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Decoration of Houses - Chapter Guide | Decorating Drawing Room, Bathroom & Morning Room [Previous Chapter] | Decorating Den, Library & Smoking Lounge [Next Chapter]



EUROPEAN architects have always considered it essential that those rooms which are used exclusively for entertaining— gala rooms, as they are called—should be quite separate from the family apartments,— either occupying an entire floor (the Italian piano nobile) or being so situated that it is not necessary to open them except for general entertainments.

In many large houses lately built in America, with ball and music rooms and a hall simulating the two-storied Italian saloon, this distinction has been disregarded, and living and gala rooms have been confounded in an agglomeration of apartments where the family, for lack of a smaller suite, sit under gilded ceilings and cut-glass chandeliers, in about as much comfort and privacy as are afforded by the public "parlors" of one of our new twenty-story hotels. This confusion of two essentially different types of room, designed for essentially different phases of life, has been caused by the fact that the architect, when called upon to build a grand house, has simply enlarged, instead of altering, the maison bourgeoise that has hitherto been the accepted model of the American gentleman's house; for it must not be forgotten that the modern American dwelling descends from the English mid-134


Ball-Room, Saloon, Music-Room, Gallery  135

die-class house, not from the aristocratic country-seat or town residence. The English nobleman's town house was like the French hdtel, with gates, porter's lodge, and court-yard sur­rounded by stables and offices; and the planning of the country-seat was even more elaborate.

A glance at any collection of old English house-plans, such as Campbell's Vitruviu* 'Britannicus, will show the purely middle-class ancestry of the American house, and the consequent futility of attempting, by the mere enlargement of each room, to turn it into a gentleman's seat or town residence. The kind of life which makes gala rooms necessary exacts a different method of planning; and until this is more generally understood the treatment of such rooms in American houses will never be altogether satisfactory.

Gala rooms are meant for general entertainments, never for any assemblage small or informal enough to be conveniently accom­modated in the ordinary living-rooms of the house; therefore to fulfil their purpose they must be large, very high-studded, and not overcrowded with furniture, while the walls and ceiling—the only parts of a crowded room that can be seen—must be deco­rated with greater elaboration than would be pleasing or appro­priate in other rooms. All these conditions unfit the gala room for any use save that for which it is designed. Nothing can be more cheerless than the state of a handful of people sitting after dinner in an immense ball-room with gilded ceiling, bare floors, and a few pieces of monumental furniture ranged round the walls; yet in any house which is simply an enlargement of the ordinary private dwelling the hostess is often compelled to use the ball­room or saloon as a drawing-room.

A gala room is never meant to be seen except when crowded: the crowd takes the place of furniture.  Occupied by a small number

136                 The Decoration of Houses

of people, such a room looks out of proportion, stiff and empty. The hostess feels this, and tries, by setting chairs and tables askew, and introducing palms, screens and knick-knacks, to produce an effect of informality. As a result the room dwarfe the furniture, loses the air of state, and gains little in real comfort; while it becomes necessary, when a party is given, to remove the furniture and disarrange the house, thus undoing the chief raison d'etre of such apartments.

The Italians, inheriting the grandiose traditions of the Augustan age, have always excelled in the treatment of rooms demanding the '' grand manner." Their unfailing sense that house-decoration is interior architecture, and must clearly proclaim its architectural affiliations, has been of special service in this respect It is rare in Italy to see a large room inadequately treated. Sometimes the "grand manner "—the mimic terribilito — may be carried too far to suit Anglo-Saxon taste—it is hard to say for what form of en­tertainment such a room as Giulio Romano's Sala dei Giganti in the Palazzo del T would form a pleasing or appropriate back­ground—but apart from such occasional aberrations, the Italian decorators showed a wonderful sense of fitness in the treatment of state apartments. To small dribbles of ornament they preferred bold forcible mouldings, coarse but clear-cut free-hand orna­mentation in stucco, and either a classic severity of treatment or the turbulent bravura style of the saloon of the Villa Rotonda and of Tiepolo's Cleopatra frescoes in the Palazzo Labia at Venice.

The saloon and gallery are the two gala rooms borrowed from Italy by northern Europe. The saloon has already been de­scribed in the chapter on Hall and Stairs. It was a two-storied apartment, usually with clerestory, domed ceiling, and a gal­lery to which access was obtained by concealed staircases (see


Ball-Room, Saloon, Music-Room, Gallery  137

Plates XL1I and XLIII). This gallery was often treated as an ar­cade or loggia, and in many old Italian prints and pictures there are representations of these saloons, with groups of gaily dressed people looking down from the gallery upon the throngs crowding the floor. The saloon was used in Italy as a ball-room or gam­bling-room—gaming being the chief social amusement of the eighteenth century.

In England and France the saloon was rarely two stories high, though there are some exceptions, as for example the saloon at Vaux-le-Vicomte. The cooler climate rendered a clerestory less necessary, and there was never the same passion for grandiose ef­fects as in Italy. The saloon in northern Europe was always a stately and high-studded room, generally vaulted or domed, and often circular in plan; but it seldom reached such imposing dimen­sions as its Italian prototype, and when more than one story high was known by the distinctive designation of un salon a I'italienne.

The gallery was probably the first feature in domestic house-planning to be borrowed from Italy by northern Europe. It is seen in almost all the early Renaissance chateaux of France; and as soon as the influence of such men as John of Padua and John Shute asserted itself in England, the gallery became one of the principal apartments of the Elizabethan mansion. There are sev­eral reasons for the popularity of the gallery. In the cold rainy autumns and winters north of the Alps it was invaluable as a sheltered place for exercise and games; it was well adapted to dis­play the pictures, statuary and bric-a-brac which, in emulation of Italian collectors, the Northern nobles were beginning to acquire; and it showed off to advantage the long line of ancestral portraits and the tapestries representing a succession of episodes from the ASneid, the Orlando Innamorato, or some of the interminable

138                 The Decoration of Houses

epics that formed the light reading of the sixteenth century. Then, too, the gallery served for the processions which were a part of the social ceremonial in great houses: the march to the chapel or banquet-hall, the escorting of a royal guest to the state bedroom, and other like pageants.

In France and England the gallery seems for a long time to have been used as a saloon and ball-room, whereas in Italy it was, as a rule, reserved for the display of the art-treasures of the house, no Italian palace worthy of the name being without its gallery of antiquities or of marbles.

In modern houses the ball-room and music-room are the two principal gala apartments. A music-room need not be a gala room in the sense of being used only for large entertainments; but since it is outside the circle of every-day use, and more or less associated with entertaining, it seems best to include it in this chapter.

Many houses of average size have a room large enough for informal entertainments. Such a room, especially in country houses, should be decorated in a gay simple manner in harmony with the rest of the house and with the uses to which the room is to be put. Rooms of this kind may be treated with a white dado, surmounted by walls painted in a pale tint, with boldly modelled garlands and attributes in stucco, also painted white (see Plate XIII). If these stucco decorations are used to frame a series of pictures, such as fruit and flower-pieces or decorative subjects, the effect is especially attractive. Large painted panels with eighteenth-century genre subjects or pastoral scenes, set in simple white panelling, are also very decorative. A coved ceiling is best suited to rooms of this comparatively simple character, while in state ball-rooms the dome increases the general appearance of splendor.


BALL-ROOM, ROYAL PALACE, GENOA.    LATE XVIII CENTURY. (example of stucco decoration.)

Bail-Room, Saloon, Music-Room, Gallery 139

A panelling of mirrors forms a brilliant ball-room decoration, and charming effects are produced by painting these mirrors with birds, butterflies, and garlands of flowers, in the manner of the famous Italian mirror-painter, Mario dei Fiori—"Mario of the Flowers"—as he was called in recognition of his special gift. There is a beautiful room by this artist in the Borghese Palace in Rome, and many Italian palaces contain examples of this pecu­liarly brilliant style of decoration, which might be revived to advantage by modern painters.

In ball-rooms of great size and importance, where the walls de­mand a more architectural treatment, the use of an order naturally suggests itself. Pilasters of marble, separated by marble niches containing statues, form a severe but splendid decoration; and if white and colored marbles are combined, and the whole is sur­mounted by a domed ceiling frescoed in bright colors, the effect is extremely brilliant

In Italy the architectural decoration of large rooms was often entirely painted (see Plate XLIV), the plaster walls being covered with a fanciful piling-up of statues, porticoes and balustrades, while figures in Oriental costume, or in the masks and parti­colored dress of the Comtdie Italienne, leaned from simulated loggias or wandered through marble colonnades.

The Italian decorator held any audacity permissible in a room used only by a throng of people, whose mood and dress made them ready to accept the fairy-tales on the walls as a fitting back­ground to their own masquerading. Modern travellers, walking through these old Italian saloons in the harsh light of day, while cobwebs hang from the audacious architecture, and the cracks in the plaster look like wounds in the cheeks of simpering nymphs and shepherdesses, should remember that such apartments were

140                 The Decoration of Houses

meant to be seen by the soft light of wax candles in crystal chan­deliers, with fantastically dressed dancers thronging the marble floor.

Such a ball-room, if reproduced in the present day, would be far more effective than the conventional white-and-gold room, which, though unobjectionable when well decorated, lacks the imaginative charm, the personal note, given by the painter's touch.

Under Louis XIV many French apartments of state were pan­elled with colored marbles, with an application of attributes or trophies, and other ornamental motives in fire-gilt bronze: a sumptuous mode of treatment according well with a domed and frescoed ceiling. Tapestry was also much used, and forms an admirable decoration, provided the color-scheme is light and the design animated. Seventeenth and eighteenth-century tap­estries are the most suitable, as the scale of color is brighter and the compositions are gayer than in the earlier hangings.

Modern dancers prefer a polished wooden floor, and it is per­haps smoother and more elastic than any other surface; but in beauty and decorative value it cannot be compared with a floor of inlaid marble, and as all the dancing in Italian palaces is still done on such floors, the preference for wood is probably the result of habit In a ball-room of any importance, especially where marble is used on the walls, the floor should always be of the same substance (see floors in Plates XXIX, XXX, and LV).

Gala apartments, as distinguished from living-rooms, should be lit from the ceiling, never from the walls. No ball-room or saloon is complete without its chandeliers: they are one of the characteristic features of a gala room (see Plates V, XIX, XXXIV, XLI1I, XLV, L).   For a ball-room, where all should be light and

SALA DELLO ZODIACO, ROYAL PALACE, MANTUA.    XVIII CENTURY. (example of stucco decoration.)

Ball-Room, Saloon, Music-Room, Gallery  141

brilliant, rock-crystal or cut-glass chandeliers are most suitable: reflected in a long line of mirrors, they are an invaluable factor in any scheme of gala decoration.

The old French decorators relied upon the reflection of mirrors for producing an effect of distance in the treatment of gala rooms. Above the mantel, there was always a mirror with another of the same shape and size directly opposite; and the glittering perspec­tive thus produced gave to the scene an air of fantastic unreality. The gala suite being so planned that all the rooms adjoined each other, the effect of distance was further enhanced by placing the openings in line, so that on entering the suite it was possible to look down its whole length. The importance of preserving this long vista, or enfilade, as the French call it, is dwelt on by all old writers on house-decoration. If a ball-room be properly lit and decorated, it is never necessary to dress it up with any sort of temporary ornamentation: the true mark of the well-decorated ball-room is to look always ready for a ball.

The only chair seen in most modern ball-rooms is the folding camp-seat hired by the hundred when entertainments are given; but there is no reason why a ball-room should be even tempo­rarily disfigured by these makeshifts, which look their worst when an effort is made to conceal their cheap construction under a little gilding and satin. In all old ball-rooms, benches and tabourets (small seats without backs) were ranged in a continuous line along the walls. These seats, handsomely designed, and covered with tapestry, velvet, or embroidered silk slips, were a part of the permanent decoration of the room. On ordinary occasions they would be sufficient for a modem ball-room; and when larger en­tertainments made it needful to provide additional seats, these might be copied from the seventeenth-century perroquets, exam-

142                 The Decoration of Houses

pies of which may be found in the various French works on the history of furniture. These perroquets, or folding chairs without arms, made of natural walnut or gilded, with seats of tapestry, velvet or decorated leather, would form an excellent substitute for the modern cotillon seat.

The first rule to be observed in the decoration of the music-room is the avoidance of all stuff hangings, draperies, and sub­stances likely to deaden sound. The treatment chosen for the room must of course depend on its size and its relation to the other rooms in the house. While a music-room should be more subdued in color than a ball-room, sombre tints and heavy orna­ment are obviously inappropriate: the effect aimed at should be one of lightness and serenity in form and color. However small and simple the music-room may be, it should always appear as though there were space overhead for the notes to escape; and some form of vaulting or doming is therefore more suitable than a flat ceiling.

While plain panelling, if well designed, is never out of keeping, the walls of a music-room are specially suited to a somewhat fan­ciful style of decoration. In a ball-room, splendor and brilliancy of effect are more needful than a studied delicacy; but where people are seated, and everything in the room is consequently sub­jected to close and prolonged scrutiny, sprightliness of composi­tion should be combined with variety of detail, the decoration being neither so confused and intricate as to distract attention, nor so conventional as to be dismissed with a glance on entering the room.

The early Renaissance compositions in which stucco low-reliefs blossom into painted arabesques and tendrils, are peculiarly adapted to a small music-room; while those who prefer a more

Bail-Room, Saloon, Music-Room, Gallery 143

architectural treatment may find admirable examples in some of the Italian eighteenth-century rooms decorated with free-hand stucco ornament, or in the sculptured wood-panelling of the same period in France. At Remiremont in the Vosges, formerly the residence of a noble order of canonesses, the abbess's bdtel con­tains an octagonal music-room of exceptional beauty, the panelled walls being carved with skilfully combined musical instruments and flower-garlands.

In larger apartments a fanciful style of fresco-painting might be employed, as in the rooms painted by Tiepolo in the Villa Val-marana, near Vicenza, or in the staircase of the Palazzo Sina, at Venice, decorated by Longhi with the episodes of an eighteenth-century carnival. Whatever the design chosen, it should never resemble the formal treatment suited to ball-room and saloon: the decoration should sound a note distinctly suggestive of the pur­pose for which the music-room is used.

It is difficult to understand why modern music-rooms have so long been disfigured by the clumsy lines of grand and upright pianos, since the cases of both might be modified without affecting the construction of the instrument. Of the two, the grand piano would be the easier to remodel: if its elephantine supports were replaced by slender fluted legs, and its case and sounding-board were painted, or inlaid with marquetry, it would resemble the charming old clavecin which preceded the pianoforte.

Fewer changes are possible in the "upright"; but a marked improvement could be produced by straightening its legs and substituting right angles for the weak curves of the lid. The case itself might be made of plainly panelled mahogany, with a few good ormolu ornaments; or of inlaid wood, with a design of musical instruments and similar "attributes";   or it might be

144                 The Decoration of Houses

decorated with flower-garlands and arabesques painted either on the natural wood or on a gilt or colored background.

Designers should also study the lines of those two long-neglected pieces of furniture, the music-stool and music-stand. The latter should be designed to match the piano, and painted or inlaid like its case. The revolving mushroom that now serves as a music-stool is a modern invention: the old stools were substantial circular seats resting on four fluted legs. The manuals of the eighteenth-century cabinet-makers contain countless models of these piano-seats, which might well be reproduced by modern designers: there seems no practical reason why the accessories of the piano should be less decorative than those of the harpsichord.




Decoration of Houses - Chapter Guide | Decorating Drawing Room, Bathroom & Morning Room [Previous Chapter] | Decorating Den, Library & Smoking Lounge [Next Chapter]