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Interior Decoration in Spain Prior to the 18th Century

( Originally Published 1919 )

INTERIOR decoration in Spain prior to the eighteenth century presents a curious combination of Moorish characteristics, on the one hand, and of Renaissance and Baroque features on the other.

In considering this subject, one must bear in mind the peculiarly conservative character of the Spanish people, their almost religious attachment to time-honoured usage and precedent, and their fixed aversion from change, especially when the change has no stronger sanction than the mere compliance with a newly-set fashion.

The wherewithal to have what other nations of the period would have deemed fully furnished and even sumptuous interiors was not lacking. The inclination, however, was towards a paucity of movables. For generations, people had been wont to sit upon cushions on the floor. This was a Moorish custom, to be sure, but Moorish customs had permeated Christian Spain and Christians held to the custom with the same tenacity as the Moors themselves, among whom the usage had more or less religious obligation.

Therefore chairs and seating furniture in general were not so commonly used as in other places. Consequently, there was one factor accounted for that contributed to the comparative austerity and bareness of the Spanish interior. It was a matter of principle with the Moors not to cumber their apartments with articles they did not definitely need. And they were simple in their habits and did not need much. Here, again, was another cause for the characteristic austerity and restraint of the Spanish interior.

Let the reader not imagine, however, that a sixteenth or seventeenth century interior in Spain lacked either richness or interest. Both characteristics were present in a pronounced degree. Concentrated enrichment, and the interest attaching thereto, gathered intensity by contrast with an austere environment which acted as a foil.

In studying Spanish exterior architecture of the early Renaissance, one cannot fail to be deeply impressed by the wonderfully rich effect of the intricate, lace-like carving of a doorway set in a severely plain wall without a trace of other decoration to break its expanse. Much the same phenomenon of sharp contrast was repeated inside the houses where the marvellous cabinets, for which Spain was deservedly famous, had their sumptuous splendour accented by the complete absence of all elements that could in any way detract from their preeminence. The eye was involuntarily focussed there and compelled to take in what was presented to it.

Another factor contributory to interest and enrichment was the frequent use of expanses of gorgeously polychrome tiling (Plate 23 B), at times almost barbaric in its bewildering splendour of colour and pat-tern. This heritage of Moorish civilisation was incorporated with the Renaissance forms that prevailed in the sixteenth century.

Architectural Background and Fixed Decoration.--If the sixteenth and seventeenth century Spaniards had not the frescoed or marble-encrusted walls of the Italians of the same period, nor the wood-panelled walls of the French and English, and had instead plain plaster walls (Plates 23 A and 24), or walls relieved for a portion of their height by multi-coloured tiling or by dados of painted canvas or cloth, their rooms, nevertheless, were by no means lacking in mural interest.

Love of strong colour and of vivid contrast and trenchant design is deeply implanted in the Spanish disposition and this chromatic taste was amply satisfied by the variety of hangings with which they adorned the walls of their apartments in lieu of embellishment incorporated in the actual wall structure. No nation, perhaps, was ever more addicted to the profuse display of wall hangings.

There were, to begin with, tapestries, for tapestries were the common possession of all civilised countries and were esteemed alike in all. There were "fine Italian hangings," which meant brocades, damasks and velvet, the last named of which materials, when hung as a wall embellishment, was usually enriched with embroidery in the form of applique medallions, car-touches and the like, with an appropriate accompaniment of scrolls, tendrils and arabesques of gold thread or gold galons. When the ground was a rich crimson or a full, brilliant green velvet, this form of wall decoration, often enlivened with armorial, bearings as a part of the applique needlework, was both dignified and effective.

There were painted canvas hangings which presented both vivid colour and emphatic design. There were painted and scalloped canvas friezes or scalloped velvet frieze hangings rich with gold braid and fringe, There was—and this was peculiarly distinctive of Spain, although the fashion afterwards spread to other countries—the gorgeous stamped and engraved leather, polychromed and, later on, polychromed and gilt. The skins were either sewed together to make hangings or else the pieces of leather were applied directly to the wall. Add to these, "India fabrics," doubtless brought in from Portugal, "delicate summer hangings," Toledo cloths, red and yellow and Roman linens, and it becomes quite plain that the Spanish interior, although it might display certain evidences of austerity, at times, and a sparseness of movables as compared with the fashions of other countries, was by no means void of interest.

In the seventeenth century, the Italian "domino" paper, in small sections, was sometimes applied to the walls, as it was also in Italy and France, its mottled or marbleised pattern and colouring having always found favour in the Iberian peninsula.

Fireplaces showed practically the same lines of structure and ornamentation as were to be noted in Italy and France during the same period, there being, of course, some evidences of national interpretation in the matter of details. In this connexion it should be noted that the brasier was so essential an item of equipment that it may almost be regarded as a part of the fixed outfit. The brasier was generally an ornate specimen of brass craftsmanship, chased, engraved and em-bossed, supported either on an high stand, so that the hands might conveniently be warmed at its rim, or on a low stand where feet could be toasted. The stands were of wrought iron or of turned and carved walnut.

The beams of the ceilings and the panels of doors Plate 23 A) were especially favourite objects of decorative enrichment and were often intricately carved or inlaid. The facility for working in small panel divisions, with telling decorative effect, was an accomplishment learned from the Moors, and the practice was retained and elaborated with happy results. The carving on doors and on ceiling beams was not seldom enhanced by the application of colour and gilding as well. The floors were of tiles, stone and wood. During the seventeenth century some gorgeously coloured hard woods were brought from the Spanish colonies and incorporated in the parquetted floorings.

Wrought ironwork, in the form of grilles for windows and openings and as handrails, frequently added a decorative emphasis of strong character. The design and workmanship of these bits of ironwork were admirable. Colour and gilding were generally added to them.

Furniture and Decoration.—The two most significant and characteristic items of Spanish Renaissance furniture were the chest and the vargueno cabinet (v. illustration in Part III). There were chests of all varieties and shapes and contrived for all purposes. There were no less than seven distinct classifications into which they could be divided. Of these, the bride's chest was deemed an absolutely indispensable piece of household equipment—very much like a marriage certificate, in fact—whatever other chests might or might not be represented in an inventory of possessions.

In addition to the chests, which usually manifested conspicuous marks of national taste, there were the vargueno cabinets and the papeleras, both of which were set on stands. The vargueno cabinet had a drop front, hinged at the bottom, which could be used to write upon, and the inside contained tiers of small drawers. It was, in a word, the direct ancestor of the later drop front secretary. The inside of the vargueno was generally a splendid blaze of bone inlay, brilliant colour and gold. The papelera (Plate 140) was a cabinet of small drawers but had no drop front. It, like-wise, was often decorated in a gorgeous and colourful manner.

Besides these, there were hanging cabinets or cup-boards, massive walnut tables (Plate 24) of many varieties, settles, benches, stools and chairs. Some of the chests were covered with velvet strained tightly over the wood—bright green was a favourite colour—with gilded iron mounts and ornamental bands or studding.

The characteristic contours and motifs of decoration indicated the gradual transition from Renaissance, or Renaissance mingled with Moorish, forms to Baroque conceptions. The dimensions and structure of the period were bold and substantial. Walnut was the staple and favourite material, although oak and chest-nut were used also in cabinetwork and occasionally pine likewise.

The mounts and studdings, both of brass and of wrought iron, gilt or plain, were especially indicative of sixteenth and seventeenth century Spanish form conception and added a very appreciable share to the rich and striking effect of the interiors of the period.

Other Decorative Accessories and Movable Decorations.—Tapestries and other hangings were discussed in the section dealing with fixed decoration because their function was permanent rather than otherwise. It is only necessary to add, with respect to hangings, that canopies of green or crimson velvet or brocade, fringed with gold, often played a conspicuous role when they were hung over seats or tables of state. Damask, velvet and lace for table covers, embroideries, Cuenca green cloth, Spanish carpets and Turkey car-pets, as items in the inventory of fabrics afforded considerable resources of vivid colour.

Large pictures, both portraits and religious paintings, occupied a prominent place in decorative schemes. Porcelains came in through Portuguese trade with the Orient and were highly prized; maiolica pottery of admirable colour, design and shape, was made in considerable quantity in Spain as well as the glazed tiles; glass vessels of large size and good shape, cut, en-graved and sometimes gilded, were also made in Spain and had distinct decorative value; finally, the Spanish smiths were unsurpassed in their manipulation of brass and iron, from which they fashioned candlesticks, candelabra, sconces, chandeliers (Plate 24), brasiers and a host of lesser accessories for various purposes, all of which, in both metals, were wrought with a fascinating invention.

Materials and Colour.—The texture of materials, their contrast with their structural background, and the emphasis of their colour, were such essential parts of the ensemble in the composition of a sixteenth or seventeenth century Spanish interior that one can scarcely dissociate them from the actual architectural structure.

The velvets, plain and figured, the brocades and damasks, and the linens, imported from Italy were supplemented by Oriental fabrics brought by Portuguese traders from India and China, and by the gay-coloured cloths and carpets woven at Toledo, Cuenca or Alcaroz.

The colours were vivid and rich to the fullest degree. This applied to the leathers as well as to textiles. As to pattern, it should be noted that while the vigorous and somewhat large figures, so generally to be found in Italy, in France and in England, and which were quite consistent in scale with the colouring in which they were interpreted, were also approved in Spain, at the same time, the Moorish tradition for fine inter-lacing pattern and compact distribution and the Indian tendency toward attenuation with a certain openness of design, both disposed the Spaniard to an appreciation of refinement as well as vigour in pattern.

Arrangement.—The one important lesson in arrangement to be learned from Spanish interiors is that their restraint in the number of objects employed, and the consequent necessity of wide open spaces for pieces to stand alone, contributed to dignity and served also to enhance the decorative balance of each object when there was nothing to detract from its individual effect.

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