Flamboyant colors and glamorous gilding make Italian painted furniture the eye candy of the antiques world
No one can name, for instance, the artisan responsible for a Venetian rococo commode that appeared at Christie’s, London, last winter, its flanks decorated with romantic ruins for the noble Morosini family. But that didn’t deter an unidentified European private collector from purchasing it for $779,830, more than four times the high estimate. The description given a chinoiserie piece coming up for sale atSotheby’s, New York, on December 8, dutifully limns the where, when, and what—Genoa, circa 1730, a bureau cabinet from the estate of San Francisco philanthropist Dodie Rosekrans—though the who remains unclear. The stately object is nonetheless expected to bring as much as $180,000.
Perplexing ambiguities aside, this school of furnituremaking, ranging stylistically from rococo froth to neoclassical pomp, has been enchanting connoisseurs since the Apennine Peninsula dominated Grand Tour itineraries. American and English collectors in the early 20th century often favored curvaceous Venetian Baroque works and used them as accents (they surely discovered, as others have since, that decorating exclusively with painted furniture is like gorging on marzipan). Choice examples from Lombardy, Piedmont, and the Veneto caught the eye of International Harvester vice president James Deering, who bought them to furnish Vizcaya, his Miami villa turned museum, which was completed in 1917; several of those pieces also illustrate William M. Odom’s magisterial two-volume A History of Italian Furniture (1919). Socialite Marella Agnelli posed for Horst amid painted Piedmontese chairs and consoles at her Turin estate in the 1960s, and in the same decade the photographer snapped artist Cy Twombly in his Rome apartment in the company of faded aquamarine chairs drizzled with worn gilt.
The genre’s attraction is easy to understand—it is cheerful and sensually exuberant. “The interpretation of antique forms is more creative among the Italians than the French, who were more rigorous,” notes Will Strafford, head of European furniture at Christie’s, New York. “Italians tended to be more fantastical and wonderfully whimsical.” Extravagant silhouettes and candy colors are an undeniable part of the appeal. As the interior decorator Ruby Ross Wood wrote in 1917, Italian painted furniture is “the salvation of many a too-dark room.” The polychromy had a practical purpose, too. “Italy doesn’t have beautiful exotic woods,” says Jan Willem van Haaren, a European furniture specialist at Sotheby’s, New York, explaining that the paint hides carcasses of humble softwoods such as beech, pine, and poplar. In July a quartet of early-1800s Northern Italian side chairs embellished with putti sold at Christie’s, London, for a surprisingly reasonable $8,760; former owners include Ryanair founder Tony Ryan and financier Saul Steinberg.
An especially rich resource for painted pieces is Sotheby’s, London, where the furniture is championed by deputy chairman Mario Tavella. As for why prices can careen from a few thousand dollars to more than three quarters of a million, it is all about the finish. “If it’s not original, run in the other direction,” advises Helen Costantino Fioratti of the Manhattan gallery L’Antiquaire & the Connoisseur.
Retouched or not, however, the best Italian painted furniture shares a sparkling character its unknown makers might have called briosità. “Just the other day,” Fioratti recounts, “a client walked in and said, ‘I want a painted piece to cheer me up.’” Who couldn’t use more of that?