My Favorite Thing at the Seattle Art Museum

I don’t go to the Seattle Art Museum to see architecture, I go to see the art. But let’s face it, I’m an architectural historian, and the line between art and architecture is a blurry one (is there even a line?). So it should come as no surprise that upon spotting the Italian Room I was enthralled. Tucked away in the northeast corner of the 3rd floor, beyond the Mediterranean art (also a good exhibit, by the way), is a full interior from 1575-1600 Chiavenna, Italy.

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Stepping into the Italian Room is like stepping out of the art museum and into another world. The windows always offer a beckoning light, but no modern, distracting view. Here you can look at a space that is older than the United States and almost all the architecture in it. The room has been beautifully restored and all approximately 145 pieces returned to their originally arrangement using original nail holes. The only additions are the fireplace and floor, which are meant to replicate what was originally there. As the floor is new, don’t hesitate by the doorway–step inside!

 

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Intrigued but can’t make the visit? You can read more about the history and design of the Italian Room, including its use and incorporation of Greek and Renaissance design elements, over at the Seattle Art Museum page.

Thinking about making the trip? The Seattle Art Museum has some other architectural elements in various exhibits. Keep an eye out for the top of a corinthian column (an architectural element echoed by the design of the Italian room!) in the Mediterranean exhibit. And, on your way to the Pacific Northwest art, you may catch a glimpse of the elevator grate from the Chicago Stock Exchange (which I previously mentioned, here).

Have a great week!

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4 thoughts on “My Favorite Thing at the Seattle Art Museum

  1. I like the room, but am conflicted about it, just like I am about all other room installations in museums. Historic buildings in Europe and along the Eastern Seaboard were routinely pillaged from the early 1900s to the 1960s for such period rooms, either to place in museums or give some class to the McMansions of the era. While sometimes this had a genuine salvage element of rescuing important architectural features from buildings that were going to be demolished, often the houses were neglected with, especially in the South, dealers approaching either cash-strapped or unscrupulous owners with some “good money” in exchange for the parlor or dining room. It was such a notable business phenomenon that Yale University Press published the book “Moving Rooms: The Trade in Architectural Salvages” about the history of architectural salvage and the period room trade in England. Back in this country, there are still extant houses dotted around the South (plus a smaller number in the Mid-Atlantic and New England) that have largely blank rooms while museums and now historic private houses elsewhere have the interior woodwork that formerly graced those rooms. This may seem like a minor issue, but hypothetically imagine what would Drayton Hall be like today if Charlotta Drayton or one of the Charles Henry Draytons had needed money in the first half of the Twentieth Century?

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    1. I like your point, here. The stealing and just moving of artifacts has been far too common throughout history. However, I am a bit of an optimist and am less bothered by past transgressions and more concerned about the future of these artifacts. It is hard to say what would have become of this interior had it not found a home at the Seattle Art Museum. Ideally it would be intact, in situ, but it could also have been long ago destroyed. That first move ruined its integrity of location, but it also allowed it careful preservation and has allowed so many people to learn about interiors from ca. 1600 Italy that would not have access to that information otherwise. I suspect a large percentage of art from, for example, the Mediterranean room, came to the West Coast through less-reputable routes. As I think in general the movement of art is taken far more seriously today (I hope!), I like to focus on how lucky we are to be able to see some of these things, especially here on the West Coast! Seeing things in person rather than in books is such a valuable experience. Being able to interact and actually see history is what drew me to historic preservation. That said, the provenance of pieces should be a clear part of their story that is told, and when the interest and opportunity arises, I think returning pieces to their original locations should certainly be considered. Thanks for this comment!

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