This spectacular gold-ground cabinet decorated with whimsical and fantastic images of figures, flora and fauna, is a remarkable example of the Italian taste for chinoiserie and the exotic in the eighteenth century. The fashion for chinoiserie dates back to the seventeenth century, when European travellers to the Orient brought back tales and engravings of the exotic sights they had seen. The charming scenes depicted on this cabinet were no doubt inspired by such alluring travelogues.
Contemporary images of Asia engraved and published by emissaries of the Dutch East Indies Company, as well as the presence of Jesuit missionaries in China, provided abundant if not completely accurate documentation for European artists. One such illustrated account was published by a Dutchman, Johan Nieuhof, in 1669, following an ambassadorial visit to the 'Great Tartar Chan', in 1665. Nieuhof's engravings were highly influential and provided European artists with a range of enticing images of the East. Many of these engravings were copied directly, but they often served as a starting point for more fantastic designs. Exotic elements having no relation to Asia, such as the blackamoor painted on the present cabinet, became inextricably tangled with true Asian ornament, forming a view of the East more imagined and whimsical than correct.
The fascination with the Orient took hold at an early stage in Italy, principally through the trading ties of ports such as Venice, where the earliest European laquered wares are known to have been produced. Until recently, it was thought that the majority of japanned furniture in Italy was produced in Venice, a natural assumption given its longstanding trading links with the Orient and the fact that its lacquer craftsmen were famed throughout Europe for their imitations of Chinese and Japanese wares. However recent research has acknowledged that almost every region in Italy had its own distinctive tradition of japanning.
During the eighteenth century, the fashion for chinoiserie was such that most European palaces and mansions would have at least one room that was decorated in the Chinoiserie style. In Northern Italy, for instance, examples of chinoiserie can be seen at numerous palaces, such as Racconigi near Turin, in the Chinese Apartment on the first floor; at Stupinigi in the Sala Cinese, in different rooms of the Castello Cavour in Santena, near Turin (see L. Caterina, C. Mossetti, Villa della Regina Il Riflesso dell'Oriente nel Piemonte del Settecento, Turin, 2005), and a chinoiserie room designed by the architect Randone for the Duke of Aosta in the Castello di Rivoli near Turin. A number of these chinoiserie rooms featured lacquered paintings decorating the walls or ceilings. At the Palazzo Graneri and the Villa della Regina in Turin, the chinoiserie rooms in particular have the unusual of feature gold-ground painting on the walls and ceiling, with exotic and chinoiserie decoration (see L. Caterina and C. Mossetti, op.cit., pp. 270-271 and 552-553, respectively).
The particularly fanciful designs on this unusual gold-ground cabinet, painted without perspective and purely as surface decoration, are similar in feel to the chinoiserie designs seen on Brussels tapestries from the early 18th Century by Jodocus de Vos, such as one which sold as part of a group of tapestries of this design, Christie's, London, 11 May 2000, lot 205, and illustrated here. Furthermore, a related character of openess to the decoration of this cabinet with similarly shaped whimsical chinoiserie figures against a black ground is seen on a cabinet conserved in the Acton Collection, La Pietra, Florence (illustrated in A. González-Palacios, Il Tempio del Gusto: Roma e il Regro delle due Sicilie, Milan, 1984, vol. I, p. 68 and vol. II, fig. 151, where he attributes it to Rome and illustrated here).