Saturday, January 16, 2010

dreams and realities in decoration

When I found my own four-poster bed from the Burgundy region, I researched the details and the general
subject - naturally! I discovered that, according to Peter Thornton, Carpaccio's 1490 painting the Dream of St Ursula is perhaps the first representation of a posted bed . There isn't much resemblance between my bed and St Ursula's, but both do have blazons on the headboard. Hers is her own shield. I've never uncovered the associations on mine.

Sometimes life imitates art. Why should interior decoration be any different? Carpaccio's magically peaceful painting that sends me into raptures. It has a lightness and quirkiness to it that is very Venitian, but an interest in interior detail and light along with the suspended time quality found in Flemish painting. This image is among my favorites stocked in my imaginary museum of ideal interiors.  The bed is so very graceful without its curtains; lightness and charm abound here, so that we end up with a very modern ornamental aesthetic. No wonder this scene inspired several interpretations by early 20 th century interior decorators.

The child princess has placed her crown at the foot of her bed, but golden braids encircle her head as a substitute. One would never imagine that St Ursula, neatly tucked into her bed and pensive even in her sleep, is dreaming of her choice between marriage and martyrdom. The room's pure and peaceful atmosphere may be said to be a kind of portrait. Ruskin wrote, "Carpaccio has taken the pains to explain to us, as far as he can, the kind of life she leads, by completely painting her little bedroom in the light of dawn, so that you can see everything in it." His text in Fors Ciavigea goes on to describe the room in minute detail.

Ruskin's praise of the Carpaccio painting did not go unheard and several real life versions came to be.  Edwin Lutyens used certain elements found in the composition (see post by The Blue Remembered Hills), but the room that most interestingly reproduces the painting is by Geoffrey Scott. Scott was part of Bernard Berenson's circle in Florence, a Renaissance scholar known for his book, The Architecture of Humanism. He was also a great friend of Edith Wharton. The room was created for his friend William Haslam's Florence home in 1914, the bed of which is today found in the Victoria and Albert Museum. This illustration from 1917 Vogue shows yet another version created by Scott for the Vanderbilt home in which proportions were enlarged to suit the client's dwelling. Yes, it is more theatrical, but then maybe it too is the portrait of its owner.

see Wikipedia for Geoffrey Scott


  1. Perhaps with the miracle of the internet your blazons will be made known. I hope it is a blessing for artistic dreams. Trying to make a separation of what is life, fantasy and what is art seems a bit like that false duality insisted upon for years the division of mind/body.

    Sweet dreams...and report back.

  2. Yes, I think the separations are false too. Could you imagine yourself in this room?
    I will let you know what I discover!

  3. Lovely story and images, thank you for sharing!

  4. A beautiful bed, yours, and that red must make the room glow. The romance of the four-poster bed lives on and still is as it was the most expensive piece of furniture, especially with its hangings.

  5. I have always loved this painting and "magically peaceful" describes it beautifully, although I thought it odd there was nothing 'saintly' about it apart from the ethereal expression Ursula wears in her sleep.

    As I recall, she was part of a group of virgins captured by the Huns, who was initially spared, only to be later executed. Could sainthood have been after the fact?

  6. Thank you! The bed was quite an adventure - having it widened for today's mattresses, etc... Now if I could just discover more about the coat of arms.

    Blue - it's especially expensive when the upholster makes mistakes with all those meters of damask!

  7. EA - So right, it does seem secular, but really there is an angel that enters from the right. Also it's part of a larger cycle with all the holy details of her legend.

    As far as I know, the 15 year old princess was known for her beauty AND virtue. She is said to be martyred with Undecimille,
    that is either with 11 000 virgin followers or one suivant named Undecimille. In verifying her story, I discovered that the VIRGIN ISLANDS were named after these maidens. For those who don't care to investigate religious history, here's proof that it - in all various forms - is all around us!