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Intarsia And Inlaid Wood-work

Although decoration by inlaying woods of different colours must
naturally have suggested itself in very early times, as soon indeed as
there were workmen of skill sufficient for it, the history of this
branch of art practically begins in the fifteenth century. It is
eminently an Italian art, which according to Vasari had its origin in
the days of Brunelleschi and Paolo Uccello; and it had its birth in a
land which has a greater variety of mild close-grained woods with a
greater variety of colour than Northern Europe. By the Italians it was
regarded as a lower form of painting. Like all mosaic, of which art it
is properly a branch, it has its limitations; and it is only so long as
it confines itself to these that it is a legitimate form of decoration.
Tarsia is at the best one of the minor decorative arts, but when well
employed it is one that gives an immense deal of pleasure, and one to
which it cannot be denied that the buildings of Italy owe much of their
splendour. Their polished and inlaid furniture harmonises with the rare
delicacy of their marble and mosaic, and goes far towards producing that
air of rich refinement and elaborate culture which is to the severer
styles and simpler materials of the North what the velvet-robed Senator
of St. Mark was to the mail-clad feudal chief from beyond the Alps. As
to its durability, the experience of four centuries since Vasari's time
has proved that with ordinary care, or perhaps with nothing worse than
mere neglect, Intarsia will last as long as painting. Its only real
enemy is damp, as will be readily understood from the nature of the
materials and the mode of putting them together. For though in a few
instances, when the art was in its infancy, the inlaid pattern may have
been cut of a substantial thickness and sunk into a solid ground
ploughed out to receive it, this method was obviously very laborious,
and admitted only of very simple design, for it is very difficult in
this way to keep the lines of the drawing accurately. The recognised way
of making Intarsia was, and is, to form both pattern and ground in thin
veneers about 1/16 of an inch thick, which are glued down upon a solid
panel. At first sight this method may appear too slight and
unsubstantial for work intended to last for centuries, but it has, in
fact, stood the test of time extremely well, when the work has been kept
in the dry even temperature of churches and great houses, where there is
neither damp to melt the glue and swell the veneer, nor excessive heat
to make the wood shrink and start asunder. When these conditions were
not observed, of course the work was soon ruined, and Vasari tells an
amusing story of the humiliation which befell Benedetto da Majano, who
began his career as an Intarsiatore, in the matter of two splendid
chests which he had made for Matthias Corvinus, from which the veneers,
loosened by the damp of a sea voyage, fell off in the royal presence.

The veneers being so thin, it is of course easy to cut through several
layers of them at once, and this suggested, or at all events lent itself
admirably to the design of the earlier examples, which are generally
arabesques symmetrically disposed right and left of a central line. If
two dark and two light veneers are put together, the whole of one panel,
both ground and pattern, can be cut at one operation with a thin fret
saw; the ornamental pattern drops into the space cut out of the ground,
which it, of course, fits exactly except for the thickness of the
saw-cut, and the two half-patterns thus filled in are "handed" right and
left, and so complete the symmetrical design. The line given by the
thickness of the saw is then filled in with glue and black colour so as
to define the outline, and additional saw-cuts are made or lines are
engraved, and in either case filled in with the same stopping, wherever
additional lines are wanted for the design. It only remains to glue the
whole down to a solid panel, and to polish and varnish the surface, and
it is then ready to be framed into its place as the back of a church
stall, or the lining of a courtly hall, library, or cabinet.

It was thus that the simpler Italian Intarsia was done, such as that in
the dado surrounding Perugino's Sala del Cambio in his native city,
where the design consists of light arabesques in box or some similar
wood on a walnut ground, defined by black lines just as I have

But like all true artists the Intarsiatore did not stand still. Having
successfully accomplished simple outline and accurate drawing, he was
dissatisfied until he could carry his art farther by introducing the
refinement of shading. This was done at different times and by different
artists in a variety of ways; either by inlaying the shadow in different
kinds of woods, by scorching it with fire, or by staining it with
chemical solutions. In the book desks of the choir at the Certosa or
Charterhouse of Pavia, the effect of shading is got in a direct but
somewhat imperfect way by laying strips of different coloured woods side
by side. Each flower or leaf was probably built up of tolerably thick
pieces of wood glued together in position, so that they could be sliced
off in veneers and yield several flowers or leaves from the same block,
much in the way of Tunbridge Wells ware, though the Italian specimens
are, I believe, always cut with the grain and not across it. The
designs thus produced are very effective at a short distance, but the
method is, of course, suitable only to bold and simple conventional

The panels of the high screen or back to the stalls at the same church
afford an instance of a more elaborate method. These splendid panels,
which go all round the choir, contain each a three-quarter-length figure
of a saint. Lanzi deservedly praises them as the largest and most
perfect figures of tarsia which he had seen. They date from 1486, and
were executed by an Istrian artist, Bartolommeo da Pola, perhaps from
the designs of Borgognone. The method by which their highly pictorial
effect is produced is a mixed one, the shading being partly inlaid with
woods of different colours, and partly obtained by scorching the wood
with fire or hot sand in the manner generally in use for marqueterie at
the present day. The inexhaustible patience as well as the fertility of
resource displayed by Messer Bartolommeo is astonishing. Where the
saw-cut did not give him a strong enough line he has inlaid a firm line
of black wood, the high lights of the draperies are inlaid in white,
the folds shaded by burning, and the flowing lines of the curling hair
are all inlaid, each several tress being shaded by three narrow strips
of gradated colour following the curved lines of the lock to which they
belong. When it is remembered that there are some forty or more of these
panels, each differing from the rest, the splendour as well as the
laborious nature of the decoration of this unrivalled choir will be
better understood.

Of all the examples of pictorial Intarsia the most elaborate are perhaps
those in the choir stalls of Sta. Maria Maggiore in Bergamo. They are
attributed to Gianfrancesco Capo di Ferro, who worked from the designs
of Lotto, and was either a rival or pupil of Fra Damiano di Bergamo, a
famous master of the art. They consist of figure subjects and
landscapes on a small scale, shaded with all the delicacy and roundness
attainable in a tinted drawing, and certainly show how near Intarsia can
approach to painting. Their drawing is excellent and their execution
marvellous; but at the same time one feels that, however one may admire
them as a tour de force, the limitations of good sense and proper use
of the material have been reached and overstepped. When the delicacy of
the work is so great that it requires to be covered up or kept under
glass, it obviously quits the province of decorative art; furniture is
meant to be used, and when it is too precious to be usable on account of
the over-delicate ornament bestowed upon it, it must be admitted that
the ornament is out of place, and, therefore, bad art.

The later Italian Intarsia was betrayed into extravagance by the
dexterity of the craftsman. The temptation before which he fell was
that of rivalling the painter, and as he advanced in facility of
technique, and found wider resources at his command, he threw aside not
only those restraints which necessity had hitherto imposed, but also
those which good taste and judgment still called him to obey. In the
plain unshaded arabesques of the Sala del Cambio, and even in the figure
panels of the Certosa, the treatment is purely decorative; the idea of a
plane surface is rightly observed, and there is no attempt to represent
distance or to produce illusory effects of relief. Above all, the work
is solid and simple enough to bear handling; the stalls may be sat in,
the desks may be used for books, the doors may be opened and shut,
without fear of injury to their decoration. Working within these limits,
the art was safe; but they came in time to be disregarded, and in this,
as in other branches of art, the style was ruined by the over-ingenuity
of the artists. Conscious of their own dexterity, they attempted things
never done before, with means quite unsuited to the purpose, and with
the sole result that they did imperfectly and laboriously with their
wooden veneers, their glue-pot, and their chemicals, what the painter
did with crayon and brush perfectly and easily. Their greatest triumphs
after they began to run riot in this way, however interesting as
miracles of dexterity, have no value as works of art in the eyes of
those who know the true principles of decorative design; while nothing
can be much duller than the elaborate playfulness of the Intarsiatore
who loved to cover his panelling with sham book-cases, birds in cages,
guitars, and military instruments in elaborate perspective.

It would take too long to say much about the art in its application to
furniture, such as tables, chairs, cabinets, and other movables, which
are decorated with inlay that generally goes by the French name of
marqueterie. Marqueterie and Intarsia are the same thing, though from
habit the French title is generally used when speaking of work on a
smaller scale. And as the methods and materials are the same, whether
used on a grand or a small scale, so the same rules and restraints apply
to both classes of design, and can no more be infringed with impunity on
the door of a tall clock-case than on the doors of a palatial hall of
audience. Nothing can be a prettier or more practical and durable mode
of decorating furniture than marqueterie in simple brown, black, yellow,
and white; and when used with judgment there is nothing to forbid the
employment of dyed woods; while the smallness of the scale puts at our
disposal ivory, mother-of-pearl, and tortoise-shell, materials which in
larger works are naturally out of the question. Nothing, on the other
hand, is more offensive to good taste than some of the overdone
marqueterie of the French school of the last century, with its picture
panels, and naturalesque figures, flowers, and foliage, straggling all
over the surface, as if the article of furniture were merely a vehicle
for the cleverness of the marqueterie cutter. Still worse is the modern
work of the kind, whether English or foreign, of which so much that is
hopelessly pretentious and vulgar is turned out nowadays, in which the
aim of the designer seems to have been to cover the surface as thickly
as he could with flowers and festoons of all conceivable colours,
without any regard for the form of the thing he was decorating, the
nature of the material he was using, or the graceful disposition and
economy of the ornament he was contriving.


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