Italian Renaissance Furniture
The Italian Renaissance
During the 15th century in Italy there arose great renewed interest in the heritage of the antique architecture, sculpture, and other fine arts of ancient Rome, called the European renaissance. This revival of classicism occured principally between the years 1400 and 1650, centred in the city of Florence, later spreading to Rome and other parts of Italy, and was an extremely complex phenomenon, and as we so often see in the interaction between furniture and architecture, these broad changes and developments in architecture design in Italy eventually made their impact on furniture design.
Italian furniture craftsmen, like their cousins in painting and other arts, became enormously influential, coming to dominate high end furniture design throughout Europe, and their ideas spread quickly, especially to France and Holland.
While the Renaissance period is exceedingly complex we can identify some distinct phases in Italian renaissance furniture.
From the early 15th century in Italy furniture designs became especially large, imposing, magnificent, richly decorative and ornate, majestic, fit for kings, heavily drawing on the antique tradition of Roman architecture, sculpture, and sarcophagi. The early pioneers of this style in Florence did not attempt to make direct copies of Roman antique furniture but instead used antique architectural forms as inspiration.
They were especially influenced by the artists, painters, sculptors, goldsmiths, and architects who adapted Roman stone, usually marble, artefacts, who drew on the rich heritage surrounding them of Roman temples, bathhouses, theatres, altars, ossuaries, friezes, statues, coins, and gems, and also older but related Greek art forms. Above all this tradition is based in a rediscovery of the antique orders of classical architecture, of columns, bases, pedestals, entablature, and their correct proportions and characteristics.
Gothic influences were sidelined and instead antique ornament was revived, in the form of acanthus scrolls, shells, amphoras, dolphins, festoons and garlands, vases, urns, Vitruvian scrolls, consoles, and rosettes. The use of interlacing geometrical patterns is also seen especially in intarsia patterns and marquetry.
Grotesque & Fantasy
Later, from around the 1490's a second type of Italian renaisance furniture developed that employed motifs of a grotesque and fantasy nature, many of them of foreign origin, deriving from Islamic, Arabesque, Moorish, as well as later the northern European Gothic traditions. The traditional or antique style of structured, logical ornamentation on furniture became smothered by lurid and wild designs that, paradoxically, were essentially anti-classical, oriental, perhaps alien.
Grotesque Furniture, 16th century.
Such designs of fantasy furniture with their grotesque decoration evolved into what is called mannerism or mannerist furniture, a form of eccentric and colourful expressionism, based in exaggeration of the human form, and flights of artistic fancy, and greatly affected by the work of Michelangelo. Mannerism fully developed into its own furniture style in French Renaissance furniture.
The High Renaissance
The final phase of the Italian Renaissance furniture tradition coexisted and contended with the Mannerist one and consisted of now attempts to copy real antique Roman furniture, a much more "archaeological" style, inspired by the art of Raphael. This form is often called High Classicism. Furniture in this style was built on a massive scale, and was plainer and more serious.
History & End
The history of Italian Renaissance furniture is a swirling, even chaotic one. Its main period of vitality was up until the mid 17th century while it continued to exert some influence until the nineteenth century and beyond, in the periodic revivals that occurred. In the pages that follow we intend to explore it in more depth, looking at the principal pieces of furniture that might interest the antique collector, cassone chests, Italian chairs, tables, and cabinets among them, with the use of pictures and images to guide us.
Part II of this article is furniture decoration in the Italian Renaissance.