Italy was the birthplace of the Renaissance. Leonardo da Vinci and Raffaele may be said to have guided and led the natural artistic instincts of their countrymen, to discard the Byzantine-Gothic which, as M. Bonnaffe has said, was adopted by the Italians not as a permanent institution, but "faute de mieux" as a passing fashion.
It is difficult to say with any certainty when the first commencement of a new era actually takes place, but there is an incident related in Michael Bryan's biographical notice of Leonardo da Vinci which gives us an approximate date. Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan, had appointed this great master Director of Painting and Architecture in his academy in 1494, and, says Bryan, who obtained his information from contemporary writers, "Leonardo no sooner entered on his office, than he banished all the Gothic principles established by his predecessor, Michelino, and introduced the beautiful simplicity and purity of the Grecian and Roman styles."
A few years after this date, Pope Julius II. commenced to build the present magnificent Church of St. Peter's, designed by Bramante d'Urbino, kinsman and friend of Raffaele, to whose superintendence Pope Leo X. confided the work on the death of the architect in 1514, Michael Angelo having the charge committed to him some years after Raffaele's death.
These dates give us a very fair idea of the time at which this important revolution in taste was taking place in Italy, at the end of the fifteenth and the commencement of the following century, and carved woodwork followed the new direction.
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Leo X. was Pope in 1513. The period of peace which then ensued after war, which for so many decades had disturbed Italy, as France or Germany had in turn striven to acquire her fertile soil, gave the princes and nobles leisure to rebuild and adorn their palaces; and the excavations which were then made brought to light many of the works of art which had remained buried since the time when Rome was mistress of the world. Leo was a member of that remarkable and powerful family the Medicis, the very mention of whom is to suggest the Renaissance, and under his patronage, and with the co-operation of the reigning dukes and princes of the different Italian states, artists were given encouragement and scope for the employment of their talents. Michael Angelo, Titian, Raffaele Sanzio, Andrea del Sarto, Correggio, and many other great artists were raising up monuments of everlasting fame; Palladio was rebuilding the palaces of Italy, which were then the wonder of the world; Benvenuto Cellini and Lorenzo Ghiberti were designing those marvellous chef d'oeuvres in gold, silver, and bronze which are now so rare; and a host of illustrious artists were producing work which has made the sixteenth century famous for all time.
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The circumstances of the Italian noble caused him to be very amenable to Art influence. Living chiefly out of doors, his climate rendered him less dependent on the comforts of small rooms, to which more northern people were attached, and his ideas would naturally aspire to pomp and elegance, rather than to home life and utility. Instead of the warm chimney corner and the comfortable seat, he preferred furniture of a more palatial character for the adornment of the lofty and spacious saloons of his palace, and therefore we find the buffet elaborately carved, with a free treatment of the classic antique which marks the time; it was frequently "garnished" with the beautiful majolica of Urbino, of Pesaro, and of Gubbio. The sarcophagus, or cassone, of oak, or more commonly of chesnut or walnut, sometimes painted and gilded, sometimes carved with scrolls and figures; the cabinet designed with architectural outline, and fitted up inside with steps and pillars like a temple; chairs which are wonderful to look upon as guardians of a stately doorway, but uninviting as seats; tables inlaid, gilded, and carved, with slabs of marble or of Florentine Mosaic work, but which from their height are as a rule impossible to use for any domestic purpose; mirrors with richly carved and gilded frames are so many evidences of a style which is palatial rather than domestic, in design as in proportion.
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The walls of these handsome saloons or galleries were hung with rich velvet of Genoese manufacture, with stamped and gilt leather, and a composition ornament was also applied to woodwork, and then gilded and painted; this kind of decoration was termed "gesso work."
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