FROM Greece, culture, born on the wings of the arts, moved on to Rome, and at first, Roman architecture and decoration reproduced only the classic Greek types; but, as Rome grew, her arts took on another and very different outline, showing how the history of decorative art is to a fascinating degree the history of customs and manners.
Rome became prosperous, greedy, powerful and imperious, enslaving the civilized world, and, not having the restraining laws of Greece, waxed luxurious and licentious, and chafed, in consequence, at the austere rigidity of the Greek style of furnishing.
We know that in the time of Augustus Caesar the Romans had wonderful furniture of the most costly kind, made from cedar, pine, elm, olive, ash, ilex, beach and maple, carved to represent the legs, feet, hoofs and heads of animals, as in earlier days was the fashion in Assyria, Egypt and Greece, while intricate carvings in relief, showed Greek subjects taken from mythology and legend. Caesar, it is related, owned a table costing a million sectaries ($40,000).
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But gradually the pure line swerved, ever more and more influenced by the Orient, for Rome, always successful in war, and had established colonies in the East. Soon Byzantine art reached Rome, bringing its arabesques and geometrical designs, it’s warm, glowing colors, soft cushions, gorgeous hangings, embroideries, and rich carpets. In fact all the glowing luxury that the new Roman craved.
The effect of this misalliance upon all Art, including interior decoration, was to cause its immediate decline. Elaboration and banal designs, too much splendor of gold and silver and ivory inlaid with gold, resulted in a decadent art, which reflected a decadent race and Rome, fell! Not all at once; it took five hundred years for the neighboring races to crush her power, but continuous hectoring did it, in 476 A. D. Then began the Dark Ages merging into the Middle Ages (fifth to fifteenth centuries).
Dark they were, but what picturesque and productive darkness! Rome fell, but the Car-loving Ian family arose, and with it the great nations of Western Europe, to give us, especially in France, another supreme flowering of interior decoration.
Britain was torn from the grasp of Rome by the Saxons, Danes and Normans, and as a result the great Anglo-Saxon race was born to create art periods. Mahomet appeared and scored as an epoch-maker, recording a remarkable life and a spiritual cycle.
The Moors conquered Spain, but in so doing enriched her arts a thousand fold, leaving the Alhambra as a beacon-light through the ages. Finally the crusades united all warring races against the infidels.
Blood was shed, but at the same time routes were opened up, by which the arts, as well as the commerce, of the Orient, reached Europe.
And so the Byzantine continued to contend with Gothic art that art which preceded from the Christian Church and stretched like a canopy over Western Europe, all through the Middle Ages. It was in the churches and monasteries that Christian art, driven from pillar to post by wars, was obliged to take refuge, and there produced that marvelous development known as the Gothic style, of the Church, for the Church, by the Church, perfected in countless Gothic cathedrals, crystallized glories lifting their manifold spires to heaven, ethereal monuments of an intrepid Faith which gave material form to its adoration, its fasting and prayer, in an unrivalled art.
There is one early Gothic chair, which has come down to us, Charlemagne’s, made of gilt-bronze and preserved in the Louvre, at Paris. Any knowledge beyond this one piece, as to what Carlovingian furniture was like (the eighth century) we get only from old manuscripts which show it to have been the pseudo-classic, that is, the classic modified by Byzantine influence, and very like the Empire style of Napoleon I.
Here is the reason for the type. Constantinople was the capital of the Eastern Empire, when in 726 A. D., Emperor Leo III prohibited image worship, and the artists and artisans of his part of the world, in order to earn a livelihood, scattered over Europe, settling in the various capitals, where they were eagerly welcomed and employed.
Even so late as the tenth to fourteenth centuries the knowledge we have of Gothic furniture still comes from illustrated manuscripts and missals preserved in museums or in the national libraries.
Rome fell as an empire in the fifth century. In the eighth century, Venice asserted herself, later becoming the great, wealthy, Merchant City of Eastern Europe, the golden gate between Byzantium and the West (eleventh to fifteenth centuries). Her merchants visiting every country naturally carried home all art expressions, but, so far as we know, her own chief artistic output in very early days, was in the nature of richly carved wooden furniture, no specimens of which remain.