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Cabinet and stand

  • Place of origin:

    Spain (made)

  • Date:

    ca. 1560-1600 (made)

  • Artist/Maker:


  • Materials and Techniques:

    Walnut with inlay of box, bone (some stained green), and other woods; the stand of carved walnut

  • Museum number:


  • Gallery location:

    Medieval & Renaissance, Room 63, The Edwin and Susan Davies Gallery, case WE, shelf EXP []

The inlay on this cabinet (escritorio) suggests a wide range of influences. It combines flower vases and small-scale geometric patterns in the Spanish mudejar style derived from Islamic woodwork. It centres on a coat of arms (probably fictitious) and illustrates, unusually, a scene (here Noah's ark) reminiscent of Italian pictorial inlay. By the late 16th century cabinets were highly fashionable in Spain, and inventory references to the royal palaces in Madrid indicate that they were used in many rooms. Many of these were imported from Italy, Flanders and Germany. In 1603 an edict of Philip III prohibited the import of Nuremberg cabinets to Spain, because they threatened the trade in Spanish cabinets. Equally, a petition on behalf of Spanish furniture makers claimed that cabinets imported from Germany were being made in Spain for about half the price of the imported product.

Physical description

Fall-front cabinet (escritorio) with pictorial inlay on the exterior showing Noah's ark, with animals and trees, the buildings of a city, and so-called 'plateresque' decoration of large-scale arabesque scrolls and formal motifs. The cabinet contains twelve small drawers and two cupboards. The interior is inlaid with formal motifs, including foliate scrolls and birds. With a demountable walnut carved stand consisting of two end units with baluster turnings, joined by a central arcaded section.

The exterior of the fall front (supported on three butterfly hinges) with a central coat of fictitious arms, (made up of the royal quarterings of Castile and Leon supported by the eagle of Isabel the Catholic) overlaying a black eagle with outstretched wings, and a cast metal escutcheon (damaged and with sections missing) mounted on felt, and held on 4 slotted screws (probably 20th-century). Across the lower half of the fall-front the inlay includes Noah's ark with gangplank, into which numerous animals, mostly in pairs (lions, horses, deer, oxen, sheep, goats, camels, dogs, pigs (or rabbits), cats (?), swans and various birds) direct themselves. In the left foreground are a fountain and four trees. At top left is a series of buildings with three cupolas with crosses, a crenellated tower and three columns with birds (perhaps cranes rather than long-billed storks) atop, and a building with balusters. Across the front are four vases, two smaller containing shorter stems (carnations?), and two larger from which spring symmetrical slender curling stems with leaves, grapes, flowers, pomegranates (?), with birds (including magpies), snails and snakes among the stems. The whole panel is bordered (reading from the inside) with a simple cord, husk and two beads, simple cord, raised band chevron of two colours (4mm wide). This border is used on all sides of the cabinet.

The top of the cabinet with a plateresque design of two large circles with interwoven slender stems which flank scrolling stems with flower buds. The ends of the cabinet show an archway supported by two elaborate candelabra – each containing a large vase with flowers, in turn flanked by two stems rising from bases. Each end has an iron drop handle on 2 quatrefoil backplates, one (at the right end) missing.

The back is formed by a single wide plank (scrub-planed) and a narrow added strip nailed on with large, hand-made nails, supplemented by numerous small modern nails.

The interior of the fall front is inlaid with a design centred on a circle from which spring vases with slender stems and birds, with a wide border of scrolling stems and buds.

The cabinet contains twelve drawers and two cupboards, the fronts decorated with dogstooth borders (triangles of wood alternating with bone), surrounding grotesques, birds, snakes, snails, vases, winged lions, monsters and grotesque masks. The two cupboard doors are each inlaid with a medallion containing a profile male bust with hat.

Numerous small areas of inlay have been replaced with a pale wood.

The scene of animals entering Noah's Ark along a gang-plank, before the flood, while surrounded by numerous animals and, in the air, birds, appears to derive from the woodcut illustration (one of 198) for the Biblia Sacra (Lyons 1558), by Bernard Salomon (c.1508-1561).

Place of Origin

Spain (made)


ca. 1560-1600 (made)



Materials and Techniques

Walnut with inlay of box, bone (some stained green), and other woods; the stand of carved walnut


Height: 65 cm overall, Width: 105 cm, Depth: 46 cm

Object history note

Bought for £12 from M. Riano (presumably Señor Juan F.Riano), per Messrs McCracken. No reference found on nominal file to objects purchased before 1872.

According to Clive Wainwright 'The making of the South Kensington Museum III - Collecting abroad' in JOURNAL of the HISTORY of COLLECTIONS, ed. Charlotte Gere and Carolyn Sargentson: The Making of the South Kensington Museum. Curators, dealers and collectors at home and abroad (Vol. 14, No. 1, 2002) (Oxford, 2002), Juan Riano y Montera (1829-1901) was a Professor of the History of Art based in Madrid, whose wife had lived in England, spoke English perfectly and who was well connected socially in England. They were a charming, cosmopolitan couple, with a beautifully furnished house that was decorated with a collection of old Spanish ceramics. In May 1870, shortly after meeting Henry Cole Riano was appointed as 'Professional Art Referee in Spain. His duties to be to obtain permission to make castings, &c., and to report upon objects for sale suitable for South Kensington Museum... To submit Report monthly, and to receive £5.5s therefore. To be allowed first class rail fare, and 20 francs per diem when obliged to leave Madrid.' He wrote A Catalogue of Art Objects of Spanish Production (1872) and a 'Handbook', The Industrial Arts of Spain (1879) - neither of which lists this cabinet- for the Museum, and was instrumental in raising the profile of Spanish art in the collections.
See also, Marjorie Trusted, "In all cases of difference adopt Signor Riaño's view - Collecting Spanish decorative arts at South Kensington in the late nineteenth century", in JOURNAL of the HISTORY of COLLECTIONS vol. 18 no. 2 (2006) pp. 225-236

Historical context note

Regarding this type of decorated cabinet: Aguilo, Estrado y Dormitorio, (Madrid, Museo de Arte Contemporáneo, 1990), see #19) suggest that such works are from Aragon, especially the cities of Zaragoza and Tarazona (NE Spain). A marquetry (Taracea) workshop is documented in Tarazona in the 16th century. The type is called traditional pinyonet decoration (veneered decorated with small cuttings of dyed boxwood and bone engraved, inserted directly into the veneer). Aguilo notes an Italian influence in the use of engraved, tinted bone reminiscent of Neapolitan tarsia incastro.
Aguilo suggests that walnut, box and bone are the conventional materials.
Burr p.38 supports the idea of an Aragonesque origin. Another, similar example in Osterreichisches Museum fur Angewandte Kunst, (Vienna), and many other similar cabinets in Spanish and private collections.
In comparision to other examples (dated mid to late 16th century) illustrated by Aguilo, the V&A cabinet's seems relatively unusual in terms of its exterior decoration with Noah's ark (most employ plateresque decoration with geometrical and renaissance derived ornament), the wide border of alternating veneers, and the lack of a hinged lid (though this latter feature does not seem to be universal). Aguilo cat. no. 260 shows an Italian 16th century cabinet of similar form and plateresque decoration, the exterior of the fall front depicting in bone and walnut a figurative scene similar in style to the V&A cabinet.

Palau Robert: Moble Català. (Barcelona, 1994), cat. no. 30 describes a comparable piece (Museu d'Arts Decoratives. Ajuntament de Barcelona. Inv. no. 64165 as 1530-60, Catalan).

Aguilo calls this type of ornament plateresque (based on the Spanish word for silversmith, platero), apparently to indicate intricate ornament combining late gothic and mudéjar features, in particular the motif of stylised vase with elongated linear stems. However the term, first used c1580 of a mannerist type of ornament has not been used consistently, and has tended to indicate Spanish architecture – often with candelabra and grotestques, combining late gothic, Muslim and renaissance elements.

Aguilo, p. 98 argues that escritorios (particularly those of German marquetry) were usually supplied with travelling cases, citing a documentary reference c.1500, that these might be in the form of an external box, or in the form of an external nailed leather covering as in "escritorios de Flandes guarnecidos de cuero (1579, inventory of Magdalena Durango), an example illustrated cat. 257. Very few survive

According to Riano ( The industrial arts in Spain by Juan F. Riaño, 1890) by the late 16th century cabinets were highly fashionable in Spain, and inventory references to the royal palaces in Madrid give the impression that they were found in many rooms. Many of these were imported from Italy, Flanders and Germany - and by 1603 an edict of Philip III prohibited the import of Nuremberg cabinets to Spain. Equally, a petition on behalf of Spanish furniture makers claimed that cabinets and escritoires of the type imported from Germany were being made in Spain for about half the price of the imported product.

Descriptive line

Spanish, late C16

Spanish, late C16; from cabinet, six turned legs, arcading; diaper pattern, 2' 2 1/2" x 2' 11 1/4"

part of cabinet, Spanish, late C16

part of cabinet, Spanish, late C16

part of cabinet, Spanish, late C16

part of cabinet, Spanish, late C16

part of cabinet, Spanish, late C16

part of cabinet, Spanish, late C16

part of cabinet, Spanish, late C16

part of cabinet, Spanish, late C16

part of cabinet, Spanish, late C16

part of cabinet, Spanish, late C16

part of cabinet, Spanish, late C16

part of cabinet, Spanish, late C16

part of cabinet, Spanish, late C16

to cabinet, Spanish, late C16

Bibliographic References (Citation, Note/Abstract, NAL no)

Ancient and Modern Furniture & Woodwork in the South Kensington Museum, described with an introduction by John Hungerford Pollen, (London, 1874), pp. 74-76.

Cabinet, with Stand. Walnut wood, with falling front, inlaid with various woods and plain or coloured bone; the top ornamented with geometric and foliated patterns, the sides with vases of flowers under arcades, the front with figures of animals going into the Ark, buildings, and a coat of arms. Inside are 13 drawers and two cupboards, with similar decoration. The stand has six turned legs, connected by arcade work carved with diaper pattern.

Spanish. 16th century.

W. 3 ft. 5 in., H. 2 ft. 1 in. Stand, W. 2 ft. 2 ½ in., H. 2ft. 11 ¼ in.

Bought, 12l.

We have few other cabinets, which in design or make offer so interesting an illustration of the transition from old mediaeval designs and methods of work to the renaissance of art in the 16th century. Of Spanish work of the older periods in furniture, we have but few examples of any kind. This cabinet is as simple as can be in general construction, being merely a box with falling front, set on a stand (and the stand which supports it is of a later date). When opened there are drawers and pigeon-holes, or rather small cupboards—thirteen drawers and two cupboards. The fronts are made into panels by small mouldings planted on. The panels are inlaid with bold wood and bone insertions, in rude arabesque forms. The two cupboard doors are more decorated. A bust is figured in the centre of each, and the arabesque work twines and radiates all round. The outer surfaces of the cabinet are differently decorated on each of the sides. The top is laid out with two circular patterns, double bordered by thin ivory lines, diamond and shaped pieces between. The centre is a rude rosette, also bordered, and thin scroll lines, with conventional leaves and blossoms fill up the space, the heads or blossoms, pointing to the centre, and two branching volutes to the outer border. Between these two circles is a bold flowered scroll in four pieces, conjoined and opposed so as to form a rich strapwork knot. The two sides form the only approach which the outside shows us to the cinquecento ornament. They form parts of arcades, the sides being figures of quatrecento or early cinquecento balustrade-shaped columns, with spiral lines, &c. Under this arched form is a pot of wire-stalked flowers, prettily disposed, to fill the arch.

The front is divided by a lock plate, of later work than the original. The plate now on is of brass, with the crown and supports on it, probably early 17th century work. It partially obscures the impresa, or heraldic achievement below. This consists of the single-headed eagle, added when the King became Emperor, to the royal arms. The shield is in front of this figure, and bears what is meant for a cross fleury, in the first quarter, and the Zodiacal sign “scorpio “in the fourth. These two are impaled with “Castile” and “Leon” in the second and third, or sinister division per pale, of the shield. In the right side of the front we find a pot of conventional flowering stalks, and a castle, with cranes perched on the roof, in the extreme corner. This architectural composition has towers, belfries, and balustrades, but stands for nothing real but “Castile.” The left side of the front has only a conventional pot of flowers, larger, but of different design. Below, along the bottom, are beasts trotting and caracoling into the Ark, the upper deck of which shows stalls prepared for the Spanish coursers and barbs. A rabbit heads the procession; a lion, two horses, &c., follow. Birds, reptiles, and animals of all sorts, are perching or resting on the volutes or branches of the flowering plants above. The whole is inlaid with bone, rosewood, and various light-coloured woods, pear, lime, &c., now more or less discoloured. The ornamental borders of this flap door and of the sides (which are plain boards not framed) consist of short diagonal stripes or alternations, in white bone and rosewood, or other brown wood. The frame or stand is made of a piece of wood cut into three arches, and the front carved in the ordinary 17th century renaissance manner. These arches stand on turned balusters. The frame returns with two cross-pieces, one at each end, also on the fame shaped balusters. The whole stands on a base shaped to correspond. There are iron eyes and hooks, showing that the frame has been hooked to a wall or to some more balustrading. In the frame are provided two stays, to draw out and support the flap. The piece looks rude, but it is boldly cut and designed. It has been much worn. All the inlay is let into the solid wood. The fine scroll or wire-stalked flower-work is of a character to remind us of the Certosino work, while these Moresque designs offer some sort of variety to the mere geometric arrangements of tiny diamonds of which this kind of decoration is generally made up. It is to be regretted that more numerous specimens of this early Spanish Woodwork cannot be obtained. The 16th century artists studied to reproduce, as far as -it was possible, the lessons learnt in Italy, though they did so with many discernible national peculiarities.

Eric Mercer, The Social History of the Decorative Arts - Furniture 700-1700 (London, 1969), pl.128
Victoria & Albert Museum: Fifty Masterpieces of Woodwork (London, 1955), no. 20.

A Spanish Cabinet

The occupation of Spain by the Moors from the early eighth century till their final defeat in 1492 had a dominating effect on Spanish ornament and design. Interior decoration in the style called Mudejar in medieval time owed much to a combination of Islamic and Christian civilization. At the same time its furniture was strongly influenced by habits of life, as by articles of furniture brought into Spain from the Near East. Chests, cabinets and other Forms originally intended to be placed on the floor or at a low level came to he mounted on stands made for the purpose, and gave a distinctive character to Spanish furniture even after the ‘European’ policy of Ferdinand and Isabella and their successors became effective in the arts.
This beautifully and elaborately decorated cabinet is called a vargueño, a term of uncertain etymology. Dating from the middle or latter part of the sixteenth century, it is skilfully inlaid with walnut, yew, birch, box, lance and other woods and with green-stained and uncoloured ivory. The exterior of the fall front shows a spirited representation of the animals entering the Ark fitted with stalls for animals, while the top and sides are adorned with formal foliage anti geometrical patterns. It well illustrates the combination of Christian themes with the impersonal ornament of Islam.
The design and tinctures of the coat of arms are somewhat vaguely indicated. In the first quarter the cross may be that of the Order of Calatrava, a military order instituted in 1158 and taking its name from a defence point on the borders of Castile and Andalusia. The older identification of the arms in the second quarter (a tower on a field vert) as Castile, and in the third quarter as the lion of Leon, must be regarded as incorrect. The nature of the charge in the fourth quarter is uncertain. It is possible that the achievement may be municipal, but the identity of the two medallion heads is obscure.
The cabinet and appropriate stand were bought For the South Kensington Museum in 1870.

Spanish; middle of the sixteenth century.
H. 60 ¼ in, L. 40 ¾ in.

WINDISCH-GRAETZ, Franz: Möbel Europa. 2. Renaissance-Manierismus (Munich, 1982), no. 147
AGUILO ALONSO, Maria Paz: El Mueble En Espana, Siglos XVI-XVII. Siglos XVI-XVII (Madrid, 1993), no. 190, p.274
Helmut Flade, Intarsia. Europäisches Einlegenkunst aus sechs Jahrhunderten (Dresden, 1986), figs. 7-9
South Kensington Museum, John Charles Robinson, J. C Robinson, and R. Clay, Sons and Taylor. 1881. Catalogue of the Special Loan Exhibition of Spanish and Portuguese Ornamental Art: South Kensington Museum, 1881. London: Chapman & Hall, p.121
Velazquez in Seville (Exhibition catalogue), National Gallery of Scotland, 1996, ed Michael Clarke. Catalogue number 49, text by James Yorke.

"SPANISH, C.1550
Walnut, chestnut, boxwood and bone, iron handles: 63 x 103 x 46cm Trustees of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London
This quality of furniture would have graced the noble interiors of the residences of Velazquez's Sevillian patrons in the residences in which his bodegones would have been displayed. The carcass of the writing desk is walnut, and decorated with boxwood, chestnut and bone, the inside is composed of five tiers of drawers, adorned with grotesques and scroll patterns, and two recesses, the doors of which are decorated with medallions. The inside of the lid features a rosette in the centre, flanked by vases, from which emanate scrolls, foliage and pomegranates. The outside of the lid is decorated with the story of Noah's ark, vases with foliate scrolls and pomegranates, with a townscape in the background. Immediately below the lock, a replacement of about 1650, there is an unidentified coat of arms. The edges are inlaid with oblique strips of walnut and chestnut. The sides, to which iron handles are attached, feature vases, flowers and pomegranates, underneath an arch supported by slender balustrades. The top has two rosettes, separated by a series of symmetrically arranged `s' scrolls. The stand consists of a series of three columns at each end, linked by an arcaded stretcher, to which long iron hooks are attached, the function of which is unclear. The stand was probably made in the nineteenth century, not long before it was sold to the Museum in 1870, by Juan Riaño, the leading authority on Spanish decorative arts at the time.

From about 1870, such pieces of furniture were known as vargueños, named after the town of Vargas in Castile, from whence they were supposed to have originated. During the sixteenth century, they were known as escritorios (writing desks). Examples of Spanish inlay and bone decoration, mostly associated with the regions of Catalonia and Aragon, are remarkably similar to the ‘Certosina' work of Carthusian monks of Italy from about 1450. It has been suggested that Spanish work of this type was referred to in contemporary inventories as 'obra de Nápoles' or `obra de Sicilia', both ruled by Spain during this century. By about 155o -the time that this piece was made - Islamic decoration, known in Spain as mudéjar, was being replaced by the plateresca, a form of local mannerism, very much associated with extravagant embellishments on silver. After the appearance of Francisco de Villalpando's translation of Sebastiano Serlio's treatise L'Architettura (1552), classical decoration became more widespread in architecture and the applied arts, throughout Spain.

Victoria & Albert Museum, 50 Masterpieces of Woodwork, London, 1955, no.20 (no pagination).
W. H. Pollen, Ancient & Modern Furniture and Woodwork in the South Kensington Museum, London, 1974, pp.74-6.
Maria Paz Aguiló Alonso, El Mueble clásico en España, Madrid, 1987, pp.139-47.
Maria Paz Aguilo Alonso, El Mueble clásico en España Siglos -XVI-XVII, Madrid, 1993, P.274."

Production Note

probably Aragon (Zaragoza or Tarazona); the stand probably 17th century


Walnut; Bone




Furniture; Household objects; Containers; Renaissance (Italian); Medieval and renaissance


Furniture and Woodwork Collection

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