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Italianate Style Furniture, Homes, & Architecture

Elizabethan Period

In the second half of the sixteenth century in England, the Elizabethan period, a much richer standard of furnishing, one we might call "Italianate" or Italian, replaced the often severe forms of the early Tudor furniture, which we will call Gothic in style.

While the Gothic tradition persisted throughout the Elizabethan period, and did not in fact begin to lose its real influence on ornament and the form of furniture until the seventeenth century, it had, by the time of Queen Elizabeth, largely been superseded in the homes, architecture, and furniture of the royal and superior classes, by the continental, European, Italianate style.

Early Italianate Influences

The Renaissance which was remodelling thought and art in Europe did not affect the domestic arts, architecture, and houses design of England very quickly, although foreign, especially Italian, influences were often officially encouraged by the royal family and court as early as reign of Henry VII, from 1485.

Italianate Architecture
Italianate Architecture, 1546.
Drawing in pen and ink and wash on vellum. It seems to be an allegory referring to Henry VIII (1509-1547) during the last years of his reign. It is clear, however, that the artist, Robert Pyte, was familiar with the classical influenced work of the Italian architect and theorist Sebastiano Serlio. The frieze of the second storey and the panelled attic storey above it are directly copied from folio 62v of Book IV of Serlio's treatise on architecture, which was first published in 1537.

Henry VII invited Pietro Torrigiano to England, and he executed the wonderfully decorative tomb of Henry in the Lady Chapel of Westminster Abbey, and was also commissioned by Henry VIII to make a similar tomb. Torrigiano executed other work in the Abbey, and while these Royal works were in progress he visited Florence, to obtain skilled assistants. He failed to persuade Benvenuto Cellini to visit England. Cellini apparently thought the prospect of living among "such beasts as the English" altogether too horrible but he certainly extended the idea of obtaining foreign craftsmen for helping the Italianate architecture impulses that were inspiring the rulers of England.

King Henry VIII introduced many workers from the Continent, but the activities of those artists were concentrated on great palaces and homes such as Hampton Court and Nonesuch, and other great and ambitious schemes of architecture. Italianate influence and ideas spread only slowly, and while Henry VIII patronised and developed art in this way, he dealt a terrible blow at the traditional art of England by looting the property of the Church, and making vagabonds of many skilled craftsmen by depriving them of their homes and their work.

The historian, G. K. Chesterton, called this act of Royal greed "The Great Pillage," an apt description of the undignified grabbing of land and treasure that everyone with the power, inclination, and opportunity indulged in when the King had set the example. The Dissolution of the Monasteries certainly helped the growth of the foreign conventions of ornament that, originating in Italy, brought into England forms of decoration that were classic in character, and were not so new to the country as contemporary craftsmen supposed, for they were only rediscovering and reintroducing the ornamental work of the architects and craftsmen of the vanished Roman Empire.

Italianate History

In Britain it had all happened before; the country and its culture had been "Italianate" more effectively and naturally as a Roman province during those four hundred years of Roman rule; and now these classic ideas of form and embellishment were returning; but they were coming back to a country that with infinite patience, skill and labour had worked out and developed an art and an architecture style of its own, something more moving and spiritual than the perhaps coldly correct classic forms, with their perfect proportion and established, ordered beauty.

Carving Column, 1600
Carving Column, 1600
Oak, carved, with gesso and traces of pigmentation. The column is an interesting mixture of English or native vernacular carving combined with classicial ornament. Caryatids, upright figures surmounted with the capital of a column, recurred in European engravings, such as those of Hans Vredeman de Vries. The column itself is sufficiently correct to suggest some knowledge of prints after the treatise of the 16th-century Italian architect Sebastiano Serlio. However the figures are carved in a vernacular and totally unclassical style.

The result of the conflict between the artistic expression of two separate and distinct cultures may be found in the work of the latter half of the sixteenth century. The furniture particularly shows how classic ornament, largely misunderstood and occasionally distorted, was adapted at first by the English craftsmen to suit the traditional character of their designs; but later, in the closing years of the Elizabethan period, we may trace the growing power of the classic influence, for craftsmen began to adapt the stern lines of their furniture to the more gracious and subtle qualities inherent in the inspiration of the Renaissance.

Elizabethan Court Cupboard
Elizabethan Court Cupboard, 1580.
This cupboard belongs to a group of court cupboards. They are essentially a series of tiered tables, in each of which is a drawer. The decoration borrows from classical and late Renaissance ornament.

Lisle March Phillipps, in "The Works of Man", points out that:

Isolated and cut off from Europe, and especially from Italy, it is no wonder that the steps by which the English were induced to adopt Renaissance ideas were slower and more uncertain than was the case in other countries. This being so, no wonder too that the spaciousness in architecture which goes with ideas should have been equally reluctantly admitted.

And, still commenting on the rise of the Renaissance, he writes:

We must not be put off by those plausible words "taste" and "fashion", nor think that the character of all architecture resides in acanthus leaves and pilasters. We must penetrate beneath taste and fashion to the mind of the age on the one hand, and we must look beyond ornament and detail to the main proportions of the architecture on the other.

The furniture maker has often been the retainer of the architect until, in the nineteenth century, "there arose a new class, who discovered the cheap, and foresaw fortune in the facture of the sham," as Whistler phrased it; and the slowness with which the Renaissance influences were assimilated in English architecture and design of houses set the pace of the furniture craftsman's realisation of change. It is good advice to look below those surface things, taste and fashion, and to obtain a glimpse of the mind of a period, and in the study of furniture design in any country something of that country's manners and morality may be viewed, for furniture has always reflected life very vividly when craftsmen have attained a high standard of workmanship and are sufficiently skilful and inventive.

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