A 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.
This cabinet 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.
An arabesque 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.
Fantastic 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.
Surrounding the 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.
The levels 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 jaw.
As if all 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.
Below the 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.
Despite the 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.
Ader-Tajan, Collection Bruno Perrier Haute Epoque (Catalog for Sale at Auction on April 6, 1992 at the Hôtel Drouot, Paris); Boccador, Jacqueline, Le Mobilier Français du Moyen Age à la Renaissance (Editions d'Art Monelle Hayot, Saint-Just-en-Chaussée, 1988); Thirion, Jacques, Le Mobilier du Moyen Age et de la Renaissance en France (Editions Faton, Dijon, 1998); Viollet-le-Duc, Eugène, Le Mobilier Médiéval (Georges Bernage, editor) (Editions Heimdal, 2003); Ward-Jackson, Peter, Some Main Streams and Tributaries in European Ornament from 1500 to 1750 (Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 1969)
This cabinet would attract attention in any room and merits pride of place for viewing from all sides.