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French vs. Italian Baroque Style Furniture

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The Baroque movement in art had major impacts across Europe, but looked a little different everywhere it went. We'll see how it impacted Italian and French furniture, and check out some examples of each.

Baroque Furniture

Picture dramatic shadows. Contrast that with rays of unyielding, gilded light. Intermix complex and intricate motifs for a sense of movement. The result is dramatic, bold, and somber, yet also regal and emotionally charged. Are we describing a great work of painting? A sculpture? A cathedral?

No, it's a chair. From the mid-late 16th century through the early 18th century, Europe was in the throws of the Baroque movement of art, characterized by its serious but dramatic and opulent aesthetic.

This was found in all forms of art, and furniture was no exception. This was an era in which a chair reflected to unwavering authority of God, or a cabinet symbolized the divine right of kings. It was not a furniture style to be ignored.

Italian Baroque Furniture

The Baroque movement was influential across Europe, but it looked a little different everywhere it went. Let's start in Italy, where the Baroque movement first emerged out of the fading Renaissance around 1560. Baroque art (art furniture) maintained the Renaissance devotion to symmetry and visual harmony, but also became more emotional, dramatic, and regal.

Common Characteristics of Italian Baroque Furniture

So, how did these artistic changes manifest in Italian furniture? For most of the Baroque period, Italian furniture maintained the basic rectilinear and geometric quality of Renaissance furniture. Where you'll see a big difference, however, is in the size, scale, and proportions.

Italian Baroque furniture was visually big, demanding attention. All proportions were exaggerated (compared to the rational and mathematically perfect styles of the Renaissance), and the entire piece seemed to take up a lot of space.

Italian Baroque cabinet
Italian Baroque cabinet

However, it doesn't feel visually weighty. Italian Baroque furniture was visually prominent, but also somewhat opulent with polished woods and ornately carved and gilded bases. While bases could include things like mermaids, lions, cherubs, and other designs, the rest of the furniture remained relatively unornamented.

Another way that Italian Baroque furniture created an aesthetic of calm opulence was through the use of stone as a decorative material. Tables were set with marble or pietra dura, a mosaic-like use of colorful stones to make images. Raised panels in cabinets could be decorated in the same way.

Decorated panels were common in Italian Baroque furniture
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Ideology

The other defining trait of Italian Baroque furniture was its ideology (yes, this furniture had an ideology). The Catholic world in the late 16th century was entering the Counter-Reformation (the campaign against the Protestant Reformation) and Rome remained the center of Catholicism.

This is why Baroque art dropped the unemotional characteristic of the Renaissance; the Church needed art to be dramatic and emotional in order to emphasize its role in people's spiritual lives. It also needed art to reinforce the idea that God was absolutely supreme and that people could only access God through the Catholic Church.

Italian furniture reflected these ideas, with the exaggerated scale and proportions emphasizing the grandeur and supremacy of the Church. Italian Baroque furniture was Counter-Reformation furniture, a visual symbol of the authority of God and Catholicism. By decorating an entire house in this style, Italian lords demonstrated their commitment to the Church and to fighting Protestantism.

French Baroque Furniture

From Italy, the Baroque style moved into France. Although it arrived as a foreign style, it was modified under the reign of Louis XIII (r. 1610-1643) into a national aesthetic and solidified under Louis XIV (r. 1643-1715) as the French Baroque reached its grandest scale.

Common Characteristics of French Baroque Furniture

In its transformation from a foreign to French style, Baroque furniture in France underwent some changes. It kept the Italian devotion to exaggerated proportions, but also expanded on this by greatly increasing the opulence and grandeur.

French Baroque furniture was often gilded from top to bottom
French Baroque furniture

Whereas Italian Baroque furniture would likely have sculptural, gilded bases, French Baroque furniture was sculpted and gilded from top to bottom. Furniture pieces became exhibitions of intricate ornamentation and decoration. It was lavishly gilded, accompanied by veneered wood and inlaid with tortoiseshell, brass, pewter, and ivory.

Over time, French styles also broke from the Italian rectilinear forms and developed more flowing, almost flowering outlines that implied movement and growth.

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