Introduction

The golden age of Italian wall decoration, furniture making and furnishing began about the middle of the fifteenth century and continued through the sixteenth and seventeenth. It was veritably a golden age in point of virility, freshness and fertility of conception and the national genius was manifested in the vigorous design of the furniture, in the way in which it was disposed and in the preparation of the background as well as in other important branches of art. Added to the native well springs from which flowed a copious stream of Renaissance inspiration was the powerful impetus derived from the diaspora of Byzantine culture resulting from the fall of Byzantium before the Ottoman onslaught in 1453.

Prior to the period at which we begin our consideration of interior decoration in Italy, wars and rumours of wars, petty though they were compared with the magnitude of modern military operations, chiefly occupied the minds and energies of the princes and the rulers of the small republics and there was almost incessant strife between two or more of the various independent states or civil jurisdictions among which the Italian peninsula was parcelled. "Under the unstable conditions consequent upon the chronically disturbed state of society there was comparatively little opportunity for either the accumulation or sending of private wealth and it is scarcely to be wondered at that a native taste for household luxury and refinement found scant scope for gratification when the development of the aits of domestic embellishment was so seriously retarded. In the majority of cases men's minds were either almost wholly centred npon political and military affairs or else their mental and physical activities were directed into ecclesiastical channels. Cultural development in the secular world was badly handicapped.

With the advent of an era of greater political stability, however, commerce revived and flourished apace, personal and civic wealth accumulated, the resources of the municipalities were less constantly drained by the heavy exactions of internecine warfare, and the spirit of creative art, never wholly dormant even during the times of greatest strife and turmoil, came quickly into its own again, drawing renewed inspiration from the abundant treasures of Italian antiquity and deriving likewise a quickening impulse from the culture of Byzantium, the remnants of whose rich heritage were brought to Italy by the numerous refugees from the fallen capital of the Eastern Empire. The rebirth of art, in all its phases, experienced the strong impetus of natural reaction after a period of repression. Domestic and industrial arts blossomed and throve in new-found security. Private wealth fostered the efforts of artists and craftsmen while princes and potentates vied with each other in liberal patronage of the arts both fine and applied. The story of the Medici in Florence affords an illuminating commentary on this phase of Italian cultural history and the story of many other great contemporary families might likewise be appropriately cited to the same end.

Architectural Background And Methods Of Fixed Decoration

In this golden age of restored tranquillity, stately villas, that often rivalled the splendours of their ancient Roman prototypes, rapidly succeeded to grim castles and fortified houses. Nobles and wealthy merchants and landowners felt free to forsake the crowded restraint of urban life for the larger liberty of residence among the groves and gardens of their estates. The abodes they built, with the aid of the best architects of the day, were broad and lofty and fully expressive of the urbane, though withal vigorous, elegance of the age. The rooms were commonly of great dimensions and their height is one of the most impressive features of their proportions. It was, indeed, the era of the great hall (Plate 13) and princely salon. Such were the habits of domestic life that the small drawing-room and intimate boudoir had little place in the household scheme and the personal requirements of the immediate members of the family were easily satisfied with the simplest of provisions. Classic conceptions of design were everywhere asserting themselves and we find a strong rectilinear emphasis (Plate 13) predominant in nearly all of these imposing apartments. There were, of course, plenty of round vaulted ceilings (Plate 20 A and B; Plate 18) and round arched windows or doorheads enriched by a countersunk semi-circular tympanum (Plate 15 A) above them. But, notwithstanding all this and the occasional presence of round-arched arcades, the dominant emphasis was rectilinear and this same quality was reflected in the contour of the furniture that was designed to equip these spacious interiors.

In the matter of fixed decoration and interior enrichment, Italian interiors of the period under consideration may be divided into two classes. The first class is composed of the interiors where all or a great portion of the background - walls, ceiling and floor - was highly decorated and rich in colour (Plates 15 B, 16,18, 19 and 139). The second class is composed of interiors where only a minor portion (Plates 13,15 A, 20 A and B, and 127) or none of the background is decorated and where the physical setting presents an aspect of severe restraint and, sometimes, even of austerity. In the first class belong the rooms whose walls and ceilings are gorgeous with frescoes and gilding (Plates 16, 18 and 19), the encrustation of coloured marbles or the polychrome and parcel gilt enrichment of diaper work (Plate 15 B) and heraldic blasoning, while the floors accord with the rest of the scheme in their display of multi-coloured marbles (Plates 18,19 and 139) or mosaic. In the second class belong the rooms whose walls and vaulted ceilings are severely plain and whose floors are of plain stone, tiles (Plates 13,15 A and B and 16) or boards. The points of architectural embellishment are the carved fireplace (Plates 15 A and 20 A and 111 C) and its hood or chimney piece, the doorways (Plate 14, 1; 15 A, 18 and 19) and, if there be a flat wooden ceiling instead of vaulting, the beams and corbels (Plates 13, 15 A and B and 127). Occasionally, also, a niche (Plate 127) with doors to enclose a shrine might be given architectural emphasis. In such interiors colour was frequently introduced on the doors themselves (Plate 14, 2), in a countersunk tympanum above the doorway, if perchance this bit of diversity were added, on the beams and boards of the ceiling (Plates 13; 14 - 3, 4 and 5; 15 A and B) and on the inside shutters of the windows. It need scarcely be pointed out that such an interior provided an admirable foil for the advantageous display of hangings and furniture (Plates 13 and 15 A and B). No matter, however, whether an interior was elaborately ornate or severely simple, the Italian furniture of the period possessed such flexibility of character that it looked equally well against either background and to this peculiar quality we shall have occasion, to refer more at length in a subsequent division.