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
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.