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           VII       CEILINGS AND FLOORS

    TO attempt even an outline of the history of ceilings in do­mestic architecture would exceed the scope of this book; nor would it serve any practical purpose to trace the early forms of vaulting and timbering which preceded the general adoption of the modern plastered ceiling. To understand the development of the modern ceiling, however, one must trace the two very different influences by which it has been shaped: that of the timber roof of the North and that of the brick or stone vault of the Latin builders. This twofold tradition has curiously affected the details of the modern ceiling. During the Renaissance, flat plaster ceilings were not infrequently coffered with stucco panels exactly reproducing the lines of timber framing; and in the Villa Vertemati, near Chiavenna, there is a curious and interesting ceiling of carved wood made in imitation of stucco (see Plate XXIII); while one of the rooms in the Palais de Justice at Rennes contains an elaborate vaulted ceiling constructed entirely of wood, with mouldings nailed on (see Plate XXIV).

In northern countries, where the ceiling was simply the under side of the wooden floor,1 it was natural that its decoration

[1] France, until the sixteenth century, the same word—planche—was used to designate both floor and ceiling.

89


90                   The Decoration of Houses

should follow the rectangular subdivisions formed by open timber-framing. In the South, however, where the floors were generally of stone, resting on stone vaults, the structural condi­tions were so different that although the use of caissons based on the divisions of timber-framing was popular both in the Roman and Renaissance periods, the architect always felt himself free to treat the ceiling as a flat, undivided surface prepared for the ap­plication of ornament

The idea that there is anything unarchitectural in this method comes from an imperfect understanding of the construction of Roman ceilings. The vault was the typical Roman ceiling, and the vault presents a smooth surface, without any structural pro­jections to modify the ornament applied to it. The panelling of a vaulted or flat ceiling was as likely to be agreeable to the eye as a similar treatment of the walls; but the Roman coffered ceil­ing and its Renaissance successors were the result of a strong sense of decorative fitness rather than of any desire to adhere to structural limitations.

Examples of the timbered ceiling are, indeed, to be found in Italy as well as in France and England; and in Venice the flat wooden ceiling, panelled upon structural lines, persisted through­out the Renaissance period; but in Rome, where the classic influences were always much stronger, and where the discovery of the stucco ceilings of ancient baths and palaces produced such lasting effects upon the architecture of the early Renaissance, the decorative treatment of the stone vault was transferred to the flat or coved Renaissance ceiling without a thought of its being inapplicable or " insincere." The fear of insincerity, in the sense of concealing the anatomy of any part of a building, troubled the Renaissance architect no more than it did his Gothic predecessor,


PLATE XXIII.


CARVED WOODEN CEILING, VILLA VERTEMATI.

XVI  CENTURY. (SHOWING INFLUENCE OF STUCCO DECORATION.)

Ceilings and Floors                               91

who had never hesitated to stretch a "del" of cloth or tapestry over the naked timbers of the mediaeval ceiling. The duty of ex­posing structural forms — an obligation that weighs so heavily upon the conscience of the modern architect— is of very recent origin. Mediaeval as well as Renaissance architects thought first of adapting their buildings to the uses for which they were in­tended and then of decorating them in such a way as to give pleasure to the eye; and the maintenance of that relation which the eye exacts between main structural lines and their ornamen­tation was the only form of sincerity which they knew or cared about.

If a flat ceiling rested on a well-designed cornice, or if a vaulted or coved ceiling sprang obviously from walls capable of supporting it, the Italian architect did not allow himself to be hampered by any pedantic conformity to structural details. The eye once satisfied that the ceiling had adequate support, the fit proportioning of its decoration was considered far more important than mere technical fidelity to the outline of floor-beams and joists. If the Italian decorator wished to adorn a ceiling with carved or painted panels he used the lines of the timbering to frame his panels, because they naturally accorded with his dec­orative scheme; while, were a large central painting to be em­ployed, or the ceiling to be covered with reliefs in stucco, he felt no more hesitation in deviating from the lines of the timbering than he would have felt in planning the pattern of a mosaic or a marble floor without reference to the floor-beams beneath it.

In France and England it was natural that timber-construction should long continue to regulate the design of the ceiling. The Roman vault lined with stone caissons, or with a delicate tracery of stucco-work, was not an ever-present precedent in northern


92                   The Decoration of Houses

Europe. Tradition pointed to the open-timbered roof; and as Italy furnished numerous and brilliant examples of decorative treatment adapted to this form of ceiling, it was to be expected that both in France and England the national form should be preserved long after Italian influences had established themselves in both coun­tries. In fact, it is interesting to note that in France, where the artistic feeling was much finer, and the sense of fitness and power of adaptation were more fully developed, than in England, the lines of the timbered ceiling persisted throughout the Renais­sance and Louis XIII periods; whereas in England the Eliza­bethan architects, lost in the mazes of Italian detail, without a guiding perception of its proper application, abandoned the tim­bered ceiling, with its eminently architectural subdivisions, for a flat plaster surface over which geometrical flowers in stucco meandered in endless sinuosities, unbroken by a single moulding, and repeating themselves with the maddening persistency of wall-paper pattern. This style of ornamentation was done away with by Inigo Jones and his successors, who restored the archi­tectural character of the ceiling, whether flat or vaulted; and thereafter panelling persisted in England until the French Revolu­tion brought about the general downfall of taste.1

In France, at the beginning of the eighteenth century, the liking for petits appartements led to greater lightness in all kinds of deco­rative treatment; and the ceilings of the Louis XV period, while pleasing in detail, are open to the criticism of being somewhat weak in form. Still, they are always compositions, and their light traceries, though perhaps too dainty and fragile in them­selves, are so disposed as to form a clearly marked design, in­stead of being allowed to wander in a monotonous network over

1 For a fine example of an English stucco ceiling, see Plate XIII.


PLATE XXII


CEILING IN THE PALAIS DE JUSTICE, RENNES.

LOUIS  XIV   PERIOD. (WOODEN  CEILING  IMITATING  MASONRY  VAULTING  AND STUCCO ORNAMENTATION.)

Ceilings and Floors                               93

the whole surface of the ceiling, like the ubiquitous Tudor rose. Isaac Ware, trained in the principles of form which the teachings of Inigo Jones had so deeply impressed upon English architects, ridicules the "petty wildnesses" of the French style; but if the Louis XV ceiling lost for a time its architectural character, this was soon to be restored by Gabriel and his followers, while at the same period in England the forcible mouldings of Inigo Jones's school were fading into the ineffectual grace of Adam's laurel-wreaths and velaria.

In the general effect of the room, the form of the ceiling is of more importance than its decoration. In rooms of a certain size and height, a flat surface overhead looks monotonous, and the ceiling should be vaulted or coved.1 Endless modifications of this form of treatment are to be found in the architectural treatises of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, as well as in the buildings of that period.

A coved ceiling greatly increases the apparent height of a low-studded room; but rooms of this kind should not be treated with an order, since the projection of the cornice below the springing of the cove will lower the walls so much as to defeat the purpose for which the cove has been used. In such rooms the cove should rise directly from the walls; and this treatment suggests the important rule that where the cove is not supported by a cor­nice the ceiling decoration should be of very light character. A heavy panelled ceiling should not rest on the walls without the intervention of a strongly profiled cornice. The French Louis XV decoration, with its fanciful embroidery of stucco ornament,

[1] The flat Venetian ceilings, such as those in the ducal palace, with their richly carved wood-work and glorious paintings, beautiful as they have been made by art, are not so fine architecturally as a domed or coved ceiling.

 
94                   The Decoration of Houses

is well suited to coved ceilings springing directly from the walls in a room of low stud; while a ceiling divided into panels with heavy architectural mouldings, whether it be flat or vaulted, looks best when the walls are treated with a complete order.

Durand, in his lectures on architecture, in speaking of cornices lays down the following excellent rules: "Interior cornices must necessarily differ more or less from those belonging to the orders as used externally, though in rooms of reasonable height these differences need be but slight; but if the stud be low, as some­times is inevitable, the cornice must be correspondingly narrowed, and given an excessive projection, in order to increase the appar­ent height of the room. Moreover, as in the interior of the house the light is much less bright than outside, the cornice should be so profiled that the juncture of the mouldings shall form not right angles, but acute angles, with spaces between the mouldings serving to detach the latter still more clearly from each other."

The choice of the substance out of which a ceiling is to be made depends somewhat upon the dimensions of the room, the height of the stud and the decoration of the walls. A heavily panelled wooden ceiling resting upon walls either frescoed or hung with stuff is likely to seem oppressive; but, as in all other kinds of decoration, the effect produced depends far more upon the form and the choice of ornamental detail than upon the ma­terial used. Wooden ceilings, however, both from the nature of the construction and the kind of ornament which may most suita­bly be applied to them, are of necessity rather heavy in appearance, and should therefore be used only in large and high-studded rooms the walls of which are panelled in wood.1

[1] For an example of a wooden ceiling which is too heavy for the wall-decoration below it, see Plate XL1V.

 
Ceilings and Floors                               95

Stucco and fresco-painting are adapted to every variety of dec­oration, from the light traceries of a boudoir ceiling to the dome of the salon a I'ltalienne; but the design must be chosen with strict regard to the size and height of the room and to the pro­posed treatment of its walls.' The cornice forms the connecting link between walls and ceiling and it is essential to the harmony of any scheme of decoration that this important member should be carefully designed. It is useless to lavish money on the adorn­ment of walls and ceiling connected by an ugly cornice.

The same objections extend to the clumsy plaster mouldings which in many houses disfigure the ceiling. To paint or gild a ceiling of this kind only attracts attention to its ugliness. When the expense of removing the mouldings and filling up the holes in the plaster is considered too great, it is better to cover the bulbous rosettes and pendentives with kalsomine than to attempt their embellishment by means of any polychrome decoration. The cost of removing plaster ornaments is not great, however, and a small outlay will replace an ugly cornice by one of architectural design; so that a little economy in buying window-hangings or chair-coverings often makes up for the additional expense of these changes. One need only look at the ceilings in the average modern house to see what a thing of horror plaster may become in the hands of an untrained "designer."

The same general principles of composition suggested for the treatment of walls may be applied to ceiling-decoration. Thus it is essential that where there is a division of parts, one part shall perceptibly predominate; and this, in a ceiling, should be the central division. The chief defect of the coffered Renaissance ceiling is the lack of this predominating part Great as may have been the decorative skill expended on the treatment of beams and


96                   The Decoration of Houses

panels, the coffered ceiling of equal-sized divisions seems to press down upon the spectator's head; whereas the large central panel gives an idea of height that the great ceiling-painters were quick to enhance by glimpses of cloud and sky, or some aerial effect, as in Mantegna's incomparable ceiling of the Sala degli Sposi in the ducal palace of Mantua.

Ceiling-decoration should never be a literal reproduction of wall-decoration. The different angle and greater distance at which ceilings are viewed demand a quite different treatment and it is to the disregard of this fact that most badly designed ceilings owe their origin. Even in the high days of art there was a tendency on the part of some decorators to confound the two plane surfaces of wall and ceiling, and one might cite many wall-designs which have been transferred to the ceiling without being rearranged to fit their new position. Instances of this kind have never been so general as in the present day. The reaction from the badly designed mouldings and fungoid growths that characterized the ceilings of forty years ago has led to the use of attenuated laurel-wreaths combined with other puny attributes taken from Sheraton cabinets and Adam mantel-pieces. These so-called orna­ments, always somewhat lacking in character, become absolutely futile when viewed from below.

This pressed-flower ornamentation is a direct precedent to the modern ceiling covered with wall-paper. One would think that the inappropriateness of this treatment was obvious; but since it has become popular enough to warrant the manufacture of spe­cially designed ceiling-papers, some protest should be made. The necessity for hiding cracks in the plaster is the reason most often given for papering ceilings; but the cost of mending cracks is small and a plaster ceiling lasts much longer than is generally


PLATE XXV.

CEILING OF THE SALA DEGLI SPOSl, DUCAL PALACE, MANTUA.

BY ANDREA  MANTEGNA,   I474.

Ceilings and Floors                               97

thought It need never be taken down unless it is actually falling; and as well-made repairs strengthen and improve the entire sur­face, a much-mended ceiling is stronger than one that is just beginning to crack. If the cost of repairing must be avoided, a smooth white lining-paper should be chosen in place of one of the showy and vulgar papers which serve only to attract attention.

Of all forms of ceiling adornment painting is the most beautiful. Italy, which contains the three perfect ceilings of the world — those of Mantegna in the ducal palace of Mantua (see Plate XXV), of Perugino in the Sala del Cambio at Perugia and of Araldi in the Convent of St. Paul at Parma—is the best field for the study of this branch of art From the semi-classical vaults of the fifteenth century, with their Roman arabesques and fruit-garlands framing human figures detached as mere ornament against a background of solid color, to the massive goddesses and broad Virgilian land­scapes of the Carracci and to the piled-up perspectives of Gior­dano's school of prestidigitators, culminating in the great Tiepolo, Italian art affords examples of every temperament applied to the solution of one of the most interesting problems in decoration.

Such ceilings as those on which Raphael and Giovanni da Udine worked together, combining painted arabesques and medallions with stucco reliefs, are admirably suited to small low-studded rooms and might well be imitated by painters in­capable of higher things.

There is but one danger in adapting this decoration to modern use—that is, the temptation to sacrifice scale and general composi­tion to the search after refinement of detail. It cannot be denied that some of the decorations of the school of Giovanni da Udine are open to this criticism. The ornamentation of the great loggia of the Villa Madama is unquestionably out of scale with the dimensions


98                   The Decoration of Houses

of the structure. Much exquisite detail is lost in looking up past the great piers and the springing of the massive arches to the lace-work that adorns the vaulting. In this case the composi­tion is less at fault than the scale: the decorations of the semi-domes at the Villa Madama, if transferred to a small mezzanin room, would be found to "compose" perfectly. Charming ex­amples of the use of this style in small apartments may be studied in the rooms of the Casino del Grotto, near Mantua.

The tendency of many modern decorators to sacrifice composi­tion to detail, and to neglect the observance of proportion between ornament and structure, makes the adaptation of Renaissance stucco designs a somewhat hazardous undertaking; but the very care required to preserve the scale and to accentuate the general lines of the design affords good training in the true principles of composition.

Equally well suited to modern use are the designs in arabesque with which, in France, Bdrain and his followers painted the ceil­ings of small rooms during the Louis XIV period (see Plate XXVI). With the opening of the eighteenth century the B6rain arabesques, animated by the touch of Watteau, Huet and J.-B. Leprince, blossomed into trellis-like designs alive with birds and monkeys, Chinese mandarins balancing umbrellas, and nymphs and shep­herdesses under slender classical ruins. Side by side with the monumental work of such artists as Lebrun and Lesueur, Coypel, Vouet and Natoire, this light style of composition was always in favor for the decoration oi petits appartements: the most famous painters of the day did not think it beneath them to furnish de­signs for such purposes (see Plate XXVII).

In moderate-sized rooms which are to be decorated in a simple and inexpensive manner, a plain plaster ceiling with well-designed


Ceilings and Floors                               99

cornice is preferable to any device for producing showy effects at small cost It may be laid down as a general rule in house-deco­ration that what must be done cheaply should be done simply. It is better to pay for the best plastering than to use a cheaper quality and then to cover the cracks with lincrusta or ceiling-paper. This is true of all such expedients: let the fundamental work be good in design and quality and the want of ornament will not be felt

In America the return to a more substantial way of building and the tendency to discard wood for brick or stone whenever possible will doubtless lead in time to the use of brick, stone or marble floors. These floors, associated in the minds of most Americans with shivering expeditions through damp Italian pal­aces, are in reality perfectly suited to the dry American climate, and even the most anaemic person could hardly object to brick or marble covered by heavy rugs.

The inlaid marble floors of the Italian palaces, whether com­posed of square or diamond-shaped blocks, or decorated with a large design in different colors, are unsurpassed in beauty; while in high-studded rooms where there is little pattern on the walls and a small amount of furniture, elaborately designed mosaic floors with sweeping arabesques and geometrical figures are of great decorative value.

Floors of these substances have the merit of being not only more architectural in character, more solid and durable, but also easier to keep clean. This should especially commend them to the hygienically-minded American housekeeper, since floors that may be washed are better suited to our climate than those which must be covered with a nailed-down carpet.

Next in merit to brick or marble comes the parquet of oak or


ioo                  The Decoration of Houses

other hard wood; but even this looks inadequate in rooms of great architectural importance. In ball-rooms a hard-wood floor is generally regarded as a necessity; but in vestibule, staircase, dining-room or saloon, marble is superior to anything else. The design of the parquet floor should be simple and unobtrusive. The French, who brought this branch of floor-laying to perfec­tion, would never have tolerated the crudely contrasted woods that make the modern parquet so aggressive. Like the walls of a room, the floor is a background: it should not furnish pat­tern,, but set off whatever is placed upon it The perspective effects dear to the modern floor-designer are the climax of ex­travagance. A floor should not only be, but appear to be, a per­fectly level surface, without simulated bosses or concavities.

In choosing rugs and carpets the subject of design should be carefully studied. The Oriental carpet-designers have always surpassed their European rivals. The patterns of Eastern rugs are invariably well composed, with skilfully conventionalized figures in flat unshaded colors. Even the Oriental rug of the present day is well drawn; but the colors used by Eastern manufacturers since the introduction of aniline dyes are so discordant that these rugs are inferior to most modern European carpets.

In houses with deal floors, nailed-down carpets are usually con­sidered a necessity, and the designing of such carpets has im­proved so much in the last ten or fifteen years that a sufficient choice of unobtrusive geometrical patterns may now be found. The composition of European carpets woven in one piece, like rugs, has never been satisfactory. Even the splendid tapis de Savonnerie made in France at the royal manufactory during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were not so true to the best principles of design as the old Oriental rugs.   In Europe there


PLATE XXVI


CEILING IN THE STYLE OF STRAIN.

LOUIS  XIV  PERIOD.

Ceilings and Floors                             101

was always a tendency to transfer wall or ceiling-decoration to floor-coverings. Such incongruities as architectural mouldings, highly modelled trophies and human masks appear in most of the European carpets from the time of Louis XIV to the present day; and except when copying Eastern models the European de­signers were subject to strange lapses from taste. There is no reason why a painter should not simulate loggia and sky on a flat plaster ceiling, since no one will try to use this sham opening as a means of exit; but the carpet-designer who puts picture-frames and human faces under foot, though he does not actually deceive, produces on the eye a momentary startling sense of obstruction. Any trompe-V&U is permissible in decorative art if it gives an im­pression of pleasure; but the inherent sense of fitness is shocked by the act of walking upon upturned faces.

Recent carpet-designs, though usually free from such obvious incongruities, have seldom more than a negative merit. The un-conventionalized flower still shows itself, and even when banished from the centre of the carpet lingers in the border which accom­panies it. The vulgarity of these borders is the chief objection to using carpets of European manufacture as rugs, instead of nailing them to the floor. It is difficult to find a border that is not too wide, and of which the design is a simple conventional figure in flat unshaded colors. If used at all, a carpet with a border should always be in the form of a rug, laid in the middle of the room, and not cut to follow all the ins and outs of the floor, as such adaptation not only narrows the room but emphasizes any ir­regularity in its plan.

In houses with deal floors, where nailed-down carpets are used in all the rooms, a restful effect is produced by covering the whole of each story with the same carpet, the door-sills being removed


102                 The Decoration of Houses

so that the carpet may extend from one room to another. In small town houses, especially, this will be found much less fatigu­ing to the eye than the usual manner of covering the floor of each room with carpets differing in color and design.

Where several rooms are carpeted alike, the floor-covering chosen should be quite plain, or patterned with some small geo­metrical figure in a darker shade of the foundation color; and green, dark blue or red will be found most easy to combine with the different color-schemes of the rooms.

Pale tints should be avoided in the selection of carpets. It is better that the color-scale should ascend gradually from the dark tone of floor or carpet to the faint half-tints of the ceiling. The opposite combination—that of a pale carpet with a dark ceiling— lowers the stud and produces an impression of top-heaviness and gloom; indeed, in a room where the ceiling is overladen, a dark rich-toned carpet will do much to lighten it, whereas a pale floor-covering will bring it down, as it were, on the inmates' heads.

Stair-carpets should be of a strong full color and, if possible, without pattern. It is fatiguing to see a design meant for a hori­zontal surface constrained to follow the ins and outs of a flight of steps; and the use of pattern where not needed is always meaningless, and interferes with a decided color-effect where the latter might have been of special advantage to the general scheme of decoration.


CEILING IN THE CHATEAU OF CHANTILLY.

LOUIS  XIV PERIOD. (EXAMPLE OF CHINOISERIE  DECORATION.)

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