When you see a yellow pine pipe-box or a kitchen stool go for more than a Renaissance enamel would bring or a crystal of the seventeenth century, you have, if you are blessed with a serene mind, two reflections: one, that this is after all pure collecting, collecting divorced from all meaning or beauty or use, like paying trebly for the copy of Keats with the misprint on the last page or one of the ten first stamps of Heligoland printed in the wrong brown through a misunderstanding on the engraver’s part—this is after all pure collecting as a legitimate pastime and quite harmless, better than doctors, and in no way related to taste or any culture but that of mere hobbyism. The second reflection is that with the vogue running to Early American, the earlier the better, modest fortunes stand a better chance of acquiring beautiful things, Spanish eighteenth century and seventeenth century, Stuart, Louis Quinze, Gothic, late Venetian, Early Tuscan and almost every Italian period.
The American Wing at the Metropolitan Museum, visited by hordes of sightseers and house furnishers and designers, serves many purposes, not the least among which is to make clear and very clear the fact that our Colonial art of decoration was not the lean affair that most people seem determined to understand by the term Early American. Much of this designing in the American Wing is provincial if you like, renderings of august and elegant forms that are to their original prototypes as Bryant’s Thanatopsis is to Wordsworth or Mrs. Mowatt’s Fashion to Sheridan and Congreve. But much of the Early American is pleasantly livable and rich, full of color and not without its daring and courage. Its invention is passable, its skill often admirable. Its diapason of expression is fairly wide; it is no more an affair of pine and apple wood and oak scraped down into stools and boxes than our President’s simple virtues as organized by the press are the profound qualities of heroic life and character. But pushed to its extremest leanness and considered as an expression of life in art, much of this Early American is about like a Beethoven symphony played on a village fiddle.
Not far from the American Wing there has now been installed the room from the Sagredo Palace in Venice. This bedroom, admirably recorded by Mr. Preston Remington in the museum bulletin, comes from the palace of a Venetian family that was never of the front rank in that republic, never of the Contarini’s rank, for example, nor of the rank of the Loredan or Mocenigo families. The first Venetian branch of it came from Dalmatia. After seven centuries the Sagredi came nearer to the front, one member was Doge of the Republic in the middle of the seventeenth century. Another, after renowned missions to England and France, rose still further through his defense of Francesco Morosini, whose family palace fell to Zacaria Sagredo in the early years of the eighteenth century. Th is Morosini Palace was on the Grand Canal one door from the Ca d’Oro. Zacaria Sagredo set about restorations and redecorations within the ancient Gothic house of the Morosini, and among these innovations falls this bedchamber that came into the possession of the Metropolitan twenty years ago and that now finds a proper setting in the new wing.
On this room worked the celebrated artists in stucco, Carpoforo Mazetti of Bissone and Ahondio Statio of Massagno, of whom the first has a famous decoration in the Church of the Gesuiti in Venice. The ceiling painting was done by Gasparo Diziani of Belluno, a pupil of Sebastiano Ricci. The bedroom consists of an alcove for the bed and dressing-table and an ante-chamber for reception purposes. The green ground of the color design—the panels are green brocatelle-—is overworked with gold, with which are mingled cream and red and diverse values of brown. Amorini with garlands of flowers compass the entablature of the ceiling, in which leafages run around a space panelled by stiles; and amorini carry the central painting overhead, Daziani’s Dawn Triumphant over Night. The ceiling is supported by fluted Corinthian pilasters, beautifully designed. The amorini are far better than most, finely modelled and charmingly varied. Over the doors there are two designs in stucco, heavy draperies heavily fringed about, one of a Bacchic dance, the other of two swans beside an urn. Between the bed alcove and the ante-chamber the frame of the opening goes further yet, amorini to the number of seven swirl and fly, lightly as air, and rosy as love in the Venetian dream; they carry more flower garlands and lift a cartouche in the centre with Zacaria’s cipher. The alcove rises one step from the ante-chamber, its ceiling is a dome with a gilt medallion of Venus and elaborate fringed draperies in stucco. The two closets in the alcove show more amorini still and very fine arabesques. Around the room runs a dado, wood panelled above a red and white marble base. Everytliing is original except the wood panels, the terrazzo floor to the ante chamber—the alcove has its original marquetry floor—and the door frames of yellow marble. The remounting of the room has been thoroughly carried out, except that the doors are shown outside at right angles to the entrance and the doorspaces are thus left blank, an arrangement that is doubtless necessary in a museum, but that disturbs the emphasis in the color design of the room.
The furnishings of this apartment are from various sources, an apt bed, baroque running toward rococo, a Louis XV sofa, a green lacquered secretary, two scrolled gilt candlesticks, these last English and indicative of the English vogue in Venice at this epoch. The mirrors and consoles come from the Sagredo Palace.
The effect of this Venetian art of the eighteenth century is rich and intricate. It descends sumptuously from that of the century of Veronese and Titian; less august, less distinguished it is of course, but full of invention and spirit. This spirit, rising in the Sagredo room to the fairest heights, is one of the secrets of the room’s achievement. The mass of motives and materials that are present might easily become heavy, fat and crowded to a too overbearing pressure. The effect might have been showy and vulgar, a showy vulgarity the exact opposite of the anemic vulgarity of some of our spindle-legged art admired for its restraint and refinement. This spirit in the Sagredo room, buoying it up and carrying off its sumptuous variety, is a spirit that is light and gay and learned at once; the whole is executed by a technique so sure that all the effort appears to be a pleasure, and is lit with an inexhaustible rich vivacity. The dying poetry of the late lagoons is in it, a passing world fast growing irresponsible and greedy of pleasure and beauty, an autumnal splendor of texture and form, fancy and sophistication.
Looking at that magnificent apartment I am reminded of the later development of these Italian forms in France and of what an old Venetian said to me once: “The Italians create, the French finish”; and of how these French refinements came back to Venice later to be followed. I am reminded of the great English milords who came here on the grand tour, carrying back with them furniture and trappings for their houses, consoles, tables, royal beds to be seen now in great English houses. And finally I am reminded of the Victorian baroque, very good sometimes, never highly creative, never much beyond charming, but often how charming and livable! In their safe way, getting safer and duller as the century went on, these Victorians too went in for more color than we are apt to think and for more courage and festivity than flutters at the tail of a Prince Albert. Perhaps slowly even now this Victorian encroaches on the Early American for the conquest of dealers’, decorators’ and collectors’ souls. And what of the baroque and the new Metropolitan Opera House that is to be built?
This article originally ran in the July 7, 1926 issue of the magazine.