Copyright
Wilhelm von Bode.

Italian renaissance furniture online

. (page 5 of 7)
Online LibraryWilhelm von BodeItalian renaissance furniture → online text (page 5 of 7)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


cause gold was the color most in evidence. This, with the richly gilded wood
ceiling, must have produced a splendid effect.

A change in Venetian art craft took place in the fiftieth year of the six-
teenth century, through the infiltration of Florentine an, especially following
Jacopo Sansovino's arrival and settlement in Venice after the sack of Rome in
the year 1527. The change was made at first slowly, then fast and fundamen-

32



tally, until cabinet art, as it had developed in Florence under the influence of
Michelangelo, acquired the mastery over Venetian houses. Painting was almost
entirely given up; in the place of the delight in color and preference for rich
gilding came the principle that the value of the natural color of the material
should be brought out, well toned, indeed, and with a sparing use of gold, but
this only with thorough toning. The forms were brought out more sumptu-
ously and the decoration consisted principally of carving in strong relief,
worked out with mixed ornament of fantastic masks, scrollwork and figure
compositions.

Requirements increased and pretensions grew greater, in consequence fur-
niture was more varied and more numerous. We find armchairs and side chairs,
as well as sgabelli, in a richer form among the wall benches. The bed especial-
ly, was grandly set up, with richly carved string boards and voluminous cur-
tains. The chests too, remained in number and richness of ornament — gener-
ally through vigorous carving — the most important piece of furniture, though
they did not so invariably occupy the foreground as formerly.

Characteristic are the cassette — small chests and caskets. In the late Tre-
cento the workshop of the Embriacchi, in Venice, had already produced jewel
caskets of bone or ivory with rich figure compositions representing ancient
sagas and romances of the Middle Ages, which, all over upper Italy, were the
most sought after of house furnishings. In the sixteenth century similar cas-
kets, mostly for the safekeeping of feminine ornaments, were among the princi-
pal features of a lady's room. While in Florence they were carved in walnut in
a vigorous manner, with classic ornament, and only occasionally gilded, in
Venice they were painted: on a lacquer-like, dark, usually blackish ground
are small color compositions brought into a cartouche-like framing, the corners
of which are filled with fine gold ornament; the handle on the top, the sides,
and at times the feet as well, are of gilded bronze, and are of the most delicate
form (111. 96). This is the same kind of decoration that we find in Venice, at
the time, in small frames designed for miniatures, and 25 it appears in a like
manner in book bindings.

Musical instruments, though not before considered, acquired in the Cinque-
cento a certain importance in house furnishing, through the perfecting of the
clavichord, which had in Venice an unusually beautiful and artistic shape. The
wing-shaped body of fine light wood was placed in a larger case embellished
with painting and set up on slender legs; this was cut so that the ornament of
the inner body might be seen. Several such clavichords, among them one for-
merly belonging to Alfonso II of Ferrara, are in the Berliner Kunstgewerbe
Museum (111. 101a), and in the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Almost all of this furniture is in form and decoration little divergent from
the contemporary Florentine furniture, that at times served as a model; what
lias been said of that is equally true of this. Yet certain particularly character-
istic Florentine pieces, like the cassapanca and the throne, did not become
naturalized in Venice any more than they did in the rest of Italy. Chairs and
armchairs, as well as the sgabello (rarely found in Venice) have, as in Florence

33



a high, narrow shape. The tables, now more numerous, are at times very fine in
shape and of a considerable size, such as the five-meter long table of Paduan
origin, in the Kaiser Friedrich-Museum (111. 100), that yet holds the old reddish
toning and the partial gilding. The ornamentation of all these pieces of the
middle and the second half of the sixteenth century, although nearly related to
Florentine furniture of this time, is more picturesque in construction and
effect, richer and more inclined to the Baroque.

The fittings of the fireplace, that in the fifteenth century in Tuscany and
practically in all the rest of Italy were regularly of iron, showed in the six-
teenth century a preponderance of bronze and brass, and were often finished
in a costly way. The alari, andirons for holding the logs, were adorned in
front with statues a half or a third of life size, that stood on elaborately con-
structed socles, set out fantastically with masks and other ornaments. These
were at times executed in the workshops of the first sculptors in bronze of
Venice, and they belong today among the most sought after and the highest
priced small bronzes of the Renaissance. Fire tongs and shovels were relative-
ly plainer, though decorated in a similar way. Bellows also in richly carved
wood seem to have belonged, as in Florence and Rome, to the equipment of
the fireplace of the Cinquecento (111. 77-79). That the most sumptuous, the
most characteristic and important pieces, as they adorned whole suites of rooms
in the princely palaces, have not been preserved, is shown by some designs for
furniture from the late Renaissance, as they are found in the collection of
drawings in the Uffizi, in the Victoria and Albert Museum, and others, also
as we occasionally see them in pictures. I will refer in this connection only
to the painting of the Ferrarese, Scarsellino, of about the year 1580, in the
Pitti Palace, representing a bed fitted up sumptuously in a way that suggests
Florentine furnishings, as they are known to us through Bronzino's paintings.
In Florentine furniture the inlay was of marble and semi-precious stones, here
it is only painted, the relief inlay being of imitation cameo, but evidently by an
eminent artist, perhaps one of the two Dossi, who again and again painted just
such bed frames for the house of Este. The small bronze table by the bed is
almost a true picture of a small Roman table. We find furniture resembling
this in other pictures by Scarsellino (various paintings in the Borghese Gallery
in Rome) showing a partiality for interiors richly fitted up in the style of the
time. Probably these were state pieces that were in the possession of Alfonso I
in his palaces at and near Ferrara; we can probably ascribe their construction
to Venetian artists or those under Venetian influence, if only because the furni-
ture itself was either made in Venice, with whose artists and craftsmen the
court of Ferrara was very actively connected, or Venetians were taken to
Ferrara for the purpose. In any case these give a characteristic picture of the
Venetian furniture of the middle of the Cinquecento as it adorned in like man-
ner the grand rooms of the Mantuan palaces.

Venice, in the transition from the fourteenth to the fifteenth centuries,
had at length overthrown Padua and then in a quick career of conquest swept
over Northern Italy between the Alps and the Po beyond Udine to the east,

34



and to the other side of Bergamo on the west, and at the same time, though
hotly contested, overrunning the strip of coast on the sea as far as Ancona.
This whole "terra ferma" was, consequently, at the time of the Renaissance,
very dependent upon the ruling city in art and craft work. From Padua, that
for a century had possessed the most flourishing foundry in Italy, came most
of the small bronzes owned by Venetians, while many of the chests, tables,
chairs and frames, designated in our collections as Venetian, came from Verona
and Brescia. Until long after the middle of the Quattrocento and on, domestic
Late Gothic furniture seems to have persisted, resulting in the bringing out of
a very distinctive mixed style. The characteristics of this furniture are the
great simplicity of its form and profile work and the decoraton through orna-
ment and figure compositions etched or carved in the flat. The ground was
painted in order that the compositions might have a more striking effect; pre-
sumably the relief was brought out with gilding or color originally. The chests
and small caskets, the latter generally of cedar, etched inside and out, show,
usually, representations of festivals, allegories, mythological motives and, more
rarely, religious compositions which, from the costumes, must have appeared
ibout 1425-1475. Since they are now as a rule colorless and much worn, they
are, owing to the flat handling of the etching, not particularly effective, while
originally they must have had a very fine appearance (111. 103). A pair of
very interesting examples of the chairs of this time are in the possession of Dr.
Albert Figdor, in Vienna. They are two large folding chairs made of broad
boards with notched decoration; one is of Paduan origin (Ills. 104 and 105).
Chairs, also of a later time, preserve many of their ancient characteristics, as a
noteworthy armchair with fine imitation wickerwork ornament shows. In
these chairs and chests a Longobard tradition has certainly persisted.

From Verona especially, numerous chests are preserved, dating from the
end of the fifteenth or the beginning of the sixteenth century. They are of a
longer shape, with a flat top, the sides (excepting the unornamented one) dec-
orated with painted or plaster ornament. The front is generally divided into
three parts and painted with small allegorical or mythological compositions in
landscape, or in the delicate leaf ornament in gilded plaster or painting, that
betrays the school of the Lombardi. On the sides arms are painted, when they
are not on the front (111. 106).

From the later period of the Renaissance there is a remarkable number of
chests, chairs, tables and credenze in the villas of the principal families of
Venice, Verona and Brescia, on the Lago di Garda, and in the neighborhood of
Brescia; what pieces of this kind come into the dealers' hands now, for the most
part originated in this locality. These generally colorless pieces also exhibit
Venetian characteristics. They differ from the productions of the city of Venice
through purer, usually somewhat insipid, architectural forms and a rather dry
handling of tfie decoration; the Michelangelesque style of Sansovino prevails
very little here.

Mantua and Ferrara, whose ruling houses were famous throughout the
Renaissance, even in Italy, for their love of splendor as well as for their taste

35



for the fine arts, had in the fifteenth century preserved a partially individual
character though near Venice, but toward the end of the century the influence
of the lagune city on the arts and crafts was growing constantly stronger.
The High Renaissance had, consequently, an essentially Venetian character
here, even in the fitting up of rooms. That these were in both places often ex-
traordinarily sumptuous is proved by documents, and by the furnishings of
the rooms, that are in part preserved. The Dukes of Este and Gonzaga had
fitted up their castles more richly and luxuriously than the wealthiest Venetian
noble would undertake to; such princely splendor the Doge, as representative
of the Republic, might dare to display, but each citizen of Venice must hold
himself always within the exact limits of the bourgeoisie; the whole body of
citizens watched over this jealously, and sought by special laws to restrain the
ever resisting tendency toward luxury. Of all this magnificence there are in-
deed from these two courts a large number of paintings and antiquities as well
as miniatures, though scattered through the different collections; of all the
furniture, Gobelins, and other valued household objects, there is only a small
amount about which we have any information. This is the more to be regretted
as we know through records that much of this furniture was constructed in the
prime of the ruling families after designs by the most eminent artists, who par-
ticipated in the work and instead of devoting themselves to the composition of
pictures or sculpture, busied themselves more with all kinds of furnishings,
stage settings and art trades, going as far indeed as to that pertaining to the
wardrobe of their patrons and their suites, even to the horses, falcons and dogs.
Even artists like Cosimo Tura and Dosso Dossi sometimes painted beds and
other furniture, sometimes decorated horses' harness, made the scenery for a
play, or provided decorations for a festival, at other times drawing designs for
embroidery, Gobelins, costly materials, etc. The numerous and detailed records,
particularly the archives of the House of Este, give us fuller and more precise
information than we have from any other part of Italy concerning the intimate
life of the Italian princes, the fitting up of their castles and other buildings,
even to the form and construction, and the details of the different state pieces
and furnishings. Excellent examples of this sumptuous furniture from the old
princely possessions are the wedding chests of Paola Gonzaga, in the Museum
of Klagenfurt, and a pair of chests richly inlaid with ivory, in the Graz Museum.

From the indications that appear on it, a writing cabinet that was discovered
in Costozza, originating in the last days of the Early Renaissance, must go
back to the Gonzaga family; it is a brilliant piece of finished inlay, with all the
ornament carried out in the finest detail, though the delight in intarsia is mani-
fested with little advantage in the whole unrestful effect. This comes out in the
photographic illustration (111. 108 and 109) in an exaggerated way. The piece
is now in the possession of the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Concerning Ferrara we have many contemporary documents* also having
reference to luxury in furnishings during the fifteenth century, but we cannot
make a picture from these of the appearance of the pieces individually. The
interesting frescos with representations from the life of Borso d'Este in the

36



Palazzo Schifanoja at Ferrara offer as little in this direction as most of the
frescos of the Quattrocento in Italy, for the accessories to the figures were as a
rule held in the background or given as simply as possible, if not — as in the old
Ferrarese paintings of the throne of the Madonna and Child — quite fantas-
ncally depicted. The weavers, indeed, were all Netherlanders or French, even >
in later times. Netherland weavers were summoned to Ferrara by Niccolo III in
1436; under Leonello, and especially under Ercole I, this industry developed and
became the most flourishing in Italy; under Ercole II it had another similar
success toward the middle of the sixteenth century; under Alfonso, however, it
declined and soon ceased to exist. Yet about a century later more than five
hundred Gobelins were in the possession of these princely courts.

The long sojourn in Italy which these Flanders craftsmen made and the in-
fluence of the Italian painters, doubtless caused their industry to take on a
strongly Italian character. This is shown plainly in a series of tapestries by
Hans Karcher, who was the most eminent artist under Ercole II. It is possible
also that the series sold at auction from the Spitzer collection, is his work.
Often, though not regularly, these artists worked from designs by Italian, par-
ticularly Ferrarese, painters; Cosimo Tura in the fifteenth century and Dosso
Dossi in the sixteenth century drew a great many designs for them. These de-
signs soon far surpassed what was produced in Venice, for we find at that time
great compositions of biblical or allegorical subjects, after the style of the old
Flanders tapestries; a Gobelin of this sort in the Lenbach-House at Munich
represents the Burial of Christ, and is woven from a cartoon by Cosimo Tura;
in technique it is rather careless and clumsy, but has a very picturesque effect.

Contemporary works of art of the Late Renaissance, especially of the Fer-
rarese school, give us a reliable picture of the sumptuous furnishings of both
courts. I have mentioned before (compare page 34) the paintings of the Fer-
rarese, Scarsellino, in which are found the likenesses of some of these state
pieces that were probably made at this time for the fitting up of Duke Alfonso's
castle, from drawings by eminent painters who also participated in the work.
Simpler, but very tasteful, is a clavichord with the Duke's name on it. This is
now in the Berliner Kunstgewerbe-Museum, and I have already gone over it
incidentally in connection with Venetian furniture. The case, standing on
three slender legs without decoration, has ornament painted in color on a dark
ground, the inserted part, with the musical works, being embellished with intar-
sia of wood and ivory of unusually beautiful and not over-rich drawing.

From the pieces of cabinet work remaining to us from Bologna and the
dependent Marches it appears that they were as characteristic as in Mantua or
even in Ferrara. Bologna, influenced during the Renaissance in part by Flor-
ence and in part by Venice, nevertheless maintained a certain independence.
As the Bolognese furniture of the seventeenth century was distinguished for
its strength and the forceful management of the materials, through simplicity,
good proportion and plain but effective profile work, so it has in the Renais-
sance a compact strength and adaptation to use, while in the High Renaissance
it unites with similar qualities a genial grace and festivity. From the numer-

37



ous castles of the Ancona March, as well as from the Emilia, a quantity of fur-
niture of this time has been brought to light by the art dealers, a number of
examples coming, by this means, into the public collections. As most of these
have been sold from Florence they are generally regarded erroneously as Flor-
entine furniture. These pieces will not indeed serve to give us a superficial
glimpse of the arrangement of the interiors of the castles and dwelling-houses
of the Marches. What I have put together here on the subject is only a few
notes on the characteristics of the furniture that seems to me to have an
assured origin in Bologna and its environs, as I have seen most of them there
or in the Marches.

After the fifteenth century we find in the Marches a quite distinct variety
of chest that was certainly carried over from the Gothic period and seems to
have been made, almost without change, until the middle of the sixteenth cen-
tury. They have a short thick form, smooth, strong sides and top, are not much
broader than they are high, and have by way of ornamentation only delicate
filigree rosettes above and below on the iron bands, and a richly decorated lock.
These seem more closely allied to the German and French chests of the time
than they do to the Italian (111. 109). The walnut is in its natural color, only
lightly toned, and has usually taken on a deep lustrous patina. The inside is
not empty and unornamented, as was formerly the rule in Italy, but running
around the sides are quite small, low compartments that close with a flap. These
were for the reception of small objects, while clothing, tapestries and the like,
were laid in the middle. As these chests because of their strong build are
especially lasting, and on account of their good locks were very practical, a
larger number of them were preserved in the villas; these locks were something
quite unusual in Italian chests, for many of them, even among the most artis-
tically executed pieces, in the sixteenth century also, had supplementary and
rough locks bored through the decoration. On account of their simplicity and
lack of ornament these chests seldom come into the museums.

In the beginning of the Cinquecento chests took their form and their
decoration from the wood carver, Formigine, celebrated in Bologna, or at
least from the tendency for which he beyond everyone else was responsible;
for he is himself a mythical personality, to whom is accredited all varieties of
the best wood carving of the time in Bologna. The Formigine chests come
next to the Venetian chests of about 1520-1530. On lion feet, with a sarcopha-
gus shaped top, they are without ornament excepting on the sides, which are
decorated in rather high relief with armorial bearings in the middle and strong
plant tendrils that spring from a dolphin or a caryatid filling the corners. They
either have their natural color or are entirely gilded, as a perfectly preserved
example in the Kunstegewerbe Museum of Leipzig, shows (III. 110). These
Bolognese chests lack the agreeable appearance that comes from light construc-
tion, fine contours and beautifully worked out decoration, as Bolognese art
almost altogether lacks variety; when one has seen several pieces with the
same motive repeated, one tires of them (111. 111). The diversity Florentine
chests had, even in the sixteenth century, thanks to the Michelangelesque Bar-

38



oque decoration and its various mixtures with pure High Renaissance motives,
is wanting in this work, that felt as little the influence of Michelangelo as did
Bolognese art generally, although Bologna twice harbored the artist within
her walls for a length of time, and witnessed here the production of various
works of his.

With these, and later in the place of the carved chests with strongly re-
lieved plant ornament, came, in the second half of the Cinquecento, chests
without this carving, the sides receiving their embellishment through inlay.
While intarsia work in other parts of Italy had already practically disappeared,
it arose here in an individual manner; it would not, however, bear comparison
with that older art of intarsia. As they filled a hollowed out design of thin
ornamental forms with a whitish paste, they found a cheap substitute for the
real intarsia (111. 112). Later they turned back to this, however, inlaying the
dark polished walnut sides with lighter woods; but this itself was done lightly,
as deepened lines in the ornament or figure composition mostly provided the
shadows, making the effect quite picturesque. Bologna, whose art was out-
wardly flourishing and celebrated in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries,
though living on older art methods, preserved classicism even in her chests up
to this late period.

The tables of the Quattrocento in the Marches have rough strength and
freshness in design and execution. They are of a typical form which they held *
until the middle of the Cinquecento: the strong octagonal or more rarely the
round top of medium size rests on three stout legs terminating in lion feet,
at the joining of which a pineapple is usually placed. The functions of sup-
port, weight and stability of the table could hardly be better or more effect-
ively expressed than here. With the exception of the simple legs with lion
feet these tables for the most part, though not without profile work, are other-
wise unornamented, which increases the effect of strength (111. 113). Where
delicate ornament is found in the lower part, under the top — which is the case
with many of the pieces that come into the dealers' hands in Bologna — it is
the work of falsifiers, who seek to beautily this simple furniture in order to
make it sell better.

That the Renaissance tables in the Marches have regularly an octagonal
form, that they are so strong and so heavily built, and are almost always of the
same size (about one meter across and the same in heignt), has its ground in
the build and fitting up of the castles and villas; yet we are as little informed
about this, as about many other important questions relating to Italian art
and culture. The young, newly established Italian State had to work so long
and so hard to win its position and to organize its affairs, the greatness and
splendor of Italian high art had drawn all eyes so exclusively to it, as well as
absorbing all study, that such questions have not generally been considered.
In the mean time, however, much of the material essential to any answer to
these queries has been destroyed or scattered. So we lack any support for the
determination of further examples of house furnishings in Bologna and the
Marches and their connections. The writing cabinet illustrated here (111. 114),

39



that originated about 1530, came out of a palace in the Marches (Faenza or
some neighboring place), judging by indications. It is simple in construction
and decoration, of unusually agreeable proportions, and has ornament that
exhibits the forms of the High Renaissance very clearly and delicately yet with-


1 2 3 5 7

Online LibraryWilhelm von BodeItalian renaissance furniture → online text (page 5 of 7)