Decorative past 4000 bce-1600 ce
Decorative past 4000 bce-1600 ce
From the earliest times man has felt the need to decorate his home. From cave paintings to silver candelabra, porcelain figures to eames chairs, the way we decorate our homes reflects the age we Live in.
The ancient world
From ancient times until fairly recently, only the wealthy could afford the decorative items needed to furnish a home. Furniture, ceramics, silver- and metalware, glass, tapestries and carpets, and sculpture were out of reach of most people. The items people have used to beautify their homes have changed with fashion and technology – until Johann Friedrich Bdttger at Meissen had discovered the formula for hard-paste porcelain in 1709, European potters had to use less refined earthenware. Meanwhile, the popularity of Classical decoration in the 18th century was fuelled by the discovery of Herculaneum (1738) and Pompeii (1748). By the early 19th century Napoleon’s campaign in Egypt (1797-98) and the publication in 1802 of Baron Vivant Denon’s Aventures dans la basse et la haute igypte (Adventures in Low and High Egypt) inspired the fashion for the Neoclassical and, later, the Empire style.
Nationality also has its bearing on the decorative arts, dictating everything from which woods are used for furniture to the flora and fauna that inspire its decoration. The decorative arts have been with us since cavemen drew pictures of hunting on the walls of caves. But the best records of early decoration probably come from the relics of early civilizations that have been found in the Mediterranean countries.
With the rise of the first great civilizations in Mesopotamia, advances such as writing and irrigation spread throughout ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome. As early as 4,000bce Egyptian artists had devised a series of rules governing the proper depiction of the human figure, based on a simple grid system. Combined with “frontalism”, whereby heads are always shown in profile and torsos from the front, these guidelines marked the beginnings of a formal approach to art.
During the first years of the New Kingdom, from around 1,500bce, Egypt had become a cosmopolitan place. Its citizens were wealthy enough to support a class of craftsmen. The more affluent members of society enjoyed state-of-the-art creature comforts such as headrests and boxes for cosmetics, made from native woods such as acacia, sidder, and fig, or imported cypress and cedar. The wood might be inlaid with ebony, ivory, semi-precious
stones, or painted to look like them. Master craftsmen worked with teams of apprentices, acting as project managers and taking final responsibility for the results of these group efforts. Unlike the uniform style of Egyptian funereal art, decorative pieces for the home were varied, lively, and sometimes even experimental.
The Greeks, like the Egyptians, valued the look of their homes and possessions. It was the Greeks who first developed a uniform architecture based on “orders”. the Doric, ionic, and corinthian orders (see p.54) dictated the proportions and stylistic features of every part of a building. decorative artists from almost every historical period since have referred back to them.
throughout the Greek world, from city-states such as Athens to the Aegean islands and the colonies of southern italy and sicily, specialist potters produced a range of decorative homeware. Among the earliest decorative drinking wares was the rhyton, which evolved from the use of ox horns as cups. in time, the horn was replaced with a ceramic replica, moulded or carved with an animal’s head at the foot and, often, with a decorative frieze around the rim. the urge to replicate natural forms has driven decorative artists throughout history. The rhyton was complemented by other vessels, especially the amphora, for storing oil or wine. The krater, used by the Greeks to mix wine with water for parties, was often decorated with images of Dionysus, the god of wine and inebriation. In the Roman world earthenware oil lamps were mould-cast with a variety of decorative subjects ranging from the devotional to the erotic.
Evidence for the use of glass in the ancient world is widespread. The Roman historian Pliny attributed the discovery of glass to a troupe of seafaring merchants who used chunks of the saltpetre their ship was carrying to prop up their cooking pots on the beach. The cooking fire fused the sand and ashes with the saltpetre to form the first man-made glass. While this tale is impossible to verify, archaeologists have unearthed countless examples of refined glassware from ancient times, even leading to speculation that our current mastery of the art has not yet reached the same standard.
A separate decorative art tradition evolved in the East. The sophistication of surviving artefacts from Neolithic China (4,000-2,000bce) is far greater than anything that was produced in the West at the same time.
the ancient chinese valued jade for its beauty and purity and had been using it for 5,000 years before confucius said: “When i think of a wise man, his merits appear to be like jade.” from the earliest days, chinese artisans carved jade into exquisite sacrificial vessels, decorative objects, and functional tools and utensils. Even musical instruments such as flutes and chimes were made from blocks of jade. The unparalleled ritual significance of this exalted stone is demonstrated by the existence of jade burial suits, such as that of the prince Liu sheng, who died in 113bce. this extraordinary suit was constructed from almost 2,500 pieces of jade sewn together with gold thread. the next most significant material in early chinese decorative art was bronze. During the shang dynasty (1,700-1,027bce) chinese metalworkers produced a variety of decorated bronze vessels for ceremonies and banquets. These were cast in ceramic relief moulds and then carved with complex motifs. The fearsome taotie mask often appears, depicted with horns, fangs, and staring eyes.
The most outstanding and influential achievement of the chinese decorative art tradition was porcelain. Fine stoneware was being produced during the Shang dynasty and, by the time of the Eastern Han, around 25ce, chinese ceramicists had perfected hard-paste porcelain.
During the Tang dynasty (618-907ce) there was already a lively export market with the Middle East. This trade route proved especially beneficial, as it was the cobalt pigment that was imported from the Middle East which enabled chinese ceramicists to create the first blue and white wares during the Yuan dynasty (1280-1368).
The byzantine tradition
After Diocletian divided the Roman Empire in two in 286ce, the powerful Emperor constantine founded a new capital, called Nova Roma or constantinople, on the site of the ancient city of Byzantium in 330ce. This created a bridge from East to West. Byzantine art soon became a force in its own right, spurred on by the Christian zeal and economic prosperity of the new state.
Constantine’s son and heir, Constantius, began work on the great Christian temple known as the Hagia Sophia, which was eventually completed by Justinian I in 537ce. Considered by many to be the eighth wonder of the world, this building is among the supreme achievements of Byzantine art. The interior is decorated with mosaics and pillars of the local marble.
The decorative arts of Byzantium were often intended to educate or serve a moral purpose.
Figures are depicted in stiffly formal poses, and colours tend to be bright and bold so that the characters and stories represented can be easily recognized and understood. The role of decorative art as an educational medium, capable of bringing about a positive change in the owner or viewer, has since been explored in many historical periods.
The Muslim conquest of southern Spain from the 8th century exposed Europe to Islamic art for the first time. Portraiture and any depiction of the human form were forbidden in the Koran, in case they led to idolatry – worshipping a mere likeness instead of God and the prophets.
As if to compensate, early Islamic artists excelled in abstract and geometric surface decoration. Complex repeating geometric designs, often based on natural forms, are known as arabesques to this day. The religious aspect of Islamic art, and in particular its veneration of the prophet Allah, centres around the beautification of Arabic calligraphy, especially verses from the Koran. Inscriptions in highly stylized, flowing Arabic script abound in Islamic decorative art and serve the same devotional function as, for example, depictions of the crucifixion in Christian art. The many strands of early Islamic decorative art were drawn together in ambitious projects such as the Alhambra fortress in southern Spain, begun in the 13th century.
One of the most significant Islamic contributions to ceramics was the perfection of lustre decoration in the 9th century. This costly and complicated technique makes use of metal oxides to impart a shining metallic surface to pottery.
During the 11th century Islamic potters developed fritware in imitation of Chinese porcelain. This material was a combination of ground quartz, glass frit, and white clay. Ottoman potters produced a particularly fine type of this ware from the late 15th century. Known as Iznik pottery, it was covered in a white slip that acted as an ideal ground for further polychrome decoration.
Of all the decorative innovations of the Gothic period, the most awe-inspiring are the great stained glass windows depicting scenes from the Bible and lives of the saints. There is evidence for the manufacture of stained glass dating back to saxon times, but medieval craftsmen took the art to unscaled heights. Outstanding surviving examples include Notre Dame de la Belle Verriere (Our Lady of the Beautiful Window) at Chartres in northern France. The upper sections date from the 12th and 13th centuries and, despite their great age, the colours remain vibrant. The opulence of the church extended beyond the buildings to the sumptuous robes of the clergy and the fine metalware used during mass. These were usually of gold and silver and could even be encrusted with enamels or precious stones. much of the most exuberant metalware was lost during the Reformation of the 16th century. This attempt to reform the Roman Catholic Church resulted in the start of the protestant Church.
The middle ages
While artisans in the Orient and the Islamic world continued to build directly on their ancient decorative traditions, something very different happened in the West. With the fall of the Roman Empire after Rome was sacked in 476ce, Western Europe was abruptly cut off from the Classical past. in its place, the first singularly European decorative style developed, known today as gothic. Originally a distillation of influences ranging from Burgundian, Byzantine, and Islamic to Norman, the gothic style flourished from the mid-12th century and dominated European decorative art for around 400 years. the roots of the gothic style are ecclesiastical, and its greatest legacy is the network of extraordinary cathedrals and abbeys that dominate the landscape of northern Europe.
The pointed arch was one of the most important architectural innovations of the period, allowing the construction of larger and more complex buildings with massive interior spaces. such was its dominance that the pointed arch, together with associated decorative devices such as trefoils, quatrefoils, and tracery, was used extensively not just in the architecture of the Gothic period but throughout the decorative arts.
using technical devices such as vaulting and immense flying buttresses, the architects of the Gothic cathedrals were able to fit extremely large windows, flooding the interiors with light. Combined with the predominance of primary colours and gold in the decorative scheme, the effect was striking. The Byzantine roots of Christian art are evident in the Catholic Gothic style. Both share the aim of impressing upon a largely illiterate population the glory of God and, along with it, the supreme power of the Church.
Art for the home
secular art of this period was expected to be as pious as religious art, although it was often open to interpretation. A series of tapestries known as the Lady and the unicorn group, made in Flanders during the late 15th century, represents a high point of medieval decorative art and illustrate the thin line between the sacred and the profane.
The six panels – one representing each of the senses and one entitled A Mon Seul Desir (My Only Desire) – can be seen either as a young woman’s rejection of worldly pleasures or as a narrative depicting the seduction of a unicorn. Throughout history, designers have defied powerful regimes with similarly sophisticated subtlety and suggestion.
Depictions of the human figure in tapestries, manuscripts, stained glass, and paintings during the Middle Ages often exaggerated courtly grace. The proportions of the body were skewed as artists elongated the limbs and necks of their subjects. Called the International Gothic style, it reached its height towards the end of the 14th century. In reaction to the attenuated proportions, many artists started to strive for a less stylized depiction. However, knowledge of anatomy was poor and this frustrated attempts to produce realistic portraits. Even so, the rigidity that characterizes so much early Christian art was slowly giving way to naturalism.
Italy rediscovers its past
the term “Gothic” was first coined by Renaissance thinkers to disparage medieval culture by linking it , with the rampaging hordes – Goths – who had laid waste to Western Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire. Evidence of past Roman glories was everywhere in Rome, Florence, and Venice – the centres of this new movement. Regular discoveries further reinforced the belief that Classical art was superior to anything produced since. The Laocoon Group, a particularly fine Rhodian marble statue depicting the death of the Trojan priest Laocoon, was escorted to the Vatican by a rejoicing crowd on its rediscovery in 1506.
Most discoveries were of architecture, sculpture, and Roman sarcophagi. They inspired sculptors, furniture-makers, and other decorative artists to use motifs from the Classical orders such as acanthus leaves and fluted columns in their own work. swags and friezes, urns and trophies, sphinxes and putti (naked cherubs) all appeared.
Excavations revealed the grottes (underground ruins) of Nero’s Domus Aurea (Golden House) beneath the Aventine Hill in Rome during the late 15th century, and contributed directly to the grottoesque style of the early Renaissance. The walls of Nero’s state apartments were decorated with grotesques – arabesques with animal, human, and mythical figures added. Most early designers used elements from the grotesques. Between 1518 and 1519 Raphael revived them in their original completeness as whole schemes to decorate the walls of the Vatican Loggie.
The move away from extreme stylization to observing and recording nature gradually gathered pace. in the wealthy city-states of early 15th- century northern italy, architects, scientists, philosophers, and artists rediscovered the lost learning of the classical era and applied it to their work. reviving the ideas of the Greek philosopher Aristotle, the rich and powerful saw the ownership and display of beautiful works of art as a virtue. the renaissance began, with far-reaching consequences for the decorative arts, as affluent patrons poured money into commissions to display their prosperity and taste. the pioneers of the renaissance spirit believed that they were reconnecting themselves with their classical heritage after a hiatus characterized by barbarism.
Architecture and crafts
Italian architects used the texts of their ancestors as a foundation for their own work – in 1570 Andrea Palladio published Quattro Libri dell’Architeturra (Four Books on Architecture), a direct descendant of De Architectural (On Architecture) by Vitruvius, despite the one and a half millennia that separate the two texts. palladio designed villas and churches in a classical style that later became highly popular in Britain.
Within the home, wealthy newly wed couples in Italy were given a cassone, a richly decorated marriage chest that would be the centrepiece of the interior. otherwise, furniture was usually simple.
Glass firms on the venetian island of Murano were at the forefront of the European glass trade – the island’s industry was strictly regulated and more than 3,000 glass-blowers were working there by the end of the 15th century. Production at this point was heavily influenced by the prized Islamic glass of the East, particularly in terms of gilding and enamel decoration. One difference was that Venetian glassmakers used soda ash, resulting in a malleable product particularly suited to hot techniques such as blowing and lampwork.
Islamic crafts also informed ceramic art of the period – tin-glazed earthenware from Morocco inspired the creation of Italian maiolica, the name itself born of the misconception that the Moroccan wares came from Majorca.
Moving into mannerism
From Italy, Classical decorative ideals spread north through France and eventually the rest of Europe. In the 1530s two Italian artists, Rosso Fiorentino and Francesco Primaticcio, were commissioned by the French king Francois I to decorate his palace at Fontainebleau. Fiorentino and Primaticcio brought with them the full repertoire of Classical motifs, but by then the Renaissance style in Italy had developed into Mannerism, which was characterized by sinuous and contorted forms, often within grotesques. This sophisticated style often distorted Classical ideals – elongating the human figure, for instance. Northern European craftsmen discovered the themes and motifs of the Renaissance and Mannerism simultaneously, and the result was a combination of styles their Italian counterparts would never have considered. The strapwork that the Italian artists introduced to Fontainebleau was particularly influential, and became one of the hallmarks of northern European Renaissance and later styles.
One of the quirks of the courtly Mannerist style was a love of precious, bizarre materials or clever use of them. The ceramics of French potter Bernard Palissy were one example. He took casts from real animals such as frogs, snakes, and lizards and applied them to dishes, using translucent coloured glazes that made the reptiles and amphibians look even more realistically slimy and slithery. His wares were widely copied for the grottoesque value that still held great appeal.