The text below is the excerpt from the book 1000 Masterpieces of Decorative Art (ISBN: 9781783109531), written by Victoria Charles and with the collaboration of Eugénie Vaysse, published by Parkstone International.
In the 14th century and early years of the 15th, elegant luxury was primarily displayed in rich fabrics and tapestries made to cover furniture, seats, and benches. The flowing draperies of the beds partook of this taste, which originated with the Crusades, and was initially inspired by the sight of the magnificent fabrics of the East. Sculpture, nevertheless, continued its progress, and even Italian woodwork began to show Oriental derivation. This age also corresponds with the complete expansion of Gothic architecture and furniture. The furniture is divided into flamboyant Gothic cloisters, crowned by fine needle-shaped sticks and flourishing leaves; their niches contain elegantly-quaint figures, and the panels, with their bas-reliefs, rival the perfection of altarpieces and religious triptychs of intricate workmanship. Accordingly, no part of these articles of furniture was covered so that the artist’s ingenious conceptions could be easily viewed, unless a covering was absolutely necessary. Much of this furniture served only for luxurious display, while that which was destined for travelling remained simple in form and was modestly concealed in those parts of the dwelling reserved for private life.
In the next section, we look at Renaissance furniture. H. Havard (Les Styles) writes:
“All furniture whose shape is not entirely determined by everyday use takes on certain characteristics of the appearance of a palace; chair legs become more rounded and column-like; cupboards, sideboards, cabinets and credence tables begin to look like small slim buildings crowned with pediments, decorated with niches and pilasters, escutcheons and entablatures.”
Whatever variations the artist uses, however, no piece of furniture escapes the general trend. Everywhere furniture is becoming broader, horizontal lines take on unprecedented importance. It is the horizontal lines which invest the item with meaning and importance both in terms of its structure and its decoration.
Let us go on with our list of the identifying features of Renaissance furniture generally, the elegance and distinction of which will only increase as the style develops its own personality. Two-part cupboards covered in marquetry, cabinets in the classical style, church stalls decorated with arabesques above which there is a row of images of sibyls, angels, and chimaera in marquetry holding floating scrolls under porticos with columns. Above the images are low reliefs surrounded by columns and mouldings and above them is a cornice which forms a canopy with pinnacles and tracery on its outer edges. Narrow panels decorated with low reliefs, above which are pointed arcades supported on small columns. The panels are divided down the middle by a column and there is beading and tracery above them. Friezes, in the middle of which, one comes across a mascaron with rinceaux of light foliage emerging from it. Rows of caryatids holding flowers and fruit, separated by niches with figures represented at the back of the niche. Two-part wardrobes with four folding doors inlaid with marble or richly decorated with low reliefs on a gilt background. Chests with carved figures which are separated by pilasters with grotesque figures on them and a small spirit or genie at the top, classical mouldings: with balusters, gadroons, tracery, egg, and dart patterns, etc.
One particularly popular piece of furniture in the 16th century was a large cabinet consisting of a kind of round-topped chest which was raised on four legs and full of small drawers which could only be seen when the large wooden doors which made this piece essentially a wardrobe and which hid the drawers were open. There were also roll-tops, etc. As far as chairs and panelling are concerned, while during the Gothic period they were made of carved wood, during the Renaissance they were upholstered in either tooled or stamped leather from either Spain or Flanders. Even the chimney pieces and roofs were elegantly shaped and carefully decorated. This is typical of the Renaissance when the aim was always to embellish.
Were it not for the extremely original nature of their carving, in various degrees of relief, French Renaissance furniture (unlike Italian Renaissance furniture which was characterised by its strange mosaics of coloured stones and copper figurines) would be rather monotonous given that it was made of a single wood and was, therefore, one colour only. The range of furniture available remained limited and, though beautiful, it was not especially comfortable. In a word, the Renaissance marked the heyday of cabinet-making, tooling and binding, gold and silver work, stained glass, enamelling used as if it were paint (Limoges enamel), ceramics as practised by Lucca della Robbia in Italy and Bernard Palissy in France, faïence work from Oiron and the anonymous masterpieces from Urbino.
This was the period when jewellery, locks, woven and stitched fabrics with light, graceful patterns in soft, shimmering colours were at their height. Finally, this was the period when Du Cerceau’s drawing and engravings were in fashion and disseminated the most characteristic decorative motifs for both buildings and furniture. Where jewellery was concerned in particular, decorative value was beginning to be an end in itself, in other words, the precious materials were no longer the be all and end all. There follows a list of remarkable sculptors of the Renaissance: Jean Goujon (who was also one of the architects who designed the Hôtel Carnavalet); Ligier Richier, to whom we owe the famous Holy Sepulchre group in Saint-Mihiel; Michel Colombe, sculptor of the Duke of Brittany’s mausoleum (in Nantes cathedral); Germain Pilon, Jean Goujon, who popularised the use of the low relief for general decoration, Jean Juste of Tours, sculptor of Louis XII’s tomb; Pierre Bontemps, etc. Étienne de Laulne and François Briot are two goldsmiths who are worthy of mention.
Renaissance art was characterised by the fusion of different styles. The renewal was a result of artists’ relaxed approach, of the uninhibited love of luxury which artists, architects, and sculptors all worshipped and served. Statues and ornaments are no longer made in barbarian traditions. They have better models in nature and their makers embellish them with lifelike representations. Indeed, nature alone is not sufficient to fire the imagination of the artists of the period and they turn to the world of myth and story or to combinations of human and animal figures. Perfectly-lifelike fruits and flowers are also included in the works of these artists, who are fervent admirers of all life’s great creations.
Note that, aside from the character of the styles, independently of the patinas and the original colours having faded over the centuries, it is the easiest task in the world to tell real antique furniture apart from a copy! All one has to do is run one’s hand lightly over the mouldings and the carvings and the feel of them is conclusive. The enthusiast will not be deceived because no-one has ever been able to fake the fine touch of such furniture, any more than a flower can be faked. The secret lies in the reliefs, which have been gradually worn by time and use, and in the wood which turns into velvet.
Furthermore, velvet, silk, and satin were everywhere during this fascinatingly fresh, gay period of intellectual creativity. It was a period which turned the excessively flamboyant tracery of the most exuberant Gothic style into a kind of lace, this time without ornamental apertures, which was used profusely on all kinds of woodwork. However, it seems that even the Renaissance eventually fell into decadence, a period marked by a similar exuberance.
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