Elements of a Renaissance Interior


During the period of the Renaissance, there emerged an extraordinary array of fine interiors that were in reference to earlier periods but displayed their own unique decorative features. Specifically, the Renaissance was a revisit to the Roman style of ornamentation and Classical architectural elements. It is important to remember the Renaissance was supported by wealthy merchants, not the overtly religious personages of Medieval times. Therefore, pleasing rich clients whom gravitated toward the elaborate became the norm. Furniture was intricate and used for decoration as well as utility. Specialties of decoration included the treatment of walls, the opulence of woodwork and the grandeur of the fireplace as essentials of the Renaissance interior. Although the Renaissance eventually extended to other countries in Europe, it began, flourished and forever will be associated with Italy.


The architectural developments that were new to the Italian Renaissance were mainly derived from the Romans of antiquity. Although a thousand years was between the Fall of the Roman Empire and the Renaissance, it was a time of renewal of this historic architectural form. The features of Classical Roman architecture were utilized however, the focus of certain orders, particularly columns with base, shaft, capital and entablature were used in different applications. They “were borrowed, and adapted to dress the new architectural style . . .”1 that included increases in ceiling height, beams and open spaces to allow for optimal light to be radiated. These structures were built is a revised fashion using materials such as plaster, gilting, inlaid wood and marble. Domes were constructed as rotundas, as were pediments and arches; they became the hallmark of the Renaissance building façade. Cabinets were constructed with extravagances like caryatids (women statues used as supporting pillars) bordering central doors, triangular pediment tops and cloisters of semicircular arches. Rooms were spacious and built with a sense of symmetry and balance with a respect for linear refinement.


The key architects of the time included were Palladio, Brunelleschi, and Alberti and they related to the importance of “harmonious form, mathematical proportion, and a unit of measurement based on the human scale.”2


Major decorative features of the Renaissance were found in richly carved wood features and the use of polychrome, gilding and paint on the ceiling, walls and doors. Richly detailed mouldings were created with line and well-built elegance. These effects were coloured in brilliant arrays that included everything from cream to black. Colours were used as a backdrop to the paintings, sculpture, and carvings, but never overpowered the space.
Wood carvings were detailed and drew in part from the Gothic style. The carvings were often used in staircases, coffered ceilings and cornices. Recessed wood panels were engraved with sturdy motifs and elegant renderings. Italian wood-carvers who diligently honed their craft during their work in churches of Medieval times, now possessed a high level of skills they could apply to the Renaissance. Through the use of cypress, walnut, oak, and on occasion, costly ebony, they created a variety of furniture and other woodworking details with great expertise.


The Renaissance architects and artists had restraint in their desire to be elaborate – good judgment was used in placing furniture in order for rooms not to be exaggerated. The idea of “an overstuffed atmosphere, where multiplicity of colours, contours and designs produces an indefinite impression of confusion…”3 was not the intent. Walls however accessorized, were always in concert with the surrounding decorative elements in the space.  Frescoes, a painting on dry plaster, were often used as were rich hangings of velvet or stamped gilt leather. The subject of frescoes ranged from historical, allegorical to religious scenes and they were extensively displayed on interior walls. Other combinations included using modeled stucco together with arabesques in colours and patterns that were complimentary. It would be accurate to say the Renaissance interior, despite its ornamentation and embellishment could still be simple and dignified. The common quality of Renaissance interiors was a balance in harmony between both the architecture and the interior decoration.


As brilliant as it was, Renaissance architecture did not stand alone to create an entire design. Furniture played an important role in providing an organized, symmetry look to the interiors. Furniture used in a proper scale and proportion was ideally suited to these frequently lavish interiors. The practical uses of sideboards, wardrobes and armoires were used to offset the other architectural features of the rooms. These craftsmen used a variety of coloured woods with painting and gilding in addition to inlays of “ivory, mother-of-pearl and tortoiseshell, with a mosaic of coloured stones (pietra dura)…”4


An Italian furniture innovation was the cassoni. The cassoni or chest was typically used as a vessel for the bride’s family to transport gifts for the bride and groom to their new home. The significance of the cassoni was used to exhibit the hopefully excessive bounty the bride’s family could bestow on the married couple. Not surprisingly, “brides and artists competed for the most sumptuous cassone . . . to carry her linens and trousseau to her new home.”5 Cassoni were constructed so they could stand alone, not requiring a stand, table or brace. These pieces were often created in pairs (one for the bride and one for the groom) and were highly ornamented with battle scenes or ancient mythology. Regularly carved of oak, poplar and walnut with intarsia or mosaics made of wood, cassoni were known for their gilded surfaces and painted panels.


These highly sought after pieces, were no longer assembled by carpenters and joiners, but rather by highly skilled artists including Sandro Botticelli, Paolo Uccello and Donatello who became known for their decorative and intricate designs. Their interpretations were a unique blend of traditional (battles, legends and classical history) and contemporary subject matter. The importance of the cassoni in the Renaissance was its significance as part of a business transaction between families rather than about love.


Another fitting that benefitted from the Renaissance artist was the fireplace. All kinds of generous effects were bestowed on this everlasting and integral piece. As showpieces requiring emphasis, the mantel and hearth were adorned with plastering effects, wood carving appliqués and marble accents. The often heavy, façade gave the fireplace a transformed presence that was elevated to new decorative heights.


Smaller pieces of art that were created and embellished during the Renaissance was a revival of using bronze in creating figurines, candlesticks, lamps and sconces. Mirrors were situated to further provide the illusion of space in a room while the techniques of inlaid marble and stonework were extended to opulent vases, candelabras , wreaths and swags. Imitation became a practice by using marble and stucco to emulate brocaded fabrics and painted wood to appear like colourful marble. All of these effects were combined to create variable and stunning original interiors.


While the Renaissance started in Italy, the movement eventually reached other areas of Europe including France, England, Austria and Spain. Although, their specific contributions were considerable and important, the most engaging attribute of the Renaissance is to recognize the initial influence of the Romans of antiquity. Through them, “. . . the inherited instinct for inseparably blending the beautiful with the useful again shone forth under the impetus of renewed creative vigour . . .”6.


Photo Credit:

Il Gesu
Rome, Begun 1568 (Vignola, Giacomo Barozzi da).
04490d. Interior detail of crossing and engaged corner columns, photo 1978, J. Cohen, Bryn Mawr College

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