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A Brief History of Furniture continued: The Renaissance, Part two

French Renaissance furniture

The Italians were so far ahead of Northern Europe with the Renaissance and the influence it had on furniture. The Northern Europeans were more concerned about their craftsmen spending time on armor and building fortresses than making furniture. In the 16th century Northern Europe was dominated by the Reformation and its austerity. Religion was in turmoil but politics, that is the larger monarchies were on the rise. Eventually this led to a social structure for government to be administered from a permanent palace in a capital city. These new palaces called for furnishings in keeping with the kingly state. The monarchs took the lead and the most prominent subjects soon followed. Furniture was used not only for function but also for decoration.

Chairs and tables as well as coffers and buffets were decorated with the Italian influence. In France, the importation of Italian craftsmen soon changed the clumsy, course furniture made in earlier years. French furniture soon came under the subtle, influential spread of classicism. Charles VIII was born in the Chateau Amboise and was intent on improving it by bringing sculptors, masons, “decorators”, and garden architects from his Italian campaign. Hardly any of their work survives but their presence was a means of spreading Renaissance ornamentation in France.

a brief history furniture 1

Francis I took power in 1515 and he played a significant role spreading the influences of the Italian Renaissance as all traces of Gothic eventually were banished during that century. Francis was concerned the residence should be at Fontainebleau and moved away from the castles of the Loire Valley. This would place the power closer to Paris. He began a building program entrenched in the Italian style at several chateaux and along with the second phase at Fontainebleau. The influence of the Italian Renaissance was seen in decoration with an interpretation of carved masks, caryatids, sphinx-like creations as well as beasts placed alongside the popular classical forms. The results were heavy yet beautiful. The influence of French decoration was shown in a remarkable series of dressers which followed the designs of Hugues Sambin and Androuet Du Cerceau. Many of these survive today outside of France in museums such as The Frick Collection in New York, the Philadelphia Museum and the Wallace Collection in London.

A brief history furniture 2

The latter half of the 16th century for France was a period of religious wars between the Catholics and the Calvinists. The court of Henry III continued to embrace cultural activity. The French eventually modified the Italian, classical architectural forms of furniture with an artistic elegance influenced by both the Italian Catholism and the restraints of the “new religion”.

The French embraced the Renaissance and the changes both political and religious had a great influence on the art, architecture as well as the new furniture designs. The once heavy carvings yielded to more architectural and elegant forms of furniture. Gilles Corrozet wrote a book Les Blasons Domestiques, printed in Lyon which described the furnishing of a gentleman’s house. The furniture for the salon should have a bed; a buffet; a table and a chest as well as a great chair and several stools. The armoire emerged which was also often incorporated into the paneling. Rooms changed their style, size and use. No longer was the large simple center table with stools all around used for dining in a great hall. Rooms became smaller and dining was achieved with smaller tables or “portable” furniture. All these changes set the stage for the evolution of French furniture which continued to rise to great heights in the 17th century and the glory of Versailles.

In the next article I shall share a brief outline of the influence the Italian Renaissance had on the Low Countries and Germany where the Italian techniques of inlay and marquetry were incorporated into the furniture. This will eventually link back to French furniture in the 17th century.

Respectfully submitted,

Mary Helen McCoy

About the Author

Mary Helen McCoy

Mary Helen McCoy

Mary Helen McCoy is a woman with a mission – that is, to deliver to her clients the ultimate in period furniture and decorative arts. Her firm is considered one of the nation’s premier sou...