recent trip to Rome has sparked all manner of new insights into the decorative
vocabulary of the Renaissance, including "grotesque,"
"arabesque," "moresque," and a virtual menagerie of
mythological figures. Rosso Fiorentino,
who transformed the palace at Fontainebleau and saw his designs radiate from
there across Europe, introduced these into France from Italy, igniting a
passion in French designers to this day.
Thiscabinet reflects so many interesting stylistic elements, magnificently executed
in a walnut of rich patina, that it is hard to know where to begin. But we will start with the central panel of
the upper portion of the cabinet.
Anarabesque design, it includes a winged grotesque, poised to pounce. The winged figure itself is very unusual,
unlike any mythological figure we have encountered in other 19th century French
furniture or its Renaissance forebears.
With a face that appears part dragon, part feline, it stares out at us
from the door with an aura of confidence.
The arms and legs are muscular and sinewy, and the arms and ample torso
are wrapped with strapwork. Erupting
from its head are sprigs of vegetation atop which a vase rests and from which
even more decorative vegetation emerges and wraps around itself to fill much of
the frame. The strapwork design is
especially interesting in that it transforms itself into shields wrapped around
the figure's arms and extending downward to the base of the frame. In keeping with Renaissance designs, the
claw-like feet rest on a cartouche.
Framing the arabesque is an elaborate arch supported by pilasters marked by an
interlocking design of vegetation and topped by Doric capitals. These elements are echoed elsewhere on the
cabinet, such as the columns supporting the middle section.
figures are also found on the front of a second door just below that decorated
with the arabesque. Two griffin-like
figures face outward, their wings tapering into arcs that meet above a circular
frame from which the head of a woman emerges.
Hair pulled back from her face, she smiles beatifically, her eyes
narrowed and her head serving as a knob to open the cabinet if the key is not
in the key-hole.
Surroundingthe door panel is a heavy egg-and-dart type moulding into which the key-hole
for the door is cleverly obscured.
Other mouldings abound on this piece, including another take on
egg-and-dart, around the central shelf and just below the top of the piece,
underneath which are several variations on dentile moulding.
Thelevels on which the two doors sit are further embellished by elaborate corbels,
on each side, uniting vertical panel with narrow horizontal shelf. At the upper shelf is a swirled shape
appearing to represent some sort of vegetation. Above it swoops a broad arc ending in curls. At the lower shelf is another fantastic
animal, seeming to be part dolphin, part grotesque, with an elongated lower
As ifall this were not enough, the central part of the cabinet is comprised of a
drawer whose pull is a lion's muffle surrounded on both sides by a gadrooning
pattern alternating between a palm frond and an unadorned shape showing off the
beauty of the wood and the smooth carving.
We love the lion's expression.
Fierce, mouth open, frowning, he seems to dare anyone to grasp his
muzzle and pull the drawer open. His
lush mane drapes below the plane of the drawer, curled in elaborate patterns
Carlo Crivelli would have adored.
Belowthe drawer is a pot-board supported by pairs of fluted, Doric columns united at
the top by an arch. At the back of the
pot-board is another arabesque. This
time it is based on a central vase design surrounded by curled acanthus
leaves. This panel, in a smaller
version appears on the sides of the cabinet.
On either side of the central panel at the back of the pot-board are
intricately carved palm fronds echoing those on the frieze of the drawer and on
the columns uniting top and bottom, just below the figures of seated jesters,
their legs crossed and their arms on their heads, supporting the columns.
Despitethe rich vocabulary including almost every Renaissance design element one can
imagine, the effect is united and restrained with the whole decidedly greater
than the sum of its parts. The cabinet
affords a feast for the eyes, not only from its intricate carving and fantastic
creatures, but the sheer splendor of the wood's patina.