over 20 years of viewing and acquiring French antique furniture, every once in
a while one encounters a piece that takes the breath away, as this one did when
we rounded a corner at a bustling antique fair in France and almost collided
with this table. We recognized
instantly that this ancient table epitomized the Château des BoisTM collection
in its marriage of Renaissance Italian design with French medieval carving in
solid walnut. The result is a massive
yet graceful library table of museum quality which rarely comes on the market.
The architectural nature of the table's structure owes its origins to Roman designs
on a vast scale such as viaducts with their wide, rounded arches. On a smaller scale, heavily carved marble
tables (cartibula) rediscovered in Renaissance times in ruins of ancient Roman
homes, were more likely the inspiration for the Renaissance tables of Italy,
and later, France.
The overall trestle structure of French library tables has been attributed to
Jacques Androuet du Cerceau (1510-1585) whose engravings of furniture designs
inspired generations of French craftsmen to create oblong tables with
"H" shaped stretchers, elaborate feet, and multiple pendentives or
toupies. Such tables produced in the
16th and 17th centuries may still be viewed in the museums (e.g., Ecouen) and
chateaux (e.g., Blois) of France.
This particular table hails most likely from northern France (anywhere from the
Loire Valley to Flanders to Burgundy), undoubtedly predating the dealer's
estimate of 1750 due to the quality of the walnut in terms of clarity of grain
and richness of color. Indeed, during
what is known in France as the Second Renaissance (beginning in 1545), such
walnut was known as the "noble wood" and was used for pieces of
commanding size (especially cabinets) defined by intricately carved elements
elaborating columns and arches derived from the world of architecture.
Although the overall structure of this table is Italian in ancestry, the fleur-de-lis on
the frieze below the top, on the sides of the central stretcher, and at the top
of the trestle, are undeniably French.
Were the table Italian, we would expect to see the stamen on either side
of the central petal of the fleur-de-lis as shown in Florence. Those who
commissioned and crafted this table were proud to graft a decidedly French
identity onto an otherwise Italian design.
The origin of the fleur-de-lis as symbol of France is open to speculation but
appears to have its origin in scepters of the Capetian kings. It was likely under the influence of Saint
Bernard and Suger, Abbott of the royal Basilica of St. Dénis, that Louis VII
adopted the flower as a symbol of French royalty.
On the lengthwise frieze below the top of this table, the vertical fleur-de-lis is
encased in an elliptical flourish whereas on the narrower sides it is shown
horizontally in back-to-back pairs, alternating with a stylized leaf. On the front and back of the central
stretcher are fleur-de-lis in circles, resembling medallions or coins, below
the base of each of the three columns.
Visible only to those who bend down to look under the table are three
fleur-de-lis incised on each side of the trestle where the arches
Other aspects of this design, which are unique to France, are the rounded shapes
covered with gadrooning (reminding us of acorn squash) which are suspended from
the four corners of the top and which form the base of all the columns. These are called either poignés, referring
to the shape of a clenched fist, or pots à feu referring to a rounded cooking
vessel with a top (and not to be confused with the beef stew known as
pot-au-feu). This unique shape
displaying the gadrooning is seen in furniture such as beds and dressoir
cabinets from Burgundy but likely enjoyed a wider following among the nobility
of northern France.
The feet, highly carved and tapering from the ends of the "H" shaped stretcher,
have their roots in medieval design, the table à patins. The feet are intricately carved with a leaf design on top and sides, in
harmony with the leaves carved into the narrow ends of the frieze. Perhaps this too is symbolic and comprises
an element in the coat of arms of the family who commissioned the table.
Anchoring the table firmly in the tradition, if not the epoch, of the Italian Renaissance
is its oblong design evoking the Golden Section, also known as the Divine
Proportion. Buildings and objects
created using the special ratios developed by the ancient Egyptians, later
employed by the Greeks and Romans, and eventually "rediscovered" in
the Italian Renaissance, were considered to have a powerful, almost mystical
effect. In this case, the ratio of
length to width of the table fits almost exactly the phi of the Golden Section
(1.6180). Perhaps this is yet another
reason for our profound attraction to this table.
The table's condition is, overall, excellent for a piece of its age and artistry
but the top has developed several splits, which is not uncommon in modern
interior spaces with carefully monitored heat and humidity. We have not repaired it and would leave this
to the judgment of the buyer, but we caution that such a repair could
jeopardize the table's value as an antique.