chest has all the special ingredients we admire about French antiques - an
overall architectural design, magnificent carving, combined into a useful piece
of furniture for a modern home or business.
striking is the central panel depicting a salamander, the heraldic symbol for
King François I (reigned 1515-1547).
The belief was that a salamander had mystical powers, and when thrown
into a fire would not be consumed.
François was an interesting guy for a number of reasons. First of all, he was relatively distant from
the successions expected to take place and it was only when Louis XII died
without a male heir that François became king, and conveniently, was already
married to Claude de France, Louis XII's daughter who-- because she was female
-- could not inherit the throne. Then,
about midway into François's reign, troops of the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles
V, sacked Rome in 1527 and the great artists who had been working for Pope
Clement VII hightailed it to safer locales.
For many, including Rosso Fiorentino and Leonardo da Vinci, this meant
France. Both worked for François I on
projects including the expansion of Châteaux at Fontainbleau, Blois (replete
with salamanders and the porcupine that Louis XII had included in his
heraldry), Amboise, as well as the Palais du Louvre in Paris.
time François died and his son, Henri II took over, Italian artists and
craftsmen were well-entrenched in France, a second wave having come north with
Catherine de' Medici when she married Henri and put her own stamp on royal
palaces such as Fontainbleau.
flowering of design united architecture and furniture, as well as painting and
sculpture, in what has come to be known as the Second Renaissance in France
(1530-1590). Its chief characteristics
included a focus on mythological and allegorical subject matter depicted in
highly detailed drawings and prints such as those of Rosso Fiorentino exhibited
at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. In 1987.
of sorts, grew up around François I in the 19th century, on the heels of Gothic
Revival (style troubadour in France), and involving a similar romanticizing of
the Renaissance period and its real-life rulers. A fascinating article by Janet Cox-Rearick (see References,
below) describes how 19th century French painters began depicting the king as
an ideal ruler-prince and patron of the arts, involved directly with the
artists he employed such as Leonardo da Vinci.
Politically, this mirrored the post-Revolutionary period and restoration
of the monarchy - art as propaganda.
Symbols of past reigns, such as the fierce and intrepid salamander
linked to François I, were idealized and promoted.
were to create a 19th century homage in walnut to François I and his chief
artist/designer, Rosso Fiorentino, this chest would be the ideal result. A hallmark of the Second Renaissance
involved cabinetry and chests with caryatids (female figures) and telamons
(male figures) forming the pillars of front corners and framing a central
salamander depicted in the central panel of this chest is one of the most
fearsome depictions we have encountered.
Not only is it shown surrounded by flames, they are shooting menacingly
from its mouth - a sort of Renaissance flame thrower designed to keep even the
most bloodthirsty enemy at bay. Its
musculature displays a keen awareness of the coiled power of a salamander's
legs and its ability to leap and throw itself aloft. The body is characterized by rippling rhythmical ribs, lending
credence to the notion of a lean and mean warlike creature. Even the face of the salamander exudes
menace, right down to the intricately carved teeth framing the tongue of flames
issuing from its mouth. This salamander
has talons with sharp claws that, while not anatomically correct, contribute to
the overall premise of a menacing and ferocious creature. Looking at the ones scuttling around our
backyard here in Texas, it's difficult to imagine such strength and endurance,
but that's what myth and legend are all about.
the symbolism of creatures, the alternating palmettes comprising the upper and
lower friezes of the chest, along with the tips of acanthus leaves seen at the
corners of the base, reinforce the Renaissance roots of this piece. The intricate mouldings at top and bottom
lend weight and balance to the strongly architectural nature of this chest.
so many pieces echoing the Second Renaissance and the 16th century, the
stylistic elements such as caryatids, palmettes, and acanthus leaves are
decidedly Italian, the unequivocal stamp of Frenchness is provided by the bun
feet, instead of lions paws (as one would see on an Italian chest), even if one
did not know the symbolic origins of the salamander. The finishing touch of Renaissance design is seen in the side
panels where an oval shield-like design is framed by elaborate flourishes of
walnut from which this chest has been carved is especially exquisite. Its rich patina and fine grain are among the
most beautiful examples of walnut used in furniture. And while the photos reflect tiny holes evidencing past insect
damage, it is likely as old as the chest itself. There is no evidence of current infestation. The top reflects clearly the grain of the
wood in all its richness and natural variations of color.
Jacqueline, Le Mobilier Français du Moyen Age à la Renaissance, Editions d'Art
Monelle Hayot (Saint-Just-en-Chaussée, 1988); Carroll, Eugene A., Rosso
Fiorentino, Drawings, Prints, and Decorative Arts, (National Gallery of Art,
Washington, D.C., 1987); Cox-Rearick, Imagining the Renaissance: The Nineteenth-Century Cult of François I as
Patron of Art, 50 Renaissance Quarterly (1997); Thirion, Jacques, Le Mobilier du Moyen Age et de la
Renaissance en France (Editions Faton, Dijon, 1998).