An extremely rare and important Italian gold, black and polychrome-japanned armoire, most probably made in Rome, of rectangular form with canted corners and two full-length doors, elaborately decorated overall with raised lacquer panels and gilt painted borders, the breakfront floral and foliate cornice above a panelled chinoiserie lacquer frieze with figures and buildings in a river landscape divided by three gilt bronze grotesque masks, above the original (and one later) glazed door and side panels, framed by a strap-work and arabesque border with alternating figures of a grotesque head, a chinaman holding a crane and an urn, the same border repeated on the lower parts of the doors, on the sides and on the interior, with shaped lacquer panels with an urn supported by sphinxes amid rocaille cartouches above the lower part of the doors and sides, the doors with pear-drop handles above rectangular lacquer panels with shaped borders decorated with garden and water landscapes, chinoiserie figures, birds, buildings and foliage, similarly decorated on the lower rectangular panelled sides, the canted corners with lacquer panels centred by a gilt grotesque mask, the red silk-lined interior with three shaped upper shelves above gilt hinged brackets to support a pull-out display shelf above two shelves above a painted apron on bracket feet
Italy, most probably Rome, date circa 1720
Height 253 cm, width 152 cm, depth 55 cm.
This outstandingly beautiful armoire can be considered unique since no other piece of similar design appears to be known. Expert opinion asserts that it was made in Italy, most probably in Rome and that it dates to about 1720. Certainly the construction of the pine carcass is typical of furniture produced in Rome, though its simpler elegantly linear form makes it stand alone. More usually one associates Italian furniture of this date with bolder and more sinuous lines, as one can see in the shaping of the upper shelf fittings. The japanned chinoiserie landscapes, some of the finest examples of their kind, are directly inspired by Oriental lacquer decoration, though the buildings, especially the rooflines share more in common with Etruscan rather than Oriental architecture. On the other hand the borders and smaller lacquer panels featuring arabesques, strap-work, grotesques and sphinxes owe much to Italian design. In particular they relate to Renaissance ornaments, which in turn were inspired by the rediscovered Classical decorations adorning Nero's Golden House, near Rome. Furthermore the grotesque mounts relate to a type of ornament found on of some Roman furniture such as a carved console in the Galleria Doria-Pamphili, Rome (illustrated in Alvar Gonzalez-Palacios, "Il Mobile nei Secoli", 1966, vol. III, p. 20, pl. 26).
Despite the lack of close comparisons, there exist a few pieces made in early eighteenth century Rome, which are decorated in a similar fashion. A bureau decorated with polychrome cream, blue and gilt japanning was recently sold in New York; though originally catalogued as German, probably Dresden circa 1730, recent documentation has revealed that it originated from Rome. The initial misattribution of the bureau is not altogether surprising since knowledge and research concerning this specialised field is relatively scarce. Added to this, only a few Italian, especially Roman pieces from the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century have survived. One can also compare the present decoration with that on a gold on blue lacquer commode made in Rome circa 1750 or earlier, owned by Principe Urbano Barberini (illustrated Hans Huth, "Lacquer of the West", 1971, pl. 141 and 142). As here it includes Oriental figures and buildings within a garden landscape complete with ornamental rockwork and flowering trees. Very different in style is a cream (probably originally white) lacquered commode made in Rome circa 1750 now in the Los Angeles County Museum, as well as a pair of light grey (probably faded from light blue) lacquered commodes in the Palazzo Pallavicini, (respectively illustrated in Huth, ibid. pls. 143-4). All three feature gilt floral decorations, and like the Barberini commode are of a bold curvaceous form. Closer in style is a plain rectangular shaped microscope box, decorated by the Jesuit father, Paulus Maria Petrini (1704-73) in Rome, circa 1750 (illustrated in Huth, ibid. pl. 140). As here it has a bold chinoiserie decoration in gold and black lacquer.
An early eighteenth century painted bureau, believed to have been made in Rome and attributed to Sebastano Conca (1680-1764) offers an interesting comparison with the present piece. Though the former is not lacquered the border decorations bear similarities, such as the arabesques, strap-work, floral ornaments and scrolled cartouches centred by grotesque masks or shell motifs. The bureau is believed to have been part of Principessa Elisabeta Farnese's dowry at the time of her marriage to Prince Philip of Anjou-Bourbon (later King Philip V of Spain) in 1714. Such a provenance indicates the importance of such pieces and confirms the view that the present armoire must also have been made for an important patron of the arts. Indeed it is believed to have once belonged to the noble Marabotti family.
Lacquer work first became a fashionable form of European decoration during the late sixteenth century, not least in Italy and especially at Venice. However in about 1630 its desirability waned for some thirty years but from about 1660 production resumed and thereafter continued in popularity. The initial vogue for such decoration was largely inspired by written and illustrated accounts by European travellers to the Far East as well as the number of imported Oriental lacquer artefacts such as screens, cabinets, coffers and trays. These brightly coloured lacquer pieces astounded Europeans who delighted in their exotic and decorative appeal. But their desirability and rarity also made them extremely expensive. Thus European artists began to imitate the technique, known in the West as japanning. Father Filippo Bonanni, an authority on Chinese and European lacquer was the first European to correctly describe the constituents of true Oriental lacquer. After examining artefacts sent from China to Cosimo III of Tuscany, in 1720 he published his findings noting that the resin (from the rhus vernicifera) was not transportable and that the tree was impossible to grow in Europe. He therefore recommended shellac, a substance deposited on trees by an insect (coccus lacca), already used by most Italian lacquer masters.
The first consignments of lacquerware reached Europe via Venice, Europe's historic gateway to and from the East. Thus Venice soon established itself as a major centre for lacquer work. A French traveller, Maximilian Misson, who visited Venice in 1688, noted that it had a lively business in lacquerware of all prices. Despite this account very few late seventeenth century Italian lacquer pieces are known today and thus it can only be assumed that many were destroyed. Turin also gain repute as a centre for lacquer work; the craft was practised elsewhere in Italy albeit on a smaller scale in Genoa, Palermo, Naples, Sicily and elsewhere.
In Rome, the fashion for lacquer work was never as popular as in Venice, possibly it was felt that the grand Renaissance and Baroque palaces might have dwarfed its bright and delicate appearance. Nevertheless lacquer decoration was practised there and at a relatively early date. In a letter of 1616, William Smith an English lacquer master working in Rome noted that he was employed by "Cardinales and other Princes in works after the Chinese fashion which is much affected here". Just over a century later in 1720, Father Bonanni recorded a lacquer master working in Via dei Coronari, near Piazza Navona, who produced lacquer caskets, writing-desks and tables decorated with gilt arabesques and foliage but not in the Chinese style. While the present piece includes gilt arabesques and foliage it also features dramatic chinoiserie decoration. Not only is it supremely beautiful and in almost perfect original condition, it is also extremely rare and thus assumes an importance all of its own.