The French word “Renaissance” means rebirth. It refers to a European cultural epoch spanning three centuries during the transition from the Middle Ages to the modern era. It was characterised by the revival of the cultural achievements of Greek and Roman antiquity, which became the benchmarks for the Renaissance works of scholars and artists that followed. Compared to the Middle Ages, groundbreaking new perspectives emerged in particular for the image of man, literature, sculpture, painting and architecture.
The Renaissance is one of the most dazzling and everlasting epochs of mankind. With boundless self-confidence, man set out for new shores in 15th and 16th century Europe and revolutionised art, culture and the economy. Cultural elites provided a unique impetus for modernisation. Within a few decades, grandiose buildings, paintings and works of art were created that are among the most important works of humanity.
The furniture art of the Renaissance was significantly influenced by two preceding ages: the Middle Ages and Roman antiquity. It was the first time that the stylistic elements of architecture were directly applied to furniture.
This is particularly evident in the decoration. Gothic decorative forms were mixed with ornaments from Roman architecture. In some cases, regional traditions were also incorporated, which can be seen either in the decoration or in the special shapes of individual pieces of furniture.
In Italy and southern France, decorative elements from architecture were primarily used, such as full and half columns, pilasters with Ionic capitals or similar. Furniture from these regions usually has a solid-looking, rectangular structure. In contrast, in Paris, the Netherlands and northern Germany, tracery and thistle tendrils were replaced by foliage, vases, cornucopias, floral grotesques and fully sculptured carved animal heads peering out from medallions or plant tendrils. Carved reliefs in France usually depict allegories and mythological scenes, for example along a chest front.
In northern Germany and the Netherlands, allegories were also used, but accompanied by biblical depictions. Spanish Renaissance furniture still shows decorative elements from Moorish art.
Alongside carving, inlay gradually established itself as a much appreciated craft. Initially still limited to geometric patterns and plant tendrils, the furniture was increasingly covered with landscape scenes. Not only were different coloured woods used, but also ivory and mother-of-pearl. The preferred material for the furniture corpus was usually walnut in Southern Europe, while oak was used in the Rhineland and the Netherlands. Imported woods such as ebony and rosewood, which were shipped to the northern Netherlands via Portugal, were so precious that they were paid for by weight. They were then worked into the oak as narrow veneer panels or attached in the form of turned staves and knobs. These precious objects were often imitated by blackened pear wood. In the southern German-speaking countries, on the other hand, maple and ash were used for veneer panels.
For example, box furniture with pedestals and attached, protruding attics were created, and tables were supported by balusters. The most widespread piece of furniture, however, remained the chest, as was already the case in the Gothic period. Newly encountered was the gallery chair, which is considered the ancestor of today’s chair. In the 16th century, richer inlay work, imaginative carvings and a preference for walnut instead of oak began to prevail. Portable folding chairs with tapestry or leather seats were built and box seats with armrests and high backs were designed. The bourgeois furnishing style produced furniture with flat-cut decorations coloured with stain; in addition to hardwood, the less expensive spruce was now also used.