columns represent one of those wonderful surprises that occur from time to time
in the antiques business. Having bought
them in France without time to examine them in detail, we assumed they were
19th century copies of architectural elements used in the Renaissance. It was not until they arrived in a total of
six packages (two shafts, two capitals, two bases), did we begin to suspect we
had something far older and more interesting on our hands. The tip-off was the weight. These columns are hand-carved from solid
oak, and we mean solid, dense, old-growth oak, almost impossible to carve in
the intricacy and detail shown here.
Thedesign of the columns is simple and straightforward - an unadorned octagonal
base from which the shaft rises in a classic torsade or barley twist ornamented
with vines, grape leaves and bunches of grapes, all crowned with a Corinthian
capital. Yet it is the combination of
the twisted column and the twisting vines that is packed with history and
symbolism. Known as "Solomonic
columns," these are typical of a design combining the twisting cork-screw
shape and covered by delicately carved vegetation - typically grape vines and
leaves. Their name comes from an
association with the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem, from whence it was
believed that a pair of columns was brought to Rome by the Emperor Constantine
and installed in the early Christian era predecessor of the today's St. Peter's
Basilica. The columns were so famous
that they even had names - Jachan and Boaz.
The columns at St. Peter's continued to play a role even when the new
Basilica was built in the 16th century.
They were incorporated into piers beneath the dome. Bernini used the same design for the columns
supporting his bronze baldachin, commissioned by Pope Urban VIII and installed
in the Basilica in 1633. But Bernini
substituted laurel for grapevines and added bees, which some speculated were a
reference to Pope Urban VIII from the
Barberini Family whose family symbol was the bee.
InFrance, the twisted column or torsade was a chief element in furniture design
during the reign of King Louis XIII, roughly comparable to the early career of
Bernini, who would later create the magnificent bust of the King's son, Louis
XIV. Earlier, in the Second
Renaissance, columns covered in a vine motif were used on gently curving, as
opposed to twisting, columns in a cabinet attributed to François Parregod,
dated 1619. But otherwise the twisted
column covered in vines is found more often in stand-alone columns, such as
these, than incorporated into furniture design.
As thedetailed photos of these columns reflect, the carving is intricate and while
difficult to reproduce in photos, the vines, leaves and bunches of grapes are
in such high relief that, at times, there is space between them and the shaft
of the column large enough through which to pass one's finger to pass. To reach this level of representational
detail when sculpting oak signals that these columns were created as works of
art by a master carver.
Due totheir age, there are age splits in the columns, of a type that occur only when
solid, carved wood is several hundred years old. They do not affect the columns' structural integrity. Because the columns are stained such a dark
shade, any splits are less noticeable and blend with the overall decoration of
vines, leaves and bunches of grapes.
Being practical, the creator of these columns designed them in threeseparate pieces - base, shaft and capital - so that they could be moved more
easily and less likely to suffer damage.
Solid and sturdy, they are magnificent examples of the intersection of
furniture making and sculpture, resulting in masterpieces of design and
Corinne, Visions d'Intérieurs, du Meuble au Décor (Paris-Musées, Paris, 2003);
Carroll, Eugene A., Rosso Fiorentino, Drawings, Prints, and Decorative Arts
(National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1987); Thirion, Jacques, Le Mobilier du Moyen Age et de la Renaissance en
France (Editions Faton, Dijon, 1998).
are so many uses for a matching pair of columns such as these. For example, they could be placed on either
side of a bed to support a canopy or drapery in between. Or they could frame an entryway to a
room. It was to this use that a
similar pair of columns was put by Victor Hugo while he was living in exile
in a home filled with Gothic revival furniture. If their height is too short for any of these uses, they could be
mounted on an elevated base, as was common in earlier times when columns were
made of marble, porphyry and other precious substances. Because of the prominent role of bunches of
grapes in the decorative design for these columns, we believe they would be
especially attractive in the home of a wine lover, at the entry to a winery or
to enhance a wine cellar. In
whatever venue, they would benefit from custom lighting to show the intricacy
of the carving and the dramatic sweep of the vine motif.