Renaissance furniture was inspired by the architecture and artwork of Ancient Rome. Having originated in 14th century Italy, it spread throughout Europe, becoming a popular and prevalent design style until the 16th century. Engraved books containing Renaissance motifs were used for reference by British designers seeking to emulate the Italian style. Foreign artisans and artists living and working in Britain, and especially London, were also influential in introducing the style.
The Renaissance period (14th-17th centuries) encapsulated a number of cultural movements, including many developments in furniture design. The roots of Renaissance furniture reside in rural Italy in the 14th century. The design movement was very heavily influenced by the art, antiquities and architecture of ancient Rome.
Similar to Gothic furniture, Renaissance furniture reflected the architectural forms of the period, which included a return to classicism and a great deal of ornamentation.
Early Italian Renaissance furniture has a palatial, rather than domestic, appearance, and tends to dwarf anything that it is placed aside in a contemporary context.
The cabinet-makers of the Renaissance partially abandoned the coarser oak, and began to use walnut, chestnut, and other woods. As opposed to Gothic, which was using subjects taken from saints’ lives, Renaissance carving had mythological, allegorical, and historical subjects.
Following the architectural lines, earlier cabinets and paneling took the forms of palaces, the fronts of cupboards often representing miniatures of basilicas' façades. During the 16th century, the number of chairs increased. Beside the carved, rectangular, high-back chairs, there were the X-shaped curule or Savonarola chairs. This type was a smaller and more comfortable chair. It was carved, sometimes gilded, and could have a wooden seat with a cushion placed on it. Toward the end of the century, chairs were occasionally upholstered in silk, leather, or tapestry. The typical Renaissance table was rectangular and supported by solid carved consoles connected by heavy stretchers, with the legs terminating sometimes in a scroll. The tops could sometimes be slabs of marble or mosaic, while the ornaments of the tables were carved or gilded. Chests were common, particularly the cassone, used mainly as a marriage chest. Their ornamentation varied, they were carved, painted or gilded. The forms also varied, from the sarcophagus to chests with rectangular sides.
The grotesque featured heavily in Renaissance furniture design. Stylistically indebted to ancient Roman wall paintings, which were discovered in Italy during the 15th century, scrolling plants, figures, fantastical creatures, vases and masks are all characteristic of the grotesque.
Strapwork, resembling flat strips of leather that were bent to suggest bold, three dimensional shapes, was popular during the period. It appeared a great deal in English design from the 16th century. Strapwork was generally used as a framing device, containing other motifs or architectural features.
The interlacing patterns of stems, leaves and tendrils were common. This is known as “Moresque” as it is associated with the Moors of North Africa and Spain.
Figures in roundels were exceedingly common. Busts of women and men were generally depicted within a circle, which was known as a roundel. These busts were generally created in profile – as on a coin.
The arrival of Renaissance culture in England created a renewed interest in the stories and subjects of classical mythology. These characters and tales were used as the basis for many designs, which sought to capture the motifs and objects with which they were most heavily associated.
Notable people and places
Henry VIII, who was crowned King of England in 1509, remained a patron of the arts throughout his rule. His court was one of the most magnificent in Europe, rivalling those of all other monarchs. Many of the beautiful and luxurious objects that furnished the King’s home exhibit the influence of new ideas from Renaissance Europe. Henry VIII used the splendour of his court to demonstrate his power.
Hampton Court Palace in Surrey was among the King’s favourite palaces. Although the palace was constructed along traditional lines, Renaissance inspired ornamentation is evident in magnificent public rooms. In the Great Hall, for example, an imposing hammer-beam ceiling incorporates the royal arms with rich grotesque decoration.
Get the look
Renaissance motifs include the religious, the grotesque, the mythological and the organic.
Carved, painted wood was an extremely popular material.
Items of furniture tended to be large and cumbersome and were designed to be immobile and imposing. Smaller, decorative items were dwarfed by cabinets, tables and chairs.
Strapwork gables, interlacing patterns and figures in roundels were common.
Colours tended towards the dark and lustrous.
Original items from the period were individually hand-wrought. A considerable degree of craftsmanship is evident in Renaissance furniture.
A wooden relief featuring carvings depicting the labours of Hercules sold for $40,850 at Sotheby’s in December 2012.
A French Renaissance carved walnut buffet a deux corps (pictured) sold for $10,000 at Sotheby’s in October 2012.
A north Italian Renaissance carved walnut refectory (featuring a long table, benches and wooden wall cladding) sold for $158,500 at Sotheby’s in October 2012.
An Italian Renaissance carved walnut cassone sold for $6,875 at Sotheby’s in October 2012.
General price guide
Renaissance revival pieces, by which I mean those made during later periods such as the Victorian era, are generally worth significantly less than original pieces unless they can be linked to a particularly eminent cabinet maker.
In general, Renaissance revival items are worth a fraction of the price of originals.
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