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The European Renaissance

Early History

Fillippi Brunelleschi, born in Florence, 1377, died 1466, was an architect and studied in Rome the relics of Roman art and returned to Florence in 1407. It is generally believed that it was his study of the Greek and Roman that began the revival or Renaissance of classic art that had its birth in Florence and spread all over the Western World. While Brunelleschi devoted his art to architectural details, Ambrogio Borgognone, a contemporary artist, devoted himself to interior decoration.

Renaissance Design
Renaissance Design

Renaissance Ornament & Design

Gothic & Romanesque Influence

Roman motifs were seldom adopted in their purity, or in a manner consistent with their symbolic significance, but were regarded principally for their pictorial value, and sacred and secular motifs were combined indiscriminately and frequently merged upon a Mediaeval and Gothic background ; this fact must be borne in mind. The Renaissance followed the Romanesque and Gothic periods, and bore the imprint of the years of Mediaeval influence.

Floral & Animal Designs

The Classic period was full of floral and animal forms - fruit tied in bunches with leaves and flowers, festoons with flowing ribbons, rosettes, candelabras, skulls of sacrificial animals, tripods, sacred instruments, heroic and grotesque masks. The Renaissance elaborated the festoons and floral treatments, eliminated to a great degree the masks and introduced cupids and angel faces. The acanthus was the most popular of all the ornamental plant designs ; introduced by the Greeks, it recurs again and again in all subsequent periods. Sometimes it has broad, blunt leaves, sometimes pointed.


Centaurs showing the fore part of a man and the hind part of a horse were much in use as ornament. In the European Renaissance the centaur as well as other human and animal figures was introduced as part of an elaborate system of scrolls and acanthus ornamentation. The Romans often used half figures resting upon an inverted foliage cup.

Female Forms

The Renaissance period took up this motif, utilizing usually the female form, arising from an extravagant system of scroll ornamentation. Heads and masks in grotesquerie were much affected in classic Rome, especially the Medusa head. But only in the German Renaissance has much of this been utilized.

Classic Ornaments

Classic ornament included the laurel, bay, and olive vines, the lotus leaf, palm, corn, hop, grain, oak leaves, rhododendron, wild rose, alpine rose, bell blossom, white lily, oak leaf, maple leaf, the tulip, the lion, griffin, goat head, panther head, ram, horse, boar and eagle. The dolphin enjoyed a kind of veneration. The palm signified peace and victory. The shell, serpent and mask were conspicuous, but they all had their sacred significance. The anthemion, sometimes called the honeysuckle ornament, closely connected with the conventionalized Egyptian lotus, and the Assyrian palmette takes the form of radiating clusters and leaves. The eagle was used as a symbol of strength, but in the Renaissance we frequently find simply the eagle wings used decoratively.


Trophy Ornament
Trophy Ornament

The trophy was a decoration consisting of a group of arms or implements of the sports or arts, bound together with ribbons and hung upon the wall. Mural surfaces are frequently decorated with painted or sculptured trophies. The term is also applied to a group of symbols significant of music. Thus, we have musical trophies. In the French periods ribbons, flowers and baskets were bunched together to suggest joy; tambourines and masks were grouped at dances. In the Mediaeval days implements of war were clustered, sometimes with a shield for a background.

In Each European Country

In brief, the Italian, French, German, Spanish, English and Flemish Renaissance differed according to their national temperament. They all drew their inspirations from the same source, but while the French adhered to things essentially beautiful, in classic motifs, the Italians and Germans utilized the grotesque and fantastic motifs the Italians, aesthetically; the Germans, grotesquely.

The Renaissance in Italy

The Renaissance appeared in Italy at the beginning of the fifteenth century. The acanthus leaf, the cornucopia, vases, figures of women from the hips up, the bottom portion fading into arabesque curves and vines and leaf details, were distinguishing characteristics of Italian Renaissance furniture. It was a free adaptation of the Roman, Pompeiian and Grecian and combined garlands and birds, and in many cases weird animal figures, which can also be traced back to the ancient Roman heritage.

Italian Design
Italian Design

The Italian Renaissance was a composite style. The Italian form was poetic and full of the daintiest coloring.

It is important to realize that Renaissance influences, while directly Italian, became superimposed upon a mind not only moulded to the traditional Gothic, but influenced by the Saracenic, the Persian and the Indian, for it must be recalled that Venetian and Sicilian, in fact, all Italian craftsmanship, had been moulded to the sentiment of Persia and India, with which Far Eastern countries lower Italy was in constant intercourse. The Saracens brought also Byzantine influences to Italy, and at the time of the Renaissance movement we have this Eastern feeling strong in Italy.

The Renaissance in France

The French Renaissance was less mythological, less broadly whimsical; it was dainty; it clung more closely to the floral and conventional forms. In Italian Renaissance one sees the same characteristics, but in addition, dragons with men's heads and singular plant structures with women's bodies. German Renaissance was more sturdy, although no less extravagant.

The French Renaissance extended from 1502 to 1643 ; we frequently hear of decorative periods such as the Henry II, Henry IV, the Louis XIII, but they were all of the Renaissance.

Catherine de Medici, wife of Henry II, and granddaughter of Lorenzo the Magnificent, and Marie de Medici, who married Henry IV of France, left indelible impressions on the art of France by reason of their liberal encouragement of the Renaissance, as can be seen in French Renaissance furniture.

The Renaissance in Germany

The Renaissance appeared in Germany much later than in France, where the union of Italian forms with French individuality soon developed a definite and independent French Renaissance. In Germany the situation was highly unfavorable to the new style, and found little favor with the architects, who were wrapped up in Gothic mannerisms and openly opposed its introduction. The painters, at the head of whom was Albrecht Durer, showed themselves more receptive, and Durer deserved the credit for the introduction, about 1550, of the Renaissance into Germany. He was the inspiration and the leader.

German Renaissance Design
German Renaissance Design

The fact that painters such as Durer first mastered the Renaissance forms and introduced them into Germany, and thus by a roundabout way led architecture and decoration to accept Renaissance motifs, gave to German Renaissance its bizarre character. Only at the close of the Renaissance century and at the beginning of the seventeenth century, when regular personal contact began between German masters in Italy and Italian masters in Germany, and the principal works on Italian architecture became generally known in Germany, did the Germans become conscious of what they had neglected.

Renaissance in England

The English Renaissance, first found in Tudor furniture, strictly speaking, was the Renaissance of John of Padua (1500), who, under the patronage of Henry VIII, practised the Renaissance in England. But the Renaissance characteristics which have lasted are the work of men like Grinling Gibbons and Sir Christopher Wren.

Renaissance Revival

The Renaissance spirit underwent a revival in interest during the eighteenth century in European countries by the Restoration work at the long-buried cities of Herculaneum and Pompeii. It was only natural that the French and English artists David and the brothers Adam, with many others of less repute, should be affected by the discoveries at these long-buried Roman cities, and we find, in what are called the Directoire and Empire furniture periods, characteristics naturally identical with those of the sixteenth century Renaissance.

The work at Herculaneum and Pompeii rearoused enthusiasm for Roman art, and the eighteenth century decorators were quick to adopt Roman motifs, not in the sixteenth century spirit, however, but in a manner acceptable to a public saturated with the Louis XVI furniture period of design. Thus, we find in the French periods of 1790, and in the contemporary English periods, the Renaissance character with the grotesque, the chimerical and the legendary eliminated and the whole subjugated to a simpler decorative feeling, dainty in line, delicate in treatment, excepting when applied to the Empire school, and even then its severity was simple and freed of its burdens of elaborateness.

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