by Linda Dorland
My first experience with Florentine décor was at GasLamp Antiques and Decorating Mall. I saw a few pieces in one booth and fell in love; the textured gold finish on the Italian items was so rich and intriguing. I had always loved the gleam of polished brass, but the gilt was calling and I was hooked.
So what is Florentine? Technically this means items made in Florence, Italy. But the common usage of the term refers to a type of décor from any region of Italy in the Florentine style, with a broader definition including any items of similar style. This can range from wood with gold gilding on a gesso base over the wood, often combined with colors, most often an ivory color; to gold gilding over various metals, often showing an under painting of red or black tones. Many unmarked items may indeed be French, as there is tremendous overlap in the styles. American companies copied these designs as well.
Although one might think of Florentine as a fancy décor, many of the items are more casual, and all can blend in well with most other periods or styles. I recent saw a magazine article featuring a great Fifties design in a kitchen accented with a huge display of colorful Florentine trays, salts and peppers. It's a combination most would not think of trying, but it worked. The variety of Florentine items is endless. We are all used to seeing the trays, which are usually the gilding and various colors over a papier mache type material, and you will find more trays than any other item due to their popularity. But when I took a look around GasLamp Antiques, I found a treasure trove of the Florentine style.
In addition to the many trays of various sizes, I found the set of nested gold and ivory tables in the photo, above right ($175, Booth B-108). The nested table sets are easy to find and you can detach the legs for storage or shipping as well. Although of a very light weight, they are sturdy for use.
I also found a gold and red drawer commode chest in B225 for $985; this is a design that is not easy to find (photo, left). When buying Florentine furniture, look inside. There, you should typically see a wash of paint, often yellow, with hints of the gesso underneath. The best pieces will be marked Italy on the inside of the doors or drawers, or under the tables.
Let’s not forget lighting. You will find Florentine table lamps, the occasional floor lamp, chandeliers, and many styles of sconces both electric and with holders for candles. Above the GasLamp front counter are two elegant gilded metal chandeliers priced at $950 and $1250 (photo, right, features one of these).
Booth B-2012 has a lovely gilt lamp with metal leaves and a black shade (photo, left; $75). Wall sconces for both electric and for candles are a great accent; these are most commonly found as gold with various flower shapes, and many include crystal prisms.
Occasionally you will find a mixture of metals in Florentine light fixtures; in the photo, right is a large gold and black one ($298; Booth B-225). The neat thing about the Florentine wall sconces is that many of them are of a flower stem design and the tubes are hollow, making it easy for your electrician to wire them for lighting. Make sure to check for this if you need this option.
Small decorative items are harder to find but are worth the search. Boxes are the most common items you will see, and these in a huge variety of designs. Many have decoupage style art on the top. Kleenex boxes are also popular. Harder to find items include waste cans and magazine racks. Fortunately, GasLamp has all of these. On occasion one will also discover salt and pepper mills, coasters, candle snuffers, candleholders, and small wall platforms.
Florentine frames are my favorite item. These may contain mirrors or art. The frame styles range from plain to quite ornate with deep carvings. Many of the more elaborate frames are pieced for a very three-dimensional effect. One of the most dramatic ones is surrounding a painting of young Jesus in B225, priced at $1,250 (photo, left). The more ornate Florentine frames are usually found on religious and classical art.
American companies copied the Florentine look, with the most prominent being the Borghese company, which is identified by a peel-off label on the backs. Take a look at the lovely mirror in B231 for an example, priced at $295 (photo, right).
Then there are the “over the top” items, those unusual pieces you rarely see that beg for a special spot in your home. Take a peek at the huge wall sconce of gold gilt metal with removable white flower “buds” covering the lights (photo, below left; $1,250; Booth B-225). The matching table lamps are also for sale in the same booth.
Although I have seen entire rooms decorated in Florentine, most of us will want just a few special pieces. Luckily, this style is easy to incorporate in your own décor. The gold, ivory and colors of the painted items blend beautifully with the patina of fine woods. Items such as the Kleenex holder or trays look great on a dresser. Another idea is to consider framing a favorite piece of art in a Florentine frame for the living room.
Much of GasLamp's art that comes in a Florentine frame is less expensive than buying a new frame, and has a richer patina from the age and technique. Florentine style mirrors are useful in any room in the house, ranging from large ones for dining areas and entry halls to smaller ones for the bath and boudoir. Miniature Florentine framed mirrors, prints and paintings are great touches for those small areas in your hallways. Always think of the Italian look as complementing the décor you already have and love. Our current large display booth in the front of the mall is a good example of combining styles and periods; our designer has used many Florentine items this month as special touches.
If you are buying Florentine items as a collector, try to stick to the genuine Italian pieces, marked pieces being best. The painted gesso on wood pieces usually will have Italy incised on the bottom, or sometimes a peel-off sticker with the company Florentia being the most prominent. Sconces of metal and some lamps will have a small plastic Italy label that wraps around one of the parts. If not marked, look for signs of age and wear to help with determining authenticity. Be careful, as some of the pieces (specially tables and sconces) are being reproduced in a plastic or composite material and then painted over.
All the items pictured are currently at Gas Lamp Antiques, and I only touched the surface of what we have available in this graceful and elegant style.