David has a bachelor's degree in architecture, has done research in architecture, arts and design and has worked in the field for several years.
Art in the Renaissance
The Renaissance era produced great artists, including Da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Botticelli, who created wonderful pieces that redefined art. However, this art was not limited to paintings and sculptures. The furniture from the Renaissance is not as well-known as its visual arts, probably because it was considered more of an aspect of everyday life. In any case, Renaissance furniture was also revolutionary and represented an important shift from the trends seen during the preceding centuries.
The Renaissance was a time of significant cultural changes and artistic realizations. It's often considered the bridge between the Middle Ages and the Modern Pre-Industrial era. Although the exact date is debated, the Renaissance is considered to have started during the last years of the 14th century in Italy, specifically in Florence.
The rediscovery of ancient Greek manuscripts piqued interest in the classical world (ancient Greece and Rome) and led to a growing admiration for man and nature. Renaissance art incorporated elements from these old civilizations, and artists studied the human form and proportions.
Renaissance furniture was first produced in Italy during the 15th century. Trade brought wealth to Italy, and the growing bourgeoisie was able to afford better and bigger housing. Also, they significantly increased the demand for high-quality furniture.
The Italian style of furniture also spread to other parts of Europe. Craftsmen from other countries traveled to Italy to learn its form and techniques, and some Italian makers were invited to other European nations by the local courts. In many places, the designs were adapted to better suit the local taste and requirements.
Renaissance Furniture Style
As it happened in other arts of the time, Renaissance furniture was influenced by the classical world. The pieces had a strong architectural sense, meaning they were conceived to be a subordinated part of the architectonic design.
Furniture was also seen as a symbol of social status. Items like beds were an important symbol of wealth because they were expensive, and only the richest families could afford to have them. Canopy beds with four pillars became popular among the wealthy. On the other hand, many people still slept on mattresses stuffed with straw or even directly on a bed of straw. Something similar happened with chairs. While the wealthy families had large, comfortable and elaborate chairs, the lower classes had simpler chairs. The scissor, or x-shaped chair, was a common item.
The marriage chest, or cassoni, was a characteristic type of furniture during the Renaissance. This chest was a wooden box decorated on the top and sides, and it was used both to store items and as room decoration. All social classes tried to have at least one. However, the level of detail and ornamentation varied among social classes, and only the wealthiest could afford the most elaborate pieces.
Furniture had a restrained character with simple designs and a moderate ornamentation. The decoration consisted mostly of carved details created on the surface of the wood. The designs often had some architectonic elements from the classical world like columns, pediments, and cornices.
Other than architectonic elements, the ornaments were also inspired by mythological, historical, and religious themes. Some of the common motifs were strapwork, foliage, cupids, and arabesques, an Islamic form of decoration consisting of interlaced stylized leaves and flowers.
Furniture makers commonly used walnut or sometimes chestnut. Some makers continued to use oak, which had been very popular for centuries but was gradually abandoned. The pieces from this period usually had dark colors that made a strong contrast with the interior walls. Some pieces, especially the chests, had painted or gilded (covered in gold leaf) finish.
Although the types of furniture and the general layout were similar in most parts of Europe, there were some local variations in materials and decoration.
- In France, during the 15th century, furniture still combined Gothic decorative elements with Italian Renaissance influences. By the 16th century, some makers started to incorporate inlays of ivory, marble, and other stones. The French furniture from this time is also referred to as Henry II style.
- Because of its long Muslim occupation, decoration in Spain was deeply influenced by Islamic motifs and is commonly known as Mudejar.
- In the Netherlands, some Dutch makers incorporated the use of ebony and other exotic woods to produce very elaborate carvings. Their pieces became known as Flemish Renaissance furniture. Central and Northern Europe were influenced by this Dutch style and technique.
- In England, the influences from the Renaissance started to be seen in furniture only in the 16th century. The British furniture was influenced both by Italy and the Netherlands. Its pieces had decorated surfaces with carved and inlaid ornaments and painted decoration. This type of furniture is also known as Tudor.
All right, let's take a moment to review what we've learned about furniture during the Renaissance. First of all, we learned that the Renaissance was a time period that started in Italy by the turn of the 15th century and influenced most parts of Europe until end of the 16th century. It's often seen as the bridge between the Middle Ages and the Modern Pre-Industrial era. Art was inspired by the classical world and the human form. Renaissance furniture was first seen in Italy as the growing bourgeoisie demanded high-quality pieces. The style eventually spread to other parts of Europe.
Renaissance furniture had a strong architectural sense, meaning they were conceived to be a subordinated part of the architectonic design. It had a restrained character and was seen as a symbol of social status. The ornaments were mostly carved and incorporated architectural elements, like columns and cornices. Cupids, strapwork, foliage, and arabesques were other motifs for decoration. Walnut was commonly used, and gilded and painted finishes were mostly seen in chests. Other parts of Europe used variations on Renaissance furniture to develop local styles.
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