Inlaid woodwork, in which decorative material such as wood or ivory is set into the surface of the veneer, has accompanied the art of furniture making for thousands of years. Ivory inlay can be seen in Egyptian furniture, particularly in small, meticulously executed toilet caskets, but it is difficult to locate in Greek and Roman furniture, today known almost exclusively from pictorial representations.
In medieval Europe, inlay work gave way to wood carving and then experienced a rich period of development during the Renaissance in Italy. Italian intarsia (mosaic of wood) work found particular favour in panels over the backs of choir stalls and in the private studies and chapels, or oratories, of princes. An intarsia study of the Duke of Urbino, an Italian nobleman and patron of the arts, is still preserved in the palace of Urbino, and a corresponding room, originally at Gubbio, is now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Together with illusionism, linear perspective (the technique of representing on a plane or curved surface the spatial relation of objects as they might appear to the eye), which had just been discovered, achieved triumphs in Italian intarsia work.
Ivory was used on both Renaissance and Baroque cupboards, sparingly to begin with, lavishly later on. Inlay work was especially used in the many splendid German and French cabinets of the period. In the Netherlands and England an extremely rich form of marquetry (patterns formed by the insertion of pieces of wood, shell, ivory, or metal into the wood veneer) was developed, incorporating floral motifs in various kinds of exotic wood on walnut. English grandfather clocks made around 1700 often had richly inlaid cases. It was in France, however, during the Rococo period especially that inlay work reached unprecedented levels of quality. The serpentine sides and fronts of commodes were veneered with costly woods whose often relatively simple grain patterns formed an effective background for richly ornamented mounts of gilded bronze.