An extremely fine Baroque style North Italian giltwood and ebonised walnut Blackamoor tabouret, formed as a crouching African boy, wearing nothing other than tasselled drapery that is wound from behind his shoulders and wraps across his loins, looking upward while holding aloft in his hands a tooled decorated cushion with a tassel at each corner that is balanced on his head, the youth half kneeling on a conforming cushion that seemingly floats on billowing clouds, on a square stepped base, of which the lowest part is old but a later addition
North Italian, date circa 1700-50
Height 100 cm, width 56 cm, depth 46 cm.
This magnificent sculptural tabouret with its beautifully carved African youth, demonstrate the interest in new exotic lands, which reached an apogee in various aspects of the decorative arts during the latter part of the seventeenth and first half of the eighteenth century. Long before that North African society and its arts had inspired Western artists; ancient Greek, Roman and Egyptian art featured negro figures while African heads became a popular decoration for Renaissance cameos. During the seventeenth century European society came to admire the stature and fighting ability of the North African warriors and for this reason they were enlisted by princes or wealthy Italian families for their private armies. They were also appointed as personal bodyguards or as bearers at court where they could be seen dressed in their exotic native costumes.
Because of its strong trading links with North Africa and the Orient and also because it was an important furniture making centre, Venice was one of the first centres to carve likenesses of these handsome figures out of wood. Known as Blackamoors, they were seen either nude or in native dress, often freestanding and life-size as supports for a candelabra, torchère or jardinière or as here they were portrayed crouching down to form the support for a tabouret, table or display cabinet. Blackamoors are a derivation of the work by the Dutch born Stainhart brothers, Dominicus (1655-1712) and Francesco (Franz; 1651-95) who when working in Rome during the 1670's carved an array of magnificent figures, often in full relief and life size. However, the major exponent of the negro figure was Andrea Brustolon (1662-1732), who studied under his father Jacopo before being apprenticed in Venice under Filippo Parodi and from about 1684 worked for many of the major Venetian families. Brustolon carved some magnificent Baroque sculptural furniture including a vase stand that incorporated African figures, classical river gods, Charon, Cerberus and the Hydra (Palazzo Rezzonico, Venice). He also carved guéridons in the form of athletic negro slaves.
Although blackamoors are so often associated with Venice, they were also produced in other important furniture making centres such as Florence, Milan and by other northern Italian craftsmen, who like the Venetians were famed for the exceptional quality of their woodcarvings; these not only included statues, figural reliefs but also wonderful decorative picture frames. Blackamoors continued to be made in Italy throughout the eighteenth century and well into the next. The mid nineteenth century saw a strong revival for these magnificently carved life-sized courtiers. This was due to a number of factors, notably the resurgent interest in the Barque style as well as the lasting influences of Orientalism.
As a result of Europe's fascination for the Orient, carved Blackamoors found a ready market and as highly fashionable items were either specifically commissioned or were purchased by visitors to Italy during their Continental Grand Tour. Condition of such pieces is important since they were generally made of soft pine or as here of walnut or other fruitwoods, which with their ebonised or polychrome and parcel gilt finish, can often become damaged and are not only difficult but expensive to repair. Not only is the present work in fine untouched condition but it has an added appeal in that its design looks directly back to the seventeenth century Baroque, complete with its dextrous figure, exotic drapery and tassel hung cushions above the billowing cloud formations.