Spanish Furniture & Decorating
The heritage of antique Spanish furniture and decorating is a fascinating mix of Arab, Gothic, and classical Italian influences.
Spanish Antique Periods
In the Spanish style furniture tradition Moorish, or Islamic or Arab influenced, types of furniture design, based on the Persian or Saracenic, were stronger than the Gothic which predominated in most of Europe before the 15th and 16th century European renaissance.
Spain had been overrun by the Moors, between 710 and 713 A.D., and the conquerors naturally introduced the ornate Moorish, or Moresque or Hispano-Moresque, style of design, and especially architecture, centred in Alhambra in the city of Granada in southern Spain.
The Moors were not entirely driven out of the Southern provinces until 1610, but in the nine hundred years intervening the Moresque style flourished sporadically throughout many portions of Spain. During the Romanesque period a large part of the country was under Moorish dominion, but with the capture of Toledo, 1062, began the emancipation from Muslim rule, and in the northern provinces art was influenced by the Romanesque, following the French models closely. This style continued until the close of the campaigns against the Moors, 1217-1252, when the influence of the Roman Catholic church became more prominent and the Gothic in Spain began. In this, also, French models were followed, but the decoration was more fanciful and arbitrary.
Gothic styles in Spain sufficed for a while to meet the requirements of the luxuriant period which followed the expulsion of the Moors, but it was inevitable that the Renaissance should in time make its influence felt in Spain.
Carlos I, who, on the death of Ferdinand and Isabella became king, had been born and educated in the Netherlands, of which he was also ruler, and upon taking the Crown of Spain all his friends and his advisers were Flemish and all public offices were filled by people from what is today northern Belgium. It was thus largely through the employment of Flemish artists that the Renaissance was introduced. This new style, termed the Plateresque, was a minutely detailed, decorative, and sumptuous mingling of Gothic with delicate arabesques and Italian Renaissance forms of decorating and prevailed from around 1500 to the mid sixteenth century.
It is during this Plateresque period that Spanish metalwork reaches its full maturity, with Spanish craftsmen in wrought iron giving their own, freer, interpetation of Renaissance ornament and motifs.
The successor of Carlos 1, Philip II, through his religious intolerance, caused a revolt in the Netherlands which resulted in the northern states being lost to Spain. Philip was thoroughly Spanish, and the period from 1556 to 1650 was occupied by the more restrained, classical, Graeco-Roman style, of which the escuriel is an example. From 1621 to 1648 continual wars against the Netherlands and neighboring countries brought constant reverses to Spain, and from 1650 onward Spanish influence declined rapidly.
Spain's supremacy in trade was lost to the Dutch, the remaining states of the Netherlands were conquered, and during this period of decay the style known as Churrigueresque was in vogue. This was a period of wild extravagance and decadent taste, and while the influence of the Netherlands was kept alive by occasional Spanish victories in Holland and the consequent shipment of loot to Spain, the Spanish may be said to have lost some of their artistic brilliance.
Typical Spanish Antique Furniture
According to the Marquis of Monistrol, Spanish furniture up to and including the beginning of the Renaissance, consisted of burial chests, storage chests, archive chests, treasure chests, brides chests, chests for storing arms, and grain chests. The Spanish Moors used little furniture. The cushion was viewed with much favor by Spanish Christians. Among the Moors the cushion was used as a seat of honor because it raised the occupant above the level of those seated on the floor. The women of Christian Spain were always given cushions while the men made use of stools or chairs.
In the seventeenth century the dais or raised platform was introduced. In 1515 the municipal laws of Granada covered the "operations of the people who worked in the street of chair-makers and carpenters". These laws were found necessary owing to the false and faulty workmanship prevailing at this time. In Granada the laws provided, among other things, that the work must be bought at public auction, where all could discover its character. It must be thoroughly dry and free from flaws. The law also covered all the details of how a chair should be made and each chair had to be stamped with the city mark and a tax paid upon it.
During the sixteenth and seventeenth Centuries large arm-chairs of quadrangular form were used. The backs and seats were of leather and embroidered stuffs.
Varguenos Cabinet, 1630.
Walnut, giltwood and bone, with iron locks, handles and ornaments on a red velvet backing.
The most characteristically Spanish furniture of the early periods in its history are cabinets, called first "escritorio" and then from around 1800 "Varguenos", made of wood ornamented on the outside with wrought iron, while inside are little columns made of fine bone, painted and gilded. Such pieces of furniture had a fall front, at which the user could write, and a series of drawers in which to store documents. Throughout the 16th and 17th centuries, escritorios retained their simple box-like shape. But unlike equivalent pieces made in Naples, Antwerp and Augsburg they were not fitted with secret compartments. They were elaborately painted, gilded or veneered with exotic woods and embellished with engraved ivory or bone plaques.
Much of the old Spanish furniture reproduces German and Italian styles. Embossed leather put on with heavy nails has always been characteristic of Spain, and in the seventeenth century very fine Spanish mahogany and chestnut were decorated with tortoise shell inlaid with ivory, so as to make elaborate pictures in the Italian style.
Women sat on low stools on the ground. Beds were hung with rich brocades embroidered in gold and trimmed with Point d' Espagne. On carpets were placed silver braziers which burned crushed olive stones. The walls were covered with tapestry and rich silks and from early times stamped leathers, painted and gilded "guadameciles" were used to a very great extent. The art of stamped leather was imported by the Moors to Spain, Cordova becoming a great center of the industry, though this leather was made also at Seville, Granada, Toledo and Barcelona. In 1575 the fame of Cordova for such leathers was so great that the name "Cordova leather" was applied to those made in other parts of Spain as a general term.
The lustrous Spanish chestnut became the chief furniture material, with some cedar, cypress, and pine. The art of inlaying with ebony, ivory, etc., was introduced from Flanders. Cabinets of chestnut were richly ornamented with repousse plaques of silver and later of tortoise-shell, ebony, and rare woods from the tropics. Elaborate desks and other pieces were manufactured. The Flemish form of high-backed chair was modified. It commonly had hoof feet and a solid back of dark-brown Cordova leather, stamped and studded with brass nails and mounts.
The Spanish took their culture across the seas and in Spanish colonial furniture in America we can see some of the results.