The Antique Furniture of the ‘700
The 18th century is a century characterized by a rapid succession of political events and by a great artistic and cultural vitality, which are also reflected in the trends of furniture.
In the early eighteenth century the Baroque and its search for majestic and heavy forms is now dying out.
On the death of the Sun King, his court reacts by releasing its propensity for unbridled luxury, flanked by a new cultural climate that gives space to the arts and sciences.
The regent Philip of Orleans and later Louis XV, given the wealth of their state, are followers of elegance, fashion and therefore attentive to the furnishings, furniture and comfort of their apartments. Europe no longer looks to Florence and Rome as models to be inspired by, but to Versailles, where a new “lightness” influences the lifestyle.
And precisely this lightness and affectation, contrasted with the grandeur of the seventeenth-century Baroque, creates what at the time was called Style Nuveau, and which will then be called, at the beginning of the nineteenth century with a derogatory tone, Rococò. In fact, neoclassical academics considered Rococo not so much a contrast to the Baroque as a grotesque offshoot of it, The superlative of the bizarre, The excess of the ridiculous.
In Italy, Rococò, also called Barocchetto, was established late compared to the rest of Europe, and was mainly influenced by the Louis XV style. In the houses of the nobles there were princely halls for parties and guests, while everyday life was frugal and confined to small and mezzanine environments. With the new century these cramped environments become more elegant, more comfortable, ready to welcome guests, in short, suitable environments for a man who seeks luxury at any time of the day, who loves conversation and cultural display. Hence, living rooms are born, cozy environments created for music, games and reading, where minute and flirty antique furniture is placed. Small palaces are also built, for a lesser nobility, where beauty must be combined with the functionality of the furniture. Inside they find space, for example, coffee tables that become small, light, easily transportable, comfortable armchairs and sofas where you can sit for conversation and furniture, antique furniture, of great functionality, such as the chest of drawers-desk-casket-shelf , better known as Trumeau.
There are common elements in Rococo furniture: the asymmetry of the ornaments; from the masks, putti, caryatids and monsters of the Baroque, we pass to the most graceful flowers, leaves, buds, garlands, shells; the legs of the furniture become slender and take on graceful S-shapes, sufficient to support the light and tiny furniture; the crossbeams, which connect the supports and were widely used until Louis XIV, will disappear completely.
Towards the end of the century, the progressive interest in the classical arts, driven by the discovery of Pompeii and Herculaneum, makes the delicacy of the Rococò furnishings and antique furniture become cloying. At the court of France the new regent is Louis XVI, and he too imposes a new style that brings the last years of the century into Neoclassicism. The transition from Rococò to Neoclassicism is less radical than the transition from Baroque to Rococò: in fact, the types of antique furniture born during the 18th century, which are comfortable and useful, do not change, but only their shape.
Classic moldings and a sober use of ornamental motifs: Greek, pine cones, pearls, medallions, rosettes, are in sharp contrast with the exasperations of the previous style. The curved lines of the furniture disappear, the shaped legs become straight, with an inverted truncated pyramid, all the furniture takes on a more sober and austere character.
Antique furniture from the 19th century
The nineteenth century in Italy re-proposes that stylistic inhomogeneity, that succession, overlapping, mixing of genres that remains the main feature of this century for European furniture in general. The eighteenth century ended with the progressive stiffening of the sinuous lines of the antique furniture of the Baroque and Rococò: the Louis XVI style, which roughly coincides with the reign of the homonymous sovereign in France (1774-92), transmitted to the new century the a taste for symmetry, balance, the more sparing use of ornaments and curved lines, ornaments inspired by antique furniture, in particular the Greco-Roman repertoire.
Even Italy, therefore, at the end of the eighteenth century is preparing to abandon the soft graces of the Baroque furniture; the legs of chairs and tables become cylindrical, turned, pyramidal or tapered, but strictly rectilinear. Often the cylindrical and pyramidal ones are fluted with a decorated nut base. The armrests are curved, the backs straight. The line of sofas is also simpler, resting on tapered legs. The furnishings and antiques of a more aristocratic taste are often lacquered or dyed in very light colors: white is particularly privileged. Among sober decorations the “Louis XVI knot” often recurs, together with the gratings of Baroque ancestry, used for the gilded metal applications. The use of trellis is also frequent in inlaid antique furniture. The decorative motifs of classical architecture also reappear: trophies of arms, Greek, braids, beads, rosettes. The knobs are simplified until they take on a ring shape. The French influence is still decisive in the period of the Revolution and the Directory (1792-1804), in which the themes and decorative programs of the Louis XVI style are continued and developed: the lines of the furniture become even more essential and rigid. The triumph of Neoclassicism is marked by the Empire style. Characteristic of the period is the use of polished mahogany wood, with decorations in carved and gilded wood, or in bronze, also gilded. Even the antique Italian furniture, following the French one, becomes “Roman” and “imperial”: eagles alight everywhere, followed by a flock of sphinxes, chimeras, lions, Phoenicians. The trophies of arms and those of musical instruments; there are also numerous fasces, laurel wreaths, lyres, palms, sickles and lamps. Elements of classical architecture – architraves, ovules, columns, semi-columns or columns, tympanums and pediments – as a structural and decorative part of furniture. The parade furnishings are still lacquered, painted in white or in fashionable colors, very light blue, cream and Nile green. Carvings and sculptures are gilded, The discoveries of Herculaneum and Pompeii provide ideas for new decorations – cupids, cherubs, winged maidens, exquisitely mythological motifs (centaurs, bacchantes, minor deities), garlands – and also for new types of furniture. The most famous is the tripod which will become a vaulted ceiling, table, sink, planter, censer, candlestick. The chairs have perforated lire on the backs and the sofas resemble triclinia. In the Recueil by Percier and Fontaine, which codifies the imperial neoclassical decorative taste, we find constant Herculaneum references: a winged charioteer between two sea monsters decorating the arms of a bronze candelabrum, a nereid embellishing a bronze applique, a nymph on the doors of a chest of drawers, heads of medusa, masks that will be repeated on numerous pieces from the Empire period. After the fall of Napoleon, the Empire style lasted until about 1830, alongside the French import Restoration style which, however, can be considered, in Italy, a genre of transition without well-defined characteristics. Valentino Brosio (in Italian furniture of the nineteenth century, 1964) notes how in this period we are witnessing the growing affirmation of the bourgeoisie and a slow but progressive growth of industrialization. The furniture factories are renovated and the workshop of the craftsman is replaced by the organized workshop with new machinery that carries out part of the processing of antique furniture, previously entrusted to manual skill. The demand for furniture and furnishings is no longer the monopoly of the courts and the aristocracy: rich bourgeois and entrepreneurs begin to fill their homes with furniture, perhaps of less aesthetic value, but more practical and well executed.
The use of mahogany decays, while walnut and some light woods reaffirm. The bronze decorations are more sober. The taste for antique furniture finely inlaid with delicate motifs in amaranth, rosewood, ivory, brass and silver returns. The first manifestations of the Gothic revival appear that will characterize the following years. The style of the years between 1830 and 1848, which correspond to the reign of Louis Philippe in France and that of Carlo Alberto (1831-48) in the Savoy states, is precisely known by the antique dealers with the name of Louis Philippe to underline, one more volta, the driving force of French taste. Paradigmatic of this style are the furniture that Carlo Alberto ordered for his palaces, which were rearranged at this time. Baroque and Gothic elements mix with the neoclassical ones. The Baroque taste is recognizable in the tendency to give softer profiles with accentuated curves to the furniture and in the new importance accorded to intaglio or relief friezes that are linked to seventeenth-century and eighteenth-century decorative programs. This particular genre later assumed the name of “Garibaldi’s baroque” or even “Pius IX” in Italy: it was in fact in Rome and Naples that there were the most extreme examples. In Florence the neo-baroque was hybridized with late sixteenth-century motifs . The neo-Gothic revival, born towards the middle of the eighteenth century in England, also finds an immediate correspondence in the Italian furniture. The Gothic influence recognizable in the decorations of the antique furniture reproducing motifs of medieval architecture – rose windows, pointed arches, cusps, pinnacles – applied, in general, to structures that maintain neoclassical lines and characters. The Louis Philippe style combines the taste for light woods, imposed in the era of the Restoration, with the use of ebony or “ebonized” woods, ie dyed black. There are also black lacquered furniture with brightly colored paintings representing floral compositions or, but more rarely, landscapes with a romantic flavor. The Second Empire style, which design he in France the period between 1852 and 1870, the years in which Napoleon III reigned, takes up and develops the eclectic tendencies of Louis Philippe. Also in Italy the neo-baroque and neo-gothic of previous years are mixed with new motifs inspired by Greek, Etruscan, Chinese, Moorish, Assyrian-Babylonian art. If a neoclassical revival is not yet established, imitations of Louis XVI’s antique furniture are already appearing. All the materials and all the techniques are used by the artisans who also adopt numerous artifices to imitate exotic and precious materials, among which, a favorite, bamboo. Sofas and armchairs are overstuffed, until every structural element disappears under fringes and cushions. The interiors become the domain of the upholsterer who deeps heavy draperies in it, harmonizing the fabrics of the curtains, the covers of the armchairs, the carpets, the screens in a single shade. The fashion for light chairs, the “chiavarine”, is affirmed, and the curved wood chairs by the Austrian Thonet have a great success. The eclecticism of the second half of the nineteenth century culminates with the style defined “Umbertino” – King Umberto I reign from 1878 to 1900 – which distinguishes, or rather “confuses”, the furniture of the last three decades of the century: among all the hybrids and numerous styles that inspire the manufacturers of furniture, however, the Renaissance dominates. The artisans in these free interpretations of fifteenth-century pieces and the sixteenth century, however, maintained the dark and heavy tone characteristic of the time. Keeping in mind the regional character assumed by the production of furnishings and furniture in Italy, a character determined by the well-known historical-political conditions, in this discussion we have privileged a detailed analysis divided by geographical areas, identifying in the “capital” cities the major centers of stylistic processing of antique furniture.