Antique Italian Furniture : il Divano
This is the first in a series inspired by previous articles I published in Italian about 20 years ago for Ville e Casali magazine . To help those wishing to buy antiques in Italy the vocabulary is given in both languages. Your comments and questions by email are welcome. The first two photos, taken at Sarah Bannister’s shop and luxury B&B in Sutri, are by Corrado Bonomo,
Of the different types of antique furniture the divano ( sofa, couch) is the most undervalued by collectors and the most difficult to place in a contemporary home. Those furnishing a first home usually prefer the relative value and comfort of today’s production. Only newly made divani, they rightly think, can offer a wide range of size, textile, price and availability.
Furniture design has evolved over the centuries to keep up with changes in lifestyle and dress. Furniture for sitting and relaxing, such as armchairs, benches and divans have become smaller and modeled on the line of the human body at rest.
A full skirted lady of the 19th century would find it quite uncomfortable to sink into a modern low-slung divano, and modern day people would find it hard to relax and watch TV perched on a high backed, solidly stuffed divan of last century.
Those built a century ago give more support to the body since they are higher off the ground and the upholstery (imbottitura), usually of horsehair (crine di cavallo ), is more rigid than the ubiquitous foam rubber (gomma piuma) or expensive duck feathers (piuma d’oca) used today.
What reasons are there to buy a vintage couch (divano antico )? First of all to complete an certain style. For an Art Déco room what better complement than a suite composed of a divan and armchairs of the same period? Christie’s experts tell us that a divano antico has less value than an antique armchair, making for a relatively inexpensive purchase. Besides being a good investment , they are also a clever way to furnish an entrance hallway. With one fourth the price of a console or table one can purchase an antique divano.
Another reason to prefer an antique divan/sofa/couch is the aura of Romanticism and importance they add to a room, something lacking in modern day production. When world leaders meet for photo sessions with handshaking all around, you will notice they always seat themselves on a sofa or divano. To avoid difficulty in getting up and a possible minor diplomatic crisis, those low-slung modern divani are never used.
- At the Italian embassy in Moscow there is a divan located in a crimson colored salon with frescoed ceilings. Tradition holds that the German ambassador in 1918, Von Mirbach, was gunned down by members of the social revolutionary group opposed to his pacifist intentions, while sitting on the original divan.
- Joseph Stalin must have heard about this. The Georgian-born leader who suffered from arthritis, found relief at the hot baths near Sochi where he built a summer residence known as Zelenaya Roscha. This highly guarded compound is located deep within a pine forest and painted camoflaugue green. It was a no-flight zone overlooked by guard towers on the nearby hilltop since the psychopathic leader lived in dread of assassination. Even the fountain in the central courtyard was turned off at night so any intruder could be heard . The short leader (only 5 foot 2 inches) slept on a cot in his office during the day and spent most of his free time seated behind his desk or on a custom built leather divan provided with very high sides containing bullet proof metal sheets .
- Before her elopement to Italy with Robert Browning, the poetess Elizabeth Barrett spent most of her days as a semi-invalid lying on a chaise lounge or “lit de repos” in the family’s London home on Wimpole Street. Later at Casa Guidi their Florentine home, the Brownings spent happy, creative years during which they searched the local antiques shops to find antique armchairs and divani.
- The sculptor Antonio Canova immortalized the Empire-style divan as well as its owner, Paolina Bonaparte, Princess Borghese, in his masterful portrait sculpture showing Paolina as Venus. Paolina was Napoleone’s favorite sister and loved to show off her beauty , so she had no qualms posing for Canova. The sculpture now has the place of honor in the Villa Borghese museum but this was not always so. While he was alive, her jealous husband, Prince Camillo Borghese, kept this marvelous marble portrait sculpture locked away from public view.
Development of the divano
The oldest type of divan was probably a bench with a “flippable” wooden back that could be moved from one side to another allowing one to sit either facing the fire or with one’s back to the fire . There were also portable divani, (divano da campo )a padded bench that could be closed thanks to hinges. It had metal legs and was used by generals during war campaigns, thus very few examples have survived.
To escape drafts in northern countries there were beautiful divans and armchairs covered in leather with tall , protruding ear- shaped sides. Austrian castles and English hunting lodges often had leather divans with hinged, moveable ends that could become beds, allowing the hunters to rest and even sleep without removing their boots.
Perhaps the painted chests like those of the Marche region cannot be considered true ancestors of the divan since they lacked the comfort of padding or upholstery. They were mostly used as containers for storage since the seats could be opened. They were often so narrow that their use in entrance halls and stair landings was merely decorative.
It is more likely that from these simple benches and container –type furniture common in all houses, that the cassapanca was born and then evolved into today’s divan. In the Florentine Renaissance there were cassapanche in walnut wood enriched with carved backs and curved arm rests. With the addition of soft cushions they were comfortable places for sitting and conversation. Beautiful examples are conserved in the Palazzo Davanzati house museum in Florence but they are very rare on the antiques market. The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston boasts many beautiful cassapanche from Tuscany and central Italy.
Today one can admire examples of Venetian divans at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston and the Correr Museum in Venice, similar to those 18th century ones that decorated palatial Venetian palazzi. They are made from carved and lacquered wood and could have up to ten legs.
Due to the difficult life and use to which they were subjected, antique divani in very good condition are considered very rare. If you are tempted to buy one do not be afraid of the condition of the upholstery and textile covering. Rather give a good look at the wooden frame to be sure that it is still in a robust state. A good restorer and new upholstery can give an antique divano a second lease on life.
Coming Soon : Letti Antichi Antique Beds
Armadi Antich Antique Wardrobes