Materials And Colour

For the fixed architectural background, the materials most commonly used were stone, inlaid and multi-coloured marbles, tiles or wood for the floors. For the walls they employed plaster, either rough or smooth, or else encrustations of marble or mosaic. When the walls were to be painted they were coated with a smooth, hard plaster; hard plaster was likewise used when moulded decorations in relief entered into the decorative scheme. These moulded decorations in plaster were often further enriched by the addition of colour. When sgraffito decorations were desired several successive coats of different-coloured plasters were laid on. For the ceilings either plaster or wooden beams, frequently carved and painted, were the usual materials. Cypress, oak, pine and walnut afforded the chief wood resources, although other kinds were occasionally put to use. For polychrome decorated doors it was customary to use pine, cypress or some similar soft and easily worked wood as a foundation. The surface was then carefully coated with gesso to give an absolutely smooth and suitable ground for the application of the pigment and gold.

For furniture, walnut was the staple wood just as oak was in England. For cassoni and other pieces, however, that were to be embellished with paint, polychrome decoration and parcel gilding it was customary to use pine or cypress and cover it with a preparatory coat of gesso before the paint and gilt were put on. If there was any carved relief, the carving was apt to be crudely done and the fine modelling was left for manipulation in the gesso. For furniture that was not to be adorned with gold and colour, oak, chestnut, acacia and other suitable woods from time to time made their appearance with the occasional introduction of sycamore, pear, rosewood and sundry other materials for purposes of inlay or marqueterie.

For upholstery, velvet of a full, rich red was perhaps the most favoured material. Besides this we find cut pile velvets, brocades, brocatelle and damasks of various colours as well as gros point and petit point needlework. Leather, both plain and decorated, was also used for the backs and seats of chairs. Much attention, too, was paid to fringes and gold galons which were freely employed. For the lining of cassoni and caskets it was not uncommon to use silks and brocades of divers colours strained upon the wood.

Nothing contributes more to the enrichment of an apartment than the use of hangings on the walls. In old Italian interiors hangings were freely used and these hangings consisted of tapestries, brocades (Plate 17) or damasks with embroidered orphreys or borders at the sides, velvets enriched with gold embroidery and needlework designs in bold motifs applique, and large pieces of multi-coloured needlework in floss or silk thread on background of silk, satin, damask or velvet. Cloth of gold and silver were also employed.

From a purely practical point of view, with reference to modern practice, it is to be noted that the old Italians fully realised - they had doubtless fotmd out by trial and experience - that when hangings were used on the walls back of large pieces of furniture, whether those pieces were of carved or plain panelled walnut, or of a gorgeous polychrome and gilt exterior, the very nature of the furniture in design and material demanded the association of a fabric of full colour and depth, of texture, such as tapestry or heavy red or purple velvet, and that thinner or flatter textures looked jejune and unsuitable. These pieces might, with perfect propriety of effect, stand against an austere and bare wall, but if fabric was added it had to be of warm hue and full texture.

In the choice of colours for interior decoration there was universal employment of strong, full-bodied tones and vigorous contrasts. While the reds were very red and the bines very blue, the combinations and gradations were blended into a most agreeably mellow ensemble. An examination of old Italian interiors and a close scrutiny of the methods the sixteenth and seventeenth centnry decorators nsed mates it quite evident that it was the practice to concentrate enrichment whether of objects or of colour at strategic points. It is also to be noted, with reference to their lavish use of gold, that they well understood that a great mass of gold is quiet and neutral, that a little gold at carefully selected places is quiet, refined and enriching, but that small amounts of gold distributed here, there and everywhere produce a flashy, cheap and noisy effect. Arrangement. - One of the most striking things about fine old Italian interiors is the absence of crowding and fussiness. The decorators of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries seem fully to have realised that a few important pieces, well and logically placed, are all that are needed to make a room. If there are too many large pieces the effect of all is spoiled and the eye is apt to ignore the individual excellences of every object in the cluttered hodge-podge. Accordingly, a comparatively few pieces, properly distributed, were relied upon to produce the desired result. Unless a room was exceptionally large, and oftentimes even then (Plate 17), it was the custom to keep the centre of the floor dear of all obstructions. In some instances a long table (Plates 13,15 A, 18 and 19) would be placed down the middle of a very long room or, instead of this, the length might be broken by several smaller tables placed equidistant from the ends of the room, with their appropriate accompaniment of chairs or stools in close proximity. The arrangements almost invariably displayed a due regard for principles of symmetry and yet, at the same time, there was a great deal of elasticity and very little inclination to methods of stiff and oppressive formality. The inborn habit of symmetrical placement might be seen in such a grouping, for instance, as a long wall table flanked at each side by two tall-backed chairs. This was a very common arrangement but very typical and serves well enough as an example. The brummagem ideal of stuffy and cluttered "cosiness" did not appeal to them and would have been utterly abhorrent to their conceptions of dignity and elegance.