoration.

It must be remembered that the eighteenth century Italians were an highly polished and cultured people, habitually accustomed to all the elegancies and refinements of life. In this respect they were second to none. It was at this period that the sons of the English gentry and nobility were customarily sent to take the "grand tour," after they had completed their course at the universities, as an indispensable crowning touch to their education. Their stay in Italy was regarded as peculiarly conducive to a humanising result and their inter-course with educated Italians was deemed a sine qua non to the broadening of their intellectual outlook. Under such conditions, then, it would be folly to imagine that the Italians should in any wise fall short of the most punctiliously complete sumptuary equipment. The eighteenth century, so often referred to in English history as the very heyday of fine furniture making and refinements of domestic art, was an age indeed when everything in the realm of furniture was highly specialised and when every requirement was satisfied by a piece of furniture especially designed to meet it. This condition, with which we are all more or less familiar in its English aspect, was quite as prevalent elsewhere and a fully itemised tale of all the furnishing accessories commonly made use of in the equipment of a well-appointed Italian household of the period would make a list far too long to give in this place. Nor is there any real need to do so. (For detailed in-formation on this subject the reader is referred to "The Practical Book of Italian, Spanish and Portuguese Furniture," Eberlein and McClure, now in preparation.) It will suffice if we direct attention to some of the most characteristic pieces. Under the general classification of wall furniture, besides the standard complement of bedsteads, wardrobes, secretaries, bureau-bookcases, bookcases, chests of drawers, dressing stands, chests, cabinets and cupboards to be found in use in every country, especial heed should be paid to the numerous forms of corner cabinets, to the sundry types of bedside tables, to the credence, console cabinets and consoles, to the prie-dieus, to the writing tables and to the spinet cases. Under the head of seating furniture and tables we meet with an uncommonly rich diversity of chairs, sofas, window seats, stools, benches and a great variety of tables, many of them of exceedingly ingenious contrivance for occasional or special uses.

The quarter circle corner cabinets or cupboards, hanging or standing upon legs; the bombe front corner cabinet; the shaped front full length corner cupboards; the highly decorated wardrobes ; the Venetian credenze; the large and small consoles and sets of consoles; the bedside tables and manifold other special small tables—all of these are fascinating in themselves and should be especially investigated because they impart a distinctly characteristic local note to eighteenth century Italian interior decoration and also because they will prove fruitful sources of inspiration by which we may profit in our own present-day decorative ventures.

The decorative processes commonly employed to enrich the furniture of the eighteenth century were in-lay of woods in contrasting colours, inlay with mosaics and marbles, inlay of engraved bone—an heritage from Spanish precedents and also from Venetian practice based upon examples imported from the East—marqueterie, lacquer, polychrome painting, gilding both in combination with the natural wood and in conjunction with painting, inlay in conjunction with traced and painted devices, sgraffito painting with gilding—a practice, which, however, had become almost obsolete—the application of printed and coloured paper devices upon a painted or lacquered ground, the application of panels painted on canvas to a painted ground and, finally, carving, the latter being one of the most important decorative resources, as was universally the case in all European countries. Nearly all of these processes were conducive to the production of brilliant chromatic effects and we are quite justified in regarding Italian furniture of the eighteenth century as one of the strongest and most facile exponents of the intense national sense and love of colour. In considering the mobiliary productions of the period a convenient division may be made of those pieces in which the natural colour and grain of the wood appear; and, secondly, of those in which the whole body is covered with an applied ground of colour. (Full details of all the aforementioned processes are contained in "The Practical Book of Italian, Spanish and Portuguese Furniture," already mentioned.)

The decorative devices used as motifs in the application of the foregoing decorative processes were numerous and widely varied but seemed to enjoy periods of special favour and follow each other in cycles of fashion. Very early in the century we find a predilection for the fine-leaved foliated scroll inlay, some-what analogous to the seaweed marqueterie of the late William and Mary epoch in England, but derived from precedents of Venetian provenance. There were also Baroque scrolls, cockleshells and cartouches which afforded fruitful opportunities for adaptation. Early in the century, also, about the time when "the Chinese taste" was exerting a powerful influence upon popular fancy, we find the decorators having recourse to tea houses, bridges, pagodas, mandarins, coolies and ladies of Cathay adopted bodily without other alteration than was inevitable from an Occidental touch in the process of execution, and, still more did the Italian decorators levy upon the motifs taken from Chinese vases in the shape of light panels, reserved on a deeper ground of another colour, and an infinity of small polychrome flowers. These small flowers of obviously Chinese inspiration were also plentifully supplemented by small flowers and leaves of a more naturalistic European source in drawing and colour. Many of these floral decorations were minute in scale and, abundantly spread over the surface to be decorated, gave the effect of a powdered design. The Venetians, even late in the century, manifested a marked fondness for this type of embellishment.

The Italians have always evinced an attachment to stripes and chequerings, and stripes and chequerings, ingeniously and effectively disposed and often with the greatest delicacy, recur again and again, very frequently along with herring bone borders of alternating colours, throughout the period. Foliations of various sorts, guilloche bands, rosettes and sundry forms of acanthus had an almost uninterrupted vogue, especially in carved work.

With the return of a strong Classic impetus about the middle of the century there was naturally a reversion to Classic motifs. From this time onward we find concurrently employed not only the devices drawn directly from the pure well-spring of Greek and Roman antiquity but also the more mixed devices of the Renaissance—arabesques, grotesques, masques, amorini, chimaeras and the like along with acanthus and other foliated forms. Late in the century we come to the vogue for griffin and military attributes that marked the Directoire and Empire phases. During the whole period landscapes of one sort or another were in continuous use, from the pastoral subjects of the mid century, in emulation of Watteau, to the strangely diversified paper applique creations that remind one of decalcomanias.

Decorative Accessories and Movable Decorations—In this fully furnished century, so amply provided with all other items of movable equipment, the sundry accessories of furnishing are correspondingly numerous and divers. In their tale are to be reckoned carpets and rugs, pictures, the most elaborate and varied sconces, mirrors and girandoles, hangings not only such as tapestries, embroideries and decorative applique on fabrics of rich colour and texture but also the hangings of silks, brocades and velvets along with embroidered and applique valances, all of which belonged more definitely in the realm of upholstery; sculptures in the shape of statuary and beautifully modelled urns and vases, Chinese porcelain jars and vases, multi-coloured maiolica plaques and bright-hued jars of large size, candelabra, standards and other objects of deftly wrought ironwork enriched with parcel colouring and gilt, and ornate chandeliers which in the eighteenth century had begun to assume an importance and popularity in decorative schemes far beyond the wont of earlier periods. Surely a goodly array of resources to aid the interior decorator!

Materials and Colour.—The materials called into service for furnishings included woods of many varieties and colours along with bone, mosaic and marbles for inlay and the metal mounts employed; ironwork in sundry forms; marble for the stately benches and other monumental and exceedingly formal articles of furniture used in halls and also the marble used in sculpture and for table and console tops; the costly textures for tapestries, hangings and carpets ; and an almost end-less list of silks, velvets, brocades, satins, brocatelles and other fabrics used for upholstery and hangings.

Among the woods walnut seems always to have retained its ascendency, although mahogany enjoyed a vogue by no means inconsiderable. In addition to these we find a frequent recourse to sycamore, rosewood, lemon wood and a long list of other woods of more or less rarity which were in demand for their striking colour or beautiful grain. For the painted furniture, cypress, pine and similar so-called "meaner woods" were used, although it is by no means an uncommon thing to find decorations painted over a ground of walnut or mahogany.

Among the textures in use, apart from the tapes-tries, probably the most striking and the most indicative of the spirit of the century were the Aubusson car-pets, while the fabrics for upholstery from the looms of Genoa, Milan and Venice ranged through every possibility of colour and pattern which one could imagine.

In the matter of the use and distribution of colour, it is to be noted that while full, rich and vivid colouring was in favour at the beginning of the century, a, taste for lighter, paler, more subdued colours and less vigorous contrasts became apparent as the century progressed, although the Italian colour taste, even at its most restrained period, cannot be said to have been at all anaemic. The same phenomenon was to be witnessed in the decoration of painted furniture, much of which at an early date exhibited a body colour of vigorous tone, while the later pieces almost invariably displayed a ground of lighter hue, there being observable a marked preference for pale greens, lavender, whitish yellow, pale blue or bluish white against which the designs stood out in strong relief. It may be noted also that the Venetians showed a partiality for the lighter toned furniture, while painted furniture of Roman or Tuscan origin often showed an heavier and deeper ground colour.

Arrangement.—Considering all the wealth of re-sources at hand, the temptation to forsake early principles and the practice of restraint can at least be understood if not sympathised with. Though overdressing was not an invariable fault of the eighteenth century, and especially late eighteenth century, Italian rooms, it must be admitted that they often contained an unfortunate surplus of fitments and that popular taste too often seemed to revel in the satisfactions afforded by individual pieces rather than in the qualities of the composition as an whole. The foregoing criticism is not to be taken as an unqualified condemnation of all the methods of the period or even of a majority of the decorative practice. There was frequently exhibited a genuine sense of restraint, a distinct appreciation of simplicity and a due reverence for symmetrical arrangements and there were many admirable examples of good taste and judgment furnished, but it is unfortunately necessary to admit that the eighteenth century, despite all its marvellous excellence, saw the beginning of the inclination to condone tawdriness which has spoiled so many really admirable Italian things of subsequent date.

Home | More Articles | Email: