Italian Furniture: History & Styles

Instructor: Amy Jackson

Amy has a BFA in Interior Design as well as 19 years teaching experience and a doctorate in education.

Italy has held a prominent place in furniture design for centuries. What makes Italian furniture designs so sought after? This lesson will focus on the history and styles of Italian furniture.

In the Beginningā€¦

Most of the earliest known pieces of Italian furniture were Roman adaptations of Greek designs. Bronze and wood furniture of the first century was found in the ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum. Further evidence of early Italian furniture is found in paintings and carvings. Furniture frames were made of bronze or wood and accented with precious metals, tortoiseshell, and ivory details. The Romans developed a type of folding stool that was used by common folk and Roman officials alike. Round tables with curved legs shaped like animals were popular across the empire. Images of tables like this were found on tombstones depicting funerals. Many tables were made of citrus wood with shale or marble tops.

During the 4th and 5th centuries, the Roman Empire fell. After this time, furniture was generally utilitarian in nature. Evidence of these pieces are primarily found in manuscripts, sculptures, and paintings. Plain tables and stools were typically used in kitchens, and storage cabinets had plain paneled doors. It is thought that turnery influenced the craftsmen of this period. Turnery is a method of using a lathe to shape pieces of furniture frames.

14th and 15th Centuries

There is little physical evidence of Italian furniture for the next 900 years, but most medieval furniture had similar characteristics; heavy, rough, and dark. The 14th century saw improvements in the manufacture of furniture. As new joinery methods were discovered, craftsmen could make furniture that had finer woodworking and was lighter in weight. Collapsible furniture was designed to be mobile.

The 15th century ushered in the Renaissance period, and Italian furniture underwent a huge transformation. Renaissance means rebirth, and the styles of ancient Rome and Greece became popular once more. The large wealthy and powerful social class created a demand for more houses and, in turn, more furniture. Low-relief sculpture and gilded surfaces accented pieces, making the decoration of the piece more important than its purpose.

15th or 16th century credenza
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16th and 17th Centuries

16th-century Italian furniture experiences even more changes. Inspired by Middle Eastern and Far Eastern Cultures, designers blended fantasy and mythology into their designs, sometimes in rather grotesque ways. New pieces of furniture, such as the writing desk, were designed for specific purposes. The form of Italian Renaissance furniture set the tone for furniture in the rest of Europe.

The 17th century brought the evolution of the Baroque style. Furniture created during this time had elaborate carvings and was painted or gilded with gold or silver leaf. Shells, cupids, and bold scrolls were the designs of choice. Over-exaggerated scrolls adorned the legs and arms of chairs and marble insets were incorporated into the panels of chests, tables, and cupboards.

18th and 19th Centuries

While the Rococo style was popular in France, 18th-century Italian furniture was in the Empire and Neoclassic styles. The curves of Baroque gave way to less complex and geometric. Paint colors returned to a more neutral palette. While the lines of Italian Empire and Neoclassic styles were plainer and more geometric, ornamentation was larger and inspired by Greek, Roman, and Egyptian styles.

The 19th century saw France become most influential in furniture design. Italian design during this time saw revivals of Gothic, Rococo, and Renaissance styles and the introduction of Oriental inspiration. Popular styles used ivory inlaid in walnut and ebony. Craftsmanship was of great importance down to the finest detail.

20th Century

The 20th century began a new chapter in Italian furniture design. Before WWI, Italian design was consistent with the international style and lacked balance between elegance and creativity. After WWI, Fascism all but isolated Italy, and Mussolini's dictatorship assured that isolation. Regarding furniture design, this worked to Italy's benefit as designers were able to create original Italian designs.

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