Chapter Ii

ITALIAN RENAISSANCE (l400-l600)

THE furniture styles of the Italian Renaissance deserve particular attention, partly because they form the starting-point and source of inspiration of all the succeeding styles, and partly because of the recently reawakened interest in the period for its own sake. Genuine Italian Renaissance furniture—and, indeed, some the authenticity of which is open to doubt—is bringing fabulous prices to-day, while reproductions in this style are becoming increasingly popular.

The Renaissance was a period marked by the revival of learning, a general emergence from the conditions of the Dark Ages, and new life in all branches of culture and art. This revival of learning produced a new interest in Greek and Roman antiquities. Peace, following long wars, reigned in Italy during this period and made it possible for the nobles and men of wealth to become patrons of the arts.

The Renaissance movement was European in scope, but it had its beginning, focus, and highest development in Italy. New life was injected into almost every field of endeavor. There was a veritable outburst of intellectual energy, from which sprang discoveries, inventions, and the development and dissemination of ideas. "During that period," says John Addington Symonds, "the entire nation (Italy) seemed to be endowed with an instinct for the beautiful and with the capacity for producing it in every form." Another writer has termed this awakening "an exhibition of emancipated modern genius, fired and illuminated by the masterpieces of the past." It was a natural, joyous, free feeling, expressed in every field, a liberation of ideas marked by originality and spontaneity, guided but untram-meled by the traditions of antiquity. The creative impulse was supreme; it was a Golden Age of achievement.

Architecture was the basis and guide of furniture design, and Italian architecture may be divided roughly into periods, as follows: 1100 to 1400, Byzantine, Romanesque, Lombardic, Gothic; 1400 to ljoo, early or free Renaissance; 1500 to 1600, high or classic Renaissance; 1600 to 1700, baroque or rococo Renaissance and the Decadenza. The

Gothic, never very firmly established in Italy, was supplanted by a Romanesque or pseudo-classic, and the first impulses of the Renaissance movement were felt in the fourteenth century, called in Italy the trecento. This was followed in the quattro-cento by a more definite return to the classic feeling, under such leaders as Luca della Robia and Filippo Brunelleschi. Then came a purer adaptation of the classic during the cinque-cento, or sixteenth century, which had its culmination in the architecture of Andrea Palladio of Vicenza (1518-1580).

It was during the sixteenth century that the arts flourished luxuriantly, and the styles became imbued with the spirit of the antique, albeit original and based upon a genuinely creative impulse. In 1494 Leonardo da Vinci was appointed Director of Painting and Architecture in the Academy by the Duke of Milan, and he began at once to introduce Greek and Roman styles. Excavations of Roman and Tuscan ruins disclosed antique works of art that aroused extraordinary interest. Leo X became Pope in 1513, and the powerful Medici family, of which he was a member, patronized and encouraged the movement. Great artists arose, whose names will ever be associated with the Renaissance—Michael Angelo, Titian, Andrea del Sarto, Raphael Sanzio, Correg-

gio, and others. Palladio studied ancient architecture and built new palaces; Benvenuto Cellini and <. Lorenzo Ghiberti designed and fashioned masterpieces in gold, silver, and bronze; wonderful tapestries were woven, and an era of artistic activity set in which lasted'throughout the century, to be followed at last by the inevitable decadence.

The classic spirit, which effected so great a change in architecture, was further exemplified in the form and ornamentation of furniture. Carved woodwork became the vogue in interiors, and the furniture styles followed this lead. Cabinet-making became an honored craft. The furniture was nearly as architectural in type as that of the Gothic period—' massive, and following architectural lines. Columns and pilasters were a feature. Cabinets and paneling i •took on the forms of temples and palaces, the fronts of cupboards and presses often representing temple façades. The furniture was better placed in the rooms and assumed a greater individuality. It was in the ornamentation, however, especially the carving, that the Renaissance spirit found its fullest expression.

The wealthy nobles of Florence, Milan, Rome, Venice, and other cities began to desire more sumx; , ous furnishings for their new homes, and élaborai

High-backed Italian armchair, upholstered with velvet. Early seventeenth ccntury

Sixteenth eentury Italian eurule or Savonarola chair with brocade upholstery

Florentine sideboard or credence, sixteenth century

and handsome chests, cabinets, tables, chairs, and other furniture were made for them. Artists and cabinet-makers from other countries went to learn at the feet of the Italian masters, so that furniture made then or soon after in Spain, France, Flanders, Germany, and to some extent in England, is sometimes not easily distinguished from that of Italy. The spirit and styles of the Italian Renaissance swept across the continent.

In general, the style of this furniture was palatial, rather than domestic, in character. Florence led in a vivacious but dignifièd treatment of classic details. Sense of line and proportion was innate in the Florentine school, and even color was subordinated to form, though the wealth of ornamental detail was not to be suppressed. Venetian furniture was, if anything, even more richly elaborate.

The cabinet-makers of the Renaissance, with their impulse toward finely wrought carving, partially abandoned the coarse-grained oak, which was the commonest material of the Gothic period, and began to use walnut, chestnut, and other woods. In the matter of ornament, carving assumed the first importance, and some of it was masterly. The standard of workmanship was high. The decorative styles lagged somewhat behind the architecture, and Gothic details persisted more or less until the true classic revival of the sixteenth century.

The lives of saints came to play a less prominent part in the carving, and the pagan element crept in. Mythological, allegorical, and historical subjects became popular, and that skilful combination of purely decorative scroll-work and pictorial form which we have come to associate with the Renaissance style. Symmetry and balance were guiding principles. The details included the fret, the arabesque, the an-themion, the acanthus, the scroll, the cartouche or pierced shield, conventionalized fruit and flowers, the dolphin, the human figure, and fanciful, halfhuman forms. The carving became more and more intricate, in both high and low relief, and finally fantastic, until the baroque tendency became predominant and Italy handed the scepter of furniture design to France.

Some of this Renaissance furniture was also enriched with inlay. Ivory and bone, sometimes engraved, let into ebony, walnut, and rosewood, had been popular for more than a century in Venice. Toward the end of the fourteenth century, Italian cabinet-makers began to copy marble mosaics by means of inlays of natural or dyed woods, scorched and etched with hot sand or iron, and polished with,

oils. This form of inlay, at first a specialty of the Certosan monks, was called intarsia. All sorts of designs were wrought in this medium, at first geometrical and floral in type, and later elaborately pictorial. Remarkable skill in workmanship was displayed. Some of the patterns were picked out with ivory and mother-of-pearl and lined with metal threads. Ivory was also carved and applied in basrelief, or inlaid in elaborate arabesques. Tortoise-shell, brass, mother-of-pearl, and even silver medallions were used to enrich cabinets and caskets. Painting, gilding, and veneering were all employed, the carving on furniture being sometimes picked out with gold, producing a sumptuous effect. Some pieces were ornamented with stucco or covered with colored and gilded gesso.

During the sixteenth century the Italian metalworkers were at the height of their powers, and coffers, chests, and other pieces of furniture were mounted with wonderfully wrought steel, iron, brass, and bronze. In the same century pietra dura became the fashion—an inlay of highly polished agates, rare marbles, hard pebbles, lapis-lazuli, and other stones.

The interior woodwork of the period was noteworthy. Italian walnut was much used—carved, paneled, and sometimes ornamented with gilding and gesso. The ceilings were vaulted and coffered. The walls were usually hung with fabrics, above a paneled wainscot. There were rich brocades and Genoese velvets, softer and richer than the glaring colors of the Gothic period, and also stamped and gilded leather. In the sixteenth century the famous Renaissance tapestries came into use.

The cabinet became one of the most important pieces of furniture in the homes of the period, and one of the most imposing. It was always a thing of dignity. Large, sometimes monumental in their proportions, and richly carved or inlaid, these cabinets often displayed great magnificence and artistic skill. They were decidedly architectural in form, sometimes being designed with the steps and columns of a temple. At first their outlines often followed those of Roman arches and sarcophagi, but later they were modified, and those of the sixteenth century exhibit considerable grace and variety. Toward the end they became over-elaborate and even bizarre.

Chairs were, naturally, an important item in the Renaissance household, and during the sixteenth century they became fairly abundant. Those that have come down to us are chiefly of the high-backed and the curule forms. The high-backed chairs were

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