The term Baroque often brings to mind highly decorative churches and theatrical artwork of 17th-century Europe, but this movement also expanded into the realm of furnishings. The substantive and extravagant Baroque style was a departure from the classicism of the Renaissance and would permeate the European courts and noble households of the era. Read on to discover the history of this opulent yet refined style.
After a long period of utilitarian furnishings mostly free of embellishment following the collapse of the Roman Empire, the Late Renaissance saw European furniture artisans begin to embrace more elaborate decoration and carving. Furniture design continued on this trajectory beyond the Renaissance, and furnishings of the Baroque period in art celebrated opulent decoration like no era before. The style originated in Italy but soon spread to other parts of the continent, flourishing in Europe from the 17th century into the early 18th century when the lighter, more asymmetrical Rococo style came into fashion.
Two major cultural and economic factors shaped the furniture of this period: new trade activity with the East and the Counter-Reformation. First, expanding trade meant that European artisans had access to new materials, techniques and design influences. Second, the Counter-Reformation was the Catholic reaction against the Protestant Reformation, and the Catholic Church began to promote the Baroque style as a way to exhibit their wealth and power. The Baroque emphasis on drama and emotion had mass appeal and was a way to cultivate a larger audience for the Church. Also, monasteries saw a new need for lecterns and writing desks, and the Baroque style became a staple in every well-appointed monastic library.
The Baroque period introduced a majestic, royal style of decor. Pieces were massive and dominated by symmetry and heavy gilt bronze work, and the use of marquetry added refinement. Popular decorative motifs included foliage, putti, crests and initials. High contrast in both the treatment of colors and surfaces was another characteristic of the style, as well as bold ornamentation and movement. Like the art and architecture associated with the movement, Baroque furnishings were highly dramatic, with every detail contributing to the overall harmony of the finished piece.
The preferred types of furnishings also evolved during the Baroque period. Commodes or chest of drawers, writing desks and four-poster beds came into more general use during this era and remain standard furniture items in homes today. Heavy upholstery was both a decorative and functional addition to seating. Thanks to advances in glass blowing, mirrors also became popular, with the most impressive examples created for the famous Hall of Mirrors at Versailles.
Although the Baroque style was influential across Europe, there were variations in the movement from region to region. In Italy, where the movement began and grew out of the fading Renaissance, furnishings kept the symmetry and geometry of the Renaissance; however, there was a shift in size and proportion. Italian Baroque furniture commanded attention with its large size and exaggerated proportions. Furniture shared the theatricality of Baroque art with sharp contrasts of dark and light. Walnut and ebony wood were popular materials, and pieces often featured ivory and hardstone inlay.
In the second half of the 17th century, France rose to political and cultural prominence in Europe. France’s leader at the time, Louis the XIV, often called the Sun King, ushered in a golden age of art, music and leisure to the lavishly adorned court he presided over at Versailles. The king used the grandeur of Baroque design as a symbol of his majesty and reign. Opulent decorations reflected the king’s power and influence, and they often included his chosen symbol — the sun.
Louis XIV brought the most talented artists and craftsmen from all over Europe to Paris to establish the city as the center of production of luxury goods. One of his most accomplished artisans was the famed cabinetmaker André Charles Boulle, who was undoubtedly the master of inlaying materials such as brass, pewter, horn, tortoiseshell and mother of pearl into ebony. This type of marquetry became known as Boulle work and is often considered the peak of achievement in decorative arts of the time.
Flanders and the Netherlands
Baroque furniture in the northern region of Europe was quite a bit simpler in design compared to their French and Italian counterparts. This quieter style was more interested in naturalistic carvings and realism. Northern artisans placed more emphasis on the use of luxurious timbers rather the extravagant ormolu mounts of the Louis XIV style. Still, they employed and excelled in a number of Baroque decorative techniques, including marquetry and the use of tortoiseshell veneering and ebony.
During the reign of William and Mary in England, Baroque furniture became simpler and the use of ornament more restrained, although is still utilized rich materials and marquetry. William III imported Dutch craftsmen to England who worked with local cabinetmakers. English artisans enjoyed exotic veneers, floral patterns and color, resulting in elegantly styled pieces.
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"Furnishings during the Reign of Louis XIV." Metmuseum.org. Accessed June 15, 2020. https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/lofu/hd_lofu.htm.
Gilman, Roger. Great Styles of Interior Architecture: With Their Decoration and Furniture. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1924.
Postell, James Christopher, James Christopher Postell, and James Christopher Postell. Furniture Design. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2012.