Mirror, mirror…on the chair?

The rococo style appeared in Italy later than in its neighboring European countries, and was highly influenced by French Louis XV design. In Venice, the republic had faded politically and commercially, however, it “excelled as the capital of taste, fashion and luxury, rivaling the reputation of Paris.” The rooms of the grand palazzi on the canals were outfitted with colorful frescoes, marble floors and sumptuous textiles. The interior architecture, of a sculptural quality, was reflected in the furnishings, which were brightly painted and elaborately carved.



The Baroque period had ended by the 1730s and furniture production became more light-hearted, frivolous, and “utterly original.” Craftsmen adopted, and further developed, the features of French rococo. The bombé shape was expanded, chair backs were elongated and “sofas were drawn out to ridiculous lengths, particularly those in the formal reception rooms…which ran from front to back of Venetian palaces.”

Of all furniture models, chairs and seating were produced with the greatest variety. Like the present example, the “Venetian armchair usually had a shaped top-rail and seat rail centered with a decoration that was more ornately carved than its Piedmontese counterparts. Even the cabriole legs were carved with rocaille forms…”

Reading from Molière by Jean-François de Troy, circa 1728, depicting similar marquises. Collection of the late Marchioness of Cholmondeley, Houghton.

In a departure from the rigid high-backed chairs of the Renaissance and Baroque eras, Rococo seating focused on comfort and conversation. Chairs were light and easily moved, lower to the ground with shortened cabriole legs. They were also cushioned, and had curved chair arms set back to accommodate the wide skirts of ladies dresses. Jean-François de Troy’s iconic painting Reading from Molière, circa 1728, shows three such low chairs of commodious scale within an aristocratic interiors of the most sumptuous type (figure 1). “Ornamentation became less imposing…replaced by more graceful subjects such as flowers, rosebuds, garlands, and the ubiquitous scallop-shells that were carved in less pronounced relief,” as is also the case on the seat rail and legs of the present chair.

Most unusually, the present armchair incorporates original mirror glass insets bordering the backrest. There are very few 18th century examples of this practice. One related rococo carved giltwood Venetian armchair applied with pale blue glass, is in the Museo Vetrario di Murano, Venice (figure 2).

An 18th century carved gilt-wood Venetian chair applied with pale blue glass in the Museo Vetrario di Murano, Venice.

The present example would presumably have been part of a large set or scheme, which harmonized with a conforming boiserie. Although extremely rare, mirror glass-mounted furniture and schemes do have precedents in the 18th century. Heinrich Kreisel wrote: “The striving for unity between a room and its furnishings led to Mirror-Rooms being populated with pieces veneered with mirrors and Grotto-Rooms with furniture in imitation of shells and coral.” One of the few extant examples is the celebrated Spiegelkabinett by Johann Thalhofer and Anton Joseph Högler (1742-44) in the Würzburg Residenz, which still today houses the giltwood console table of 1744 by Johann Wolfgang van der Auvera, extensively set with mirror glass panels and with églomise top (figure 3). A further notable mirror glass scheme of a similar date exists in the Ermitage Bayreuth. Here, a system of irregularly shaped mirror panels is applied to the walls of the Chinesisches Spiegelkabinett, although no matching mirrored furniture remains within the room.

A giltwood console table of 1744 by Johann Wolfgang van der Auvera, which is extensively set with mirror glass panels and has an églomise top.

According to an old paper label on the piece, as well as a contemporary catalog, the present armchair was exhibited in Il Settecento Italiano, in Venice in 1929, loaned by Countess Beatrice Elia of Rome. Since the 17th century much of Venice’s art had been sold to particular “royals, museums, collections, and art dealers all over the world,” however, during the 1920s focus was placed on revitalizing the city’s cultural heritage. The restoration of buildings, creation of new museums and staging of cultural events were all designed to reinvigorate the tourist industry, which had collapsed after World War I. “Private property was given or sold to the city with the aim to make Venice more attractive.” Under the presidency of Count Giuseppe Volpi di Misurata, the city acquired the Casa Goldoni, the Palazzo Ca’Rezzonico  and the private collection from the Palazzo Michiel dalle Collonne. Large loan exhibitions were organized in civic museums, beginning in 1929 with Setteceto Italiano, an exhibition of 18th century art and objects held in the Exhibition Palace in the Giardini.

A further clue to the likely Venetian origin of this piece is the distinctive bluish-green hue of its original painted surface, which is closely related to a painted mid-18th century bombé-shaped commode of undisputed Venetian manufacture, formerly in the collection of Carlton Hobbs.

Detail. Carlton Hobbs LLC.


  1. Peter wrote:

    What a well researched post! I have never seen chairs decorated with glass or mirrors, but I really like the look of the Venetian chair with the pale blue glass.

    Monday, February 4, 2013 at 9:45 pm | Permalink
  2. Anna Kitson wrote:

    It’s good to know a bit of overview regarding french rococo style. This rococo carved giltwood Venetian armchair was really impressive. I really admire all the curves in its design.

    Friday, February 8, 2013 at 4:01 am | Permalink

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