This section is from the book "The Practical Book Of Interior Decoration", by Harold Donaldson Eberlein, Abbot Mcclure, Edward Stratton Holloway. See also: The Victorian House Book: A Practical Guide to Home Repair and Decoration.
From the middle or latter part of the fifteenth century onward, the display of movable furniture in the regal rooms of Italian palaces and villas, and in the scarcely less regal rooms of the lesser country houses and town dwellings of the well-to-do citizens, was scanty when judged by modern standards. "When the walls of the galleries and saloons were covered with frescoes (Plates 16,18 and 19), or hung with arras, tapestry, brocades (Plate 17), rich velvet from Genoa, or with stamped and gilt leather; when the ceilings were painted (Plates 16, 18 and 19) or heavily carved and gilded; when the floors were inlaid with the choicest marbles and mosaics, many objects about would detract from the magnificence of the whole and leave a confused impression on the mind. This the unerring taste of the sixteenth century decorators fully realised. The few pieces of furniture that were admitted, however, were in keeping with their surroundings, and are marvels of workmanship. Every kind of splendid material was employed in their manufacture and adornment." The chests or cassoni, which from the earliest times were conspicuous and highly significant pieces of furniture in Italian furnishing schemes, placed in the halls and corridors or salons, "were used to preserve tapestries, clothes, plate and most of the valuables used by wealthy Italians." Carved with scrolls, foliage and figures in high relief or richly embellished on the front and cover with paintings, "either illustrative of the lives of saints, scenes taken from classical mythology or historical incidents" and blasoned in the proper tinctures with family armorial bearings, the cassoni were indeed impressive pieces of furniture and well calculated to compel and centre attention. They were often lined inside with linen or even with gorgeous silks and brocades strained tightly over the wood. The cassone was, one of the most valuable presents given to a bride, and when it fulfilled the role of a dower chest it was generally adorned by picturing some incident taken from one of the well-known love tales. To some, indeed, it may seem that these cassoni - and, for the matter of that, not a few of the other articles of Italian Renaissance furniture - were "almost overpoweringly decorated" without ever giving the eye a single spot on which to stop and rest. Many such profusely ornamented pieces placed in the same room, it is true, would have been unbearable. But the Italians did not so use them. The cassone was designed and decorated with a clear perception of the principle, so characteristic of much of the best Italian and Spanish work, whether architectural or mobiliary, of concentrating enrichment in one spot and isolating it against a background either simple, at times to the extent of austerity, or else so fully covered with elaborate repeats (Plate 15 B) that it assumed the quality of a richly coloured texture of virtually neutral action in affording the necessary contrast to whatever clearly defined object, whether simple or elaborately adorned, might be placed against it There was wealth in the golden age of the Italian Renaissance to devote to a liberal patronage of the decorative arts and the patronage bestowed encouraged the development of furniture design and execution by the most eminent craftsmen and artists of the period. They deemed it worthy of their best efforts to design a single piece of furniture and execute it with the utmost study and care as an independent and complete work of art. Under such circumstances the making of a cassone was a finished and marvellous achievement in itself. Among the painters of panels for cassoni may be mentioned such masters as Botticelli, Andrea del Sarto, Pesellino, Pietro di Cosimo and the most capable of their pupils while, for the carvers of these same amazing chests, Jacqnemart reminds us that we must seek among the foremost sculptors of the day - Donatello, Bernardino, Ferrante, Canozzo and others of equal renown. So far as furniture was concerned, they were the Adams, the Chippendales, the Hepplewhitee, the Angelica Kauff-manns and the Cipriani of their era, but far greater; only, unlike the Adelphi, they did not merely draw designs for others to work from but they worked at the furniture with their own hands and thought no shame of the task. They esteemed the making of a chest or cabinet an honourable and legitimate work of art and that is why so many of the pieces from their hands are surpassingly beautiful and full of finished grace. Before passing on, it will be as well to note that there was not a little variety in the forms of the cassoni so that their decorative furnishing potentiality was increased thereby: some of them were merely rectangular chests, with or without feet, and being flat-topped served for seats as well as receptacles; some were shaped like a sarcophagus and had either flat or rising tops; same were low enough to sit upon comfortably; some were as high as consoles, and some were raised on stands.
While cassoni (Plate 13) were undoubtedly the most omnipresent, the most conspicuous and the most lavishly decorated pieces of cabinet work, there was besides a wide variety of wall furniture that went to make up the mobiliary equipment of sixteenth and seventeenth century Italian rooms. There was the madia, a hutch-like cupboard with doors, and perhaps several shallow drawers above them, the whole structure supported by trusses at each end. This piece of furniture was often used for the stowage of food in much the same way as the dole cupboards and kindred articles in England. There was the credema (Plates 20 B and 15 A and 89 B), an imposing and much used article about four feet high and of varying length, with doors in front and with or without shallow drawers above the doors. In composition and decoration it was an object of distinctly architectonic value. It served the purpose of a sideboard or buffet or, in apartments not used for dining, it answered equally well the office of a console. Occasionally a superstructure was added at the back with one or more shelves and in this form it was really the historical precursor of the very ugly nineteenth century sideboard. In this connexion it is worth noting that the furniture designers of the nineteenth century, who perpetrated so many of the painful monstrosities of the Victorian era in black walnut, were not an ignorant set of men unacquainted with historical precedents. They did know somewhat of furniture history, but with their knowledge they combined an amazing degree of colossal bad taste which impelled them to choose the least-inspired models of sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth century Italian, French and Spanish provenance and add thereto their own fantastic aberrations of contour and embellishment. Illustrations of some of the Victorian "chefs dcravre" parallel with other illustrations of their Continental prototypes would constitute a body of the most damning evidence. Akin to the credenza in its general scheme of structure was the small console or cabinet with doors, about three or three and a half feet high by two feet or a little more in width. It served as a stand on which to place a casket or some other article of decorative significance. The exact reverse of this was a similar piece of cabinet work, with a small drawer beneath the doors instead of above them, and this was set upon a table or stand; in other words, it was the forerunner of the larger cabinet, with doors and drawers, upon a stand which figured so prominently in furnishing schemes of a much later date. A combination of these two pieces sometimes occurred in a two-storey structure with doors in both the lower and upper parts. This double cabinet was somewhat wider than the console first mentioned and the upper part was not quite so broad as the lower. Altogether it was a dignified and desirable article in any well-appointed room.