Early Middle Ages. With the collapse of the Roman Empire during the 4th–5th centuries, Europe sank into a period in which little furniture, except the most basic, was used: chairs, stools, benches, and primitive chests were the most common items. Several centuries were to pass before the invading Teutonic peoples evolved forms of furniture that approached the Roman standard of domestic equipment. Comparatively little furniture of the medieval period in Europe has survived, and only a handful of these pieces date from before the end of the 13th century. One reason for this is the perishable nature of wood, but more important is the fact that furniture was made in relatively small quantities until the Renaissance.
France. The furniture of France was among the first to be influenced by the Italian Renaissance. Louis XII and many of his court visited Italy and soon took Italian artists and craftsmen and works of art into France. The French Renaissance of furniture can be divided into two stages. First was a period of transition and adaptation; during the reign of Louis XII and the first part of the reign of Francis I, the pieces were basically Gothic in form, and Gothic ornament was mixed with the cupids, medallion heads, and grotesque decorations of the incoming Renaissance style. During the second phase, from the end of the reign of Francis I, the new style displaced the Gothic. The more exuberant arabesque shapes of Renaissance decoration, however, gave way to increasingly architectural design, and oak was almost entirely superseded by walnut. Centres of furniture making were established at Fontainebleau, where Francis I employed several Italian artists and craftsmen; in Île-de-France, headed by the work of Jacques du Cerceau; and in Burgundy, where, led by the craftsman and designer Hugues Sambin, design was influenced by the Renaissance style evolved in the Netherlands.
Woods and Ornamentation, A number of different types of woods were used during this period including rosewood and mahogany with rich graining. Some pieces had pine bases with mahogany veneers, and when crafted nicely together they had the appearance of solid wood. Those with simpler graining in the veneer usually fall into the cottage furniture category. Marble tops on tables were also popular during this period. Ormolu laurel wreaths decorated the sides and fronts of desks and cabinets to help to prevent scratching and nicks in the wood. High relief carvings included pineapples, cornucopias, acanthus leaves, and the statement-making caryatid. “The Sphinx, resembling a Pharaoh's head on a body of a lion with claw feet, enthralled everyone. Soon claw feet became an Empire icon bedecking everything from chairs to beds,” said Frank Farmer Loomis IV in Antiques 101. However, claw feet on American pieces were mostly carved while on French styles they tended to be ormolu. He also notes that legs for tables and other pieces were often fashioned like classically shaped columns.
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