Furniture in the Renaissance

The Renaissance historical period, dated between the 15th and 17th centuries, saw a vibrant “rebirth” of culture in Europe. In fact, not just a cultural rebirth of the Old Continent, but a definite political, economical and artistic transformation took place.

After the religious rigidity of the Middle Ages, the Renaissance brought with it a rediscovery of the Ancient World (think Rome and Greece) and hence the intellectual state of the art, during this period, was heavily inspired by Classical philosophy, literature and art.

Great thinkers, artists and scientist are located in this time period: Niccolò Machiavelli, Nicolau Copernicus, Francis Bacon, to name a few.

This period of “rebirth” started in Italy, the birthplace of the old Roman Empire, and brought with it, of course, new ideas when it comes to furniture making.

Portrait of Niccolò Machiavelli

In Italy, during the early 15th century, a wealthy and powerful bourgeoisie class (like the Medici) had emerged. This class, with a definite thirst for luxury and the good things in life (Italians are known to be bon vivants), demanded superior furniture to be produced to furnish their opulent houses and villas.

This led to the appearance of artisans and carpenters all over Italy who’s furniture style marked the Renaissance, and would later be exported to other European countries like France, the Netherlands and England.

During the early Renaissance period, the furniture in Italy was often restrained and in simple designs carved in walnut. Sculpture in low relief and stucco (a fine plaster used for coating) were abundant.

The cassone (or marriage chest - a rich, carved chest) was found to be very popular among the ruling classes. The production of this piece was seen as a proof of the craftsman’s ingenuity and talent as the marriage chest was a rich, showy type of furniture.

Cassone - marriage chest from the Renaissance

These coffers were typically painted on the front, sides and inside the lid as well, with depictions of biblical and mythological scenes.

Dante’s chair, as it was called, was also a frequent item in the Italian repertoire. This was an X shaped folding chair. Yet more popular was the sgabello.

French sgabello type chair

These and more designs and pieces were a source of inspiration for craftsmen in other European countries, serving the Royalty and noblemen. Each adding a bit of flavour to the mix of rich, ornamented furniture characteristic of this age. French furniture in the 16th century, for example, was particularly delicate and graceful.

Interestingly, in Spain a style called the Mudéjar evolved. With a clear scent of the Near East, Mudéjar was inspired in the legacy the Moors left in Spain after centuries of occupation. A wooden cabinet called vargueno was typical of this time and place.

Vargueno cabinet illustration

In England, a peculiar style, echoing what was happening in other countries, emerged. The English style was characterized by the enrichment of every surface with flamboyant carved inlaid decoration. The carver’s favorite motifs for beds and other furniture included grotesque masks, strap work and caryatids (draped female figures).

By the 16th century, in England, furniture was more ornamented and flamboyant with frequent use of the motifs already mentioned. More chairs were being produced, and the first attempts at creating upholstery furniture took place. The chest of drawers was also introduced during this rich historical period.


Source of information: Encyclopedia Britannica