The Lost Art of Intarsia

Abbeville’s Renaissance Intarsia

“The lost art of intarsia.” Let that phrase roll off your tongue and try not to be enchanted. The very syllables are redolent of the Renaissance, evoking workmen’s guilds and intricate handicraft and the firelit faces of apprentices. This lost art–this lost world–is what we here at Abbeville will be celebrating all this week, in anticipation of our forthcoming volume, Renaissance Intarsia. But before we get too transported, let’s address a few basic questions.

What is intarsia?

Intarsia is a form of wood inlaying that originated in the Arabic world and spread to Europe in the Middle Ages. It entails the joining together of variously shaped and colored pieces of wood to create mosaic-like images with sophisticated perspective illusions. As Luca Trevisan explains in his Introduction to Renaissance Intarsia:

Intarsia is neither sculpture nor painting (nor, perhaps, pittura di legno, “painting in wood,” Pier Luigi Bagatin’s appropriate definition, a paraphrase of Giorgio Vasari’s term legni tinti, or “tinted wood”), nor, in the end, architecture. Or perhaps, on second thought, it is all three arts together. Composed on a two-dimensional plane and according to chromatic canons already well tested in painting, intarsia is at the same time based on material that is carved, arranged, and thus “sculpted,” and it reaches the height of its inherent potential in the representation of three-dimensional objects, namely urban spaces translated into meticulously prepared architectural perspectives.

When and where did European intarsia flourish?

Its development in Italy began in the mid-1300s and flourished throughout the Quattrocento and Cinquecento. During the Cinquecento it began spreading to wider Europe, ultimately reaching as far as London.

What sorts of things was intarsia used to decorate?

The walls and doors of ornate buildings, particularly churches. Also, church furnishings: altars, cabinets, choirs, and the like.

What held intarsia panel pieces together?

We are very glad you asked. According to Paolo Pizzati in Renaissance Intarsia:

“…the artist glued the pieces down, usually with cheese glue, one of the strongest types then available. This was obtained by soaking fresh cheese in water and quicklime, which allowed the casein to separate from the oils….Other glues were derived from the skin or bones of animals, a process that entailed a prolonged boiling with alkaline substances and subsequent purification. One of the most surprising formulas called for the use of eel skin preserved in salt.”

Why care about intarsia nowadays?

Because you have a taste for the finer things and an imagination. Because you admire how quickly, how skillfully, the fifteenth-century discovery of perspective in drawing was adapted to this more sculptural art. Because you can practically smell the sweet haze of sawdust hovering around those long-dead woodworkers as they plied their trade. Because it is the smell of honest craftsmanship, of dignified labor. Because in the late Renaissance, cabinetmakers and their customers began to favor marquetry over intarsia, and deep down you know that Western culture has gone downhill ever since.

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