Renaissance Furniture: History & Style

Instructor: David Juliao

David has a bachelor's degree in architecture, has done research in architecture, arts and design and has worked in the field for several years.

In this lesson, we examine the main characteristics of Renaissance furniture, including materials, ornaments, and its importance as a symbol of social status. We also explore local variations that developed throughout Europe.

Art in the Renaissance

The Renaissance era produced great artists, including Da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Botticelli, who created wonderful pieces that redefined art. However, this art was not limited to paintings and sculptures. The furniture from the Renaissance is not as well-known as its visual arts, probably because it was considered more of an aspect of everyday life. In any case, Renaissance furniture was also revolutionary and represented an important shift from the trends seen during the preceding centuries.

The Renaissance was a time of significant cultural changes and artistic realizations. It is often considered the bridge between the Middle Ages and the Modern Pre-Industrial Era. Although the exact date is debated, the Renaissance is considered to have started during the last years of the 14th century in Italy, specifically in Florence.

The rediscovery of ancient Greek manuscripts piqued interest in the Classical World (Ancient Greece and Rome) and led to a growing admiration for man and nature. Renaissance art incorporated elements from these old civilizations, and artists studied the human form and proportions.

Renaissance Furniture

Renaissance furniture was first produced in Italy during the 15th century. Trade brought wealth to Italy, and the growing bourgeoisie was able to afford better and bigger housing. Also, they significantly increased the demand for high-quality furniture.

The Italian style of furniture also spread to other parts of Europe. Craftsmen from other countries traveled to Italy to learn its form and techniques, and some Italian makers were invited to other European nations by the local courts. In many places, the designs were adapted to better suit the local taste and requirements.

The Style of Renaissance Furniture

As it happened in other arts of the time, Renaissance furniture was influenced by the Classical World. The pieces had a strong architectural sense and were conceived to be a subordinated part of the architectonic design.

Furniture was also seen as a symbol of social status. Items like beds were an important symbol of wealth because they were expensive, and only the richest families could afford to have them. Canopy beds with four pillars became popular among the wealthy. On the other hand, many people still slept on mattresses stuffed with straw or even directly on a bed of straw. Something similar happened with chairs. While the wealthy families had large, comfortable and elaborate chairs, the lower classes had simpler chairs. The scissor, or x-shaped chair, was a common item.

Bed inside the Urach Castle, southern Germany (15th to 16th century)
Bed inside the Urach Castle

The marriage chest, or cassoni, was a characteristic type of furniture during the Renaissance. This chest was a wooden box decorated on the top and sides, and it was used both to store items and room decoration. All social classes tried to have at least one. However, the level of detail and ornamentation varied among social classes, and only the wealthiest could afford the most elaborate pieces.

Walnut Chest (Italy, c. 1425)
Walnut Chest

Furniture had a restrained character with simple designs and a moderate ornamentation. The decoration consisted mostly of carved details created on the surface of the wood. The designs often had some architectonic elements from the Classical World like columns, pediments, and cornices.

Other than architectonic elements, the ornaments were also inspired in mythological, historical, and religious themes. Some of the common motifs were strapwork, foliage, cupids, and arabesques, an Islamic form of decoration consisting of interlaced stylized leaves and flowers.

Cupboard with carved ornaments (France, 16th century)

Furniture makers commonly used walnut or sometimes chestnut. Some makers continued to use oak, which had been very popular for centuries but was gradually abandoned. The pieces from this period usually had dark colors that made a strong contrast with the interior walls. Some pieces, especially the chests, had painted or gilded (covered in gold leafs) finish.

Scissor chair in walnut with a leather seat (Italy, 16th century)
Scissor chair

Local Variations

Although the types of furniture and the general layout were similar in most parts of Europe, there were some local variations in materials and decoration.

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