C.R. sent me a photo of a piece of furniture for sale at the Unity Shoppe that she has been eyeing for weeks. She is wondering what it's worth. She says the flamboyant piece will fit nicely in to her dÄcor, which she calls "early brothel." This painted little bombÄ commode, with one cabinet door, abundant in floral decoration, should be a perfect addition.
C.R., the style is not traditionally called "early brothel" but rather Venetian rococo, the choice of many a female socialite over the years. Other terms for the style include Venetian Baroque or Piedmontese. The style has a definite connection with early Santa Barbara: One of the biggest fans of it in the early 20th century was James Deering, chair of the Deering Harvester Co., who was a colleague of the McCormick family, whose business, the McCormick Reaper Co., merged with Mr. Deering's to become International Harvester. Riven Rock here in Santa Barbara, home to the McCormicks for a time, was rivaled by Deering's fabulous Miami-based Villa Vizcaya (built 1914-1922), which is now a museum. Mr. Deering was a great collector of Venetian furniture.
The late 19th century craze to collect such Italian furniture parallels the importance of Venice as a style destination, when wealthy connoisseurs visited and bought up the Apennine Peninsula on 19th and early 20th century Grand Tours. Whole Venetian palaces were ransacked and brought to mansions in the U.S., and although the style is not in favor today, it has a certain following.
Antique Venetian furniture is difficult to price, C.R., because there's not much intrinsic value in the craftsmanship. The point of the style is to extrinsically delight the eye, not to subtly suggest refinement. So a piece of Italian furniture can command six figures at auction, or three figures. It just depends who wants it badly enough. Many 20th century craftsmen did not brand their pieces with their workshop labels, so no famous cabinetmakers are known. In addition, this style is built of insubstantial light wood frames: beech, poplar, pine. They are known for falling apart. And let's face it — it is all about the look anyway. These pieces are not built to contain anything.
The secret of these scintillating pieces is not in the execution; they are simply constructed. But the paint surface finish is all about polychroming. The painting is exuberant, over the top. The background colors are mustard and a certain green I call Italian Green, a cross between pea and leaf, cut with light rose. You'll see pinks and reds and gold and occasionally blue. The floral cartouches (molded, raised frames into which a design is painted in reserves) are often candy box colored.
The forms are curvilinear, bursting at the seams, and heavily carved. The carvings on the legs and moldings are not delicate and refined; rather, they are fun, and usually topped with gold paint. In these days of the primacy of mid-century modern, not every home decorator wants to use such a piece. Functionality just is not the plan here; drawers and cabinet doors don't completely fit, adding to the dishabille charm, which also suggests a grander age, a "broken down duchess" look.
Italian furniture of the 18th and 19th centuries is based on French furniture of the 17th and 18th centuries, especially the massive neoclassicism of Louis XIV furniture (Baroque), and the more delicate organic forms of Louis XV (rococo). The Italians put their own touches on French forms, expanding the curves, for example, emphasizing the explosion of the bombÄ form into a little mushroom cloud, as we see in the piece C.R. hankers after.
This furniture is perfect in a faded velvet-draped tall-windowed, slightly shabby "piano nobile" (the upper room for the noble people), where it is always slightly dusty, with motes of sunlight reflecting off the canal below, and half-dead roses in the dry vase in the corner. That's the native interior setting.
You must have a high tolerance for decadence to love this style. Many collectors of these romantic ruins have been found in the past, although not so much today. A piece last winter sold at Sotheby's for $180,000 from the estate of philanthropist Dodie Rosekrans of San Francisco, as well as the collection of an artist of 1960s fame, Cy Twombly.
C.R., I would say that a price under $500 is fair for such a bombÄ. Viva "early brothel"! I would go out and buy this; your dÄcor is finer than most others in Santa Barbara for such a lonely old Venetian.
Certified appraiser for estates, inheritances and trusts.
Dr. Elizabeth Stewart's column appears every week in the Salon & Style section of the Santa Barbara News Press. Email her your questions and high-resolution photos at ElizabethAppraisals @ gmail.com
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