From the beginning of the Renaissance in the early 15th century, there were changes in furniture forms that were to spread over Europe. The growth of a wealthy and powerful bourgeoisie caused the building of more substantial houses and a demand for good furniture. Italian Renaissance furniture shows a strong architectural bias, and the purpose of the piece, as in Roman furniture, was subordinate to its form. The furniture of the early Italian Renaissance is often restrained, with beautiful, simple designs carved in walnut For more elaborate work, sculpture in low relief and stucco modelled in intricate patterns were much used. The stucco was usually gilded all over and picked out in bright colours.
The cassone, or marriage coffer (hope chest), was a form on which the craftsman’s skill was lavished. In addition to elaborate relief work and gilding, these coffers often were painted on the front and sides and occasionally inside the lid as well, with appropriate biblical or mythological scenes. Motifs popular with the Italian carver included cupids, grotesque masks, scrolled foliage, and strapwork. The fixed writing desk is the forerunner of the writing bureau, which became an indispensable article of furniture as writing became more general.
A type of chair called a sgabello was much favoured at this time in Italy. The seat was a small wooden slab, generally octagonal, supported at front and back by solid boards cut into an ornamental shape; an earlier variety was supported by two legs at the front and one in the rear; a solid piece of wood formed the back. Another chair of the period was the folding X-shaped chair, sometimes called a Dante chair. Tables were generally oblong, supported by columns, consoles (brackets), or terminal figures, with a long central stretcher running from end to end. Italian Renaissance furniture forms reshaped the furniture of the remainder of Europe.
The furniture of France was among the first to be influenced by the Italian Renaissance. Louis XII and many of his court visited Italy and soon took Italian artists and craftsmen and works of art into France. The French Renaissance of furniture can be divided into two stages. First was a period of transition and adaptation; during the reign of Louis XII and the first part of the reign of Francis I, the pieces were basically Gothic in form, and Gothic ornament was mixed with the cupids, medallion heads, and grotesque decorations of the incoming Renaissance style. During the second phase, from the end of the reign of Francis I, the new style displaced the Gothic. The more exuberant arabesque shapes of Renaissance decoration, however, gave way to increasingly architectural design, and oak was almost entirely superseded by walnut. Centres of furniture making were established at Fontainebleau, where Francis I employed several Italian artists and craftsmen; in Île-de-France, headed by the work of Jacques du Cerceau; and in Burgundy, where, led by the craftsman and designer Hugues Sambin, design was influenced by the Renaissance style evolved in the Netherlands.
French furniture of the 16th century was remarkably graceful and delicate; it was enriched with inlay of small plaques of figured marble and semiprecious stones, sometimes with inlay or marquetry of ivory, mother-of-pearl, and different coloured woods.
Chairs began to be lighter in design; the back became narrower, the panelled sides and base were replaced by carved and turned arms and supports, and legs were joined by stretchers at their base. A specialized chair known as a caquetoire, or conversation chair, supposedly designed for ladies to sit and gossip in, had a high, narrow back and curved arms.
Elaborately carved oblong tables were supported by consoles or fluted columns connected by a stretcher surmounted by an arched colonnade. Chests decorated in the new style were still widely used, although frequently replaced by the armoire (a tall cupboard or wardrobe), which was sometimes made in two stages, the upper compartment containing numerous small drawers.
Because of the long occupation of Spain by the Moors, a style called Mudéjar evolved. While furniture in this style remained in form essentially European, decoration had an oriental flavour. A type of cabinet known as vargueno was typically Spanish. The upper part, in chest form, with drawers inside, had a fall front (a hinged writing surface that opened by falling forward), often elaborately mounted in wrought iron and backed by velvet, with a massive iron lock. The cabinets were richly carved, painted, gilded, and inlaid with ivory in a Moorish manner. There was a tendency for Italian models to be followed in the furniture of the 16th and 17th centuries.
In the 16th century, Italian Renaissance ornament was adopted and transformed by artists and designers of northern Europe, particularly in northern Germany and the Low Countries, who created an independent style of decoration. Strapwork, cartouches, and grotesque masks are characteristic features of this northern Renaissance style, and are found repeatedly in the pattern books of German and Flemish artists of the time—books of ornament which circulated among and influenced metalworkers, carvers, plasterers and furniture makers throughout the north.
Heavy oak tables, sometimes draw (extension) tables, had massive legs and solid stretchers. Beds were heavily draped to provide privacy, as the bed might be located in any room of the house. Folding wooden chairs and low stools, with more or less elaborate turnery, were still used, besides a new type with baluster-formed or twisted legs and arms, and straight backs heightening through the 17th century.
The Italian Renaissance did not affect the design or ornament of furniture in England until about 1520. Evolution from the Gothic style was a gradual process, influence coming first from Italy and, in the second half of the 16th century, from the Low Countries. In the early stages, furniture remained Gothic in form, though Italian motifs slowly replaced the older Gothic ornament. Many pieces of early Renaissance English furniture combined linenfold panelling with medallion heads and Italianate cupids, but by the middle of the century both new ornament and new forms had replaced the medieval style. About the middle of the century the direct influence of Italy weakened, and its place was taken by that of the Low Countries. The northern style of Renaissance ornament was propagated in England by pattern books, immigrant workmen, and imported Flemish and German furniture, and before long it was adapted by English craftsmen into an individual and peculiarly English style.
Characteristic of this style is the enrichment of every surface with flamboyant carved, turned, inlaid, and painted decoration, which strongly reflects the spirit of the English Renaissance. During Elizabeth I’s reign there was a considerable and fairly widespread increase in domestic comfort, to be seen in improved construction, multiplication of types, and the tentative beginnings of upholstered furniture. A series of inlaid chests with perspective architectural scenes, often called nonesuch chests, were either imported from Germany or made by German workmen in England. They were influential in propagating the technique of inlaid decoration, which by the end of the century was being applied to every type of furniture.
Apart from the gradual change from Gothic to Renaissance ornament, the 16th century produced several changes in the design and construction of individual types. Chairs became slightly more common, though even in Elizabeth’s own palaces, stools were the usual form of seating. From the box chair evolved a type in which the arms and legs were no longer filled in with panelling but which had plain or turned legs, with shaped arms resting on carved or turned supports. The backs of chairs were still panelled and decorated with carving and inlay or surmounted with a wide and richly carved cresting. Folding chairs, X-shaped and of varying construction, were also used. Chairs without arms, called farthingale chairs, were introduced in the early 17th century to accommodate the wide skirts, called farthingales, that were popular at the time. Farthingale chairs had upholstered seats and a low, rectangular upholstered back raised on short supports a little above the seat. Armchairs of similar design were made. Turkey work (a type of needlework) and velvet were usually employed for upholstery.
Early in the 16th century a new style of bed design appeared; the greater part of the frame was left exposed and was enriched with carving and other decoration, making the frame itself an important part of the design. Favourite carvers’ motifs for beds and other types of furniture included strapwork, grotesque masks, and caryatids (draped female figures), bulbous turned pillars and supports, arcading (decorating consisting of arches or arcades), and patterns of scrolled foliage. The heavily turned “cup and cover” motif is frequently found on bedposts in the later 16th century. The cumbersome Gothic trestle tables were replaced by “joyned tables,” with tops fixed to the frames. Draw tables, which could be conveniently lengthened by pulling out the two leaves concealed under the top, were also introduced. Table legs and sides were decorated with carving and inlay, and the cup and cover motif is often found on the legs. Various types of cupboards were made, usually in two stages, or levels. In court cupboards both stages were left open. A simple form of chest of drawers was introduced about 1620.