Introduction

As the period before the eighteenth century had been an era of spacious dimensions, of great and lofty rooms, of dignified splendour and splendid dignity, of intense virility and vigour however rich and exuberant in the manifold manifestations of architectural setting and mobiliary equipment, of unmistakably masculine interpretation in all the phases of decorative art, so the eighteenth century was essentially a period of femininity in decorative conceptions, of intimate boudoirs and highly elaborated drawing-rooms punctiliously appointed with all the polished refinements of which fecund invention bent upon achieving an almost sybaritic degree of luxury was capable, of minute elegancy, of graceful pliability, of sunny, blithesome polychrome merriment. If the imposing amplitude and sweep of a former generation were absent, and if the foundations of decorative conception were less serious, the happy domesticity and facile playfulness of the prevalent genius, amounting at times to pure inconsequent frivolity, were very human and very fascinating and, withal, sincere, in that they faithfully mirrored the spirit of the age. The genius of the preceding age, notwithstanding all the gorgeousness of colouring and wealth of inventive ingenuity, was a trifle sombre; the genius of the eighteenth century, not less opulent in its own fashion, was fundamentally gay and debonair. Potency of colour and subtlety of form were no less keenly felt and no less assiduously courted than in former years, but their application was in a lighter vein.

In a measure, the eighteenth century was a decadent period, for the quality of sturdy creative originality, which had so strongly characterised the work of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, was almost wholly dormant. Italy was borrowing back again the. inspiration she had so lavishly poured forth in earlier centuries for the benefit of other countries and the inspiration thus borrowed back was become, in the course of transition, an indubitably second-hand commodity, bereft of fertility and verve so far as creative vigour and the divine spark of originality were concerned, like an outworn garment that has grown threadbare through the usage of its temporary possessor. And yet> despite this promiscuous borrowing back, the eighteenth century Italian decorators, designers and craftsmen succeeded in imparting an abundant measure of national individuality to their interpretations so that their work stands quite apart from the performances of their contemporaries in other lands and is easily recognisable by its qualities of charm which the local genius rarely failed successfully to impart. While it is undeniably true that greatness of conception, architectonic dignity of contour and strong originality of design were usually wanting, the native fertility of the Italian craftsman temperament was constantly in evidence through the wealth of decorative motifs and the multiplicity of decorative processes lavished on surface embellishment, a wealth that asserted itself on every hand with an indomitable persistence comparable to that of tropical vegetation. These characteristics were equally to be sefen in the fixed architectural decorative background and also in the execution of the movable furnishings.

Architectural Background And Methods Of Fixed Decoration

The diluted Baroque manifestations that had been observable in the latter part of the seventeenth century continued into the early part of the eighteenth (Plate 21A), to be succeeded, in due season, and in circles likely to be affected by new fashions, by the lighter, more playful and more involved Rococo influences patterned after the modes current in France, though slightly modified in the course of transition by the action of local traditions and local preferences of interpretation, traditions and preferences that were exceedingly subtle and difficult of definition but nevertheless very real and, in the aggregate, very perceptible. In its own time, virtually synchronous with a like prevalence in other countries, came the absorbing vogue for "the Chinese taste," and it left a strong impress of Orientalism on the work done in the immediate period of its duration, while agreeable traces of its quondam ascendency and its enduring appeal could be detected here and there long afterward.

In sharp contrast to all this stylistic medley, the middle of the century witnessed a vigorous revival of classic feeling (Plate 22 B) - the swing of the pendulum to the opposite extremity of the arc - in, precisely the same way that we see the rise of the Adam influence in England and the transition to the Louis Seize mode in France. The Italian reversion to classic forms and precedents was not less vigorous in its expression than the contemporary comparable movements elsewhere, but again, as on former occasions, the local exhibition was tinged by local conception and local methods of adaptation.

The close correspondence of these successive phases of design in the several countries, and their almost exactly contemporaneous procession, reveal to us, in 6 a particularly striking manner, the internationalism of decorative art In the eighteenth century the Italian salons and galleries were not less splendid and stately than they had been during the preceding era, but there was far more ample provision for the smaller and more intimate boudoirs and drawing-rooms as well. And whether we are called upon to consider the great salon, the smaller drawing-room, the boudoir or the sumptuously appointed and dainty bedroom of the eighteenth century grandame or beauty, we encounter the same general method of decorative treatment. The more permanent features, such as frescoes and encrustations of mosaic and inlay (Plate 21 A), and also the more enduring movables of the background such as tapestries and other gorgeous hangings of large extent, remained, but there was an added sumptuousness and fullness of appointments that had not hitherto existed. It is true that the earlier classification of fixed architectural backgrounds - richly ornate on one hand, and austere on the other - still held good, but the severely simple backgrounds were very apt to be much enhanced by the addition of numerous movables. In not a few instances walls were covered with fabrics (Plate 22 A) frequently held in place by mouldings fastened on so as to form panels. Then, again, there was to be seen an extensive introduction of boiserie, analogous to French and English practice, with the panelling (Plate 21B) embellished with carving and appropriately painted and parcel gilt. In many instances, large painted panels, sometimes on canvas, sometimes on wooden grounds overlaid with a smooth coating of gesso according to traditional Italian practice, were set into the walls and surrounded with mouldings. The subjects were warm-toned landscapes with prominent architectural features in the manner of Piranesi, pastoral scenes in emulation of the French creations of Watteau, episodes or scenes from classic mythology, fruit and flower devices or gaily coloured and sometimes gilt Chinese motifs. Not seldom, also, were mirrors introduced into the panelling as an highly effective decorative device. In the tale of mural resources must likewise he reckoned wallpaper, printed from wood blocks, with landscape, architectural and classic subjects executed in either polychrome or monotone effects. Nor should we forget another expedient sometimes resorted to, especially for the embellishment of loggie or partially open-air apartments - the use of canvas hanging friezes and panels painted with classic motifs, fruits, flowers and landscapes. By every available means the sumptuous-ness and multi-colored gaiety of the background were ensured.