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Furniture Decoration in Renaissance Italy

In general terms, the style of Renaissance furniture in Italy was palatial, rather than domestic, in character. Florence led in a vivacious but dignified 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 suppressed. Venetian furniture was, if anything, even more richly elaborate.

Forms of Decoration in Italian Renaissance Furniture

Wood & Decoration

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 area of ornament, carving assumed the first importance, and some of it was masterly with extremely high standards of workmanship.

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 pagan elements 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 anthemion, the acanthus, the scroll, the cartouche or pierced shield, conventionalized fruit and flowers, the dolphin, the human figure, and fantastic, half-human forms. The carving became more and more intricate, in both high and low relief, and finally fantastic, until the baroque tendency became predominant.

Inlay & Intarsia Patterns

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, and so sometimes known as certosina, 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.

Bone Marquetry Casket
Bone Marquetry Casket, 1400.
Bone plaques with wood and bone marquetry, mounted on a wooden core.
The casket is a product of the Embriachi workshop, a famous ivory-carving family who originated in Florence but had a workshop in Venice by the 1430s. There they were able to employ local workers specialising in certosina (inlay of stained woods, bone and horn), and the workshop produced items carved in bone (usually horse or ox) with wood and bone marquetry, as in this example. As well as altarpieces, the workshop also made caskets as bridal gifts to hold jewels or documents, and these were often decorated with scenes from mythology. This example is decorated with scenes from the legend of Jason.


Marquetry is the joining together of woods that are tinted or shaded different colors and using them to make jigsaw patterns or pictures often of buildings in perspective, plants and flowers, and fantasy scenes. The appearance is of a mosaic painting. This type of furniture decoration was extensively employed in the period.

Other Decorations

Ivory was also carved and applied in bas-relief, or inlaid in elaborate arabesques. Tortoise-shell, brass, mother-of-pearl, and even silver medallions were used to enrich wooden 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.

Handmade Guitar
Handmade Guitar, 1623.
Ebony and ivory veneer back and sides, pine soundboard, ebony and mother-of-pearl neck and brass frets.


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 fashionan inlay of highly polished agates, rare marbles, hard pebbles, lapis-lazuli, and other stones.

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