Ever wonder whether it's a Rococo or Régence? Louis XV or Louis Philippe? A Bergère or Fauteuil? Each week, we will highlight a word, term, or phrase to help identify antique furniture, periods, and styles.
a·can·thus [uh-kan-thuh s]
noun [uh-kan-thuh s]
1. Plants. any shrub or herbaceous plant of the genus Acanthus, native to the Mediterranean region but widely cultivated as ornamental plants, having large spiny leaves and spikes of white or purplish flowers.
2. Architecture. a design patterned after the leaves of one of these plants, used especially on the capitals of Corinthian columns.
Origin: 1610–20; New Latin, Latin < Greek ákanthos bear's-foot
Drawing after Giocondo Albertolli, Corinthian Capital, 1798
Considered the most iconic decorative design inspired by nature, the acanthus leaf motif can be found on everything from Corinthian capitals to French friezes. A stylized version (with simplified lines and graceful curves) of a common Mediterranean plant that has spiky, glossy green leaves similar in appearance to poppy, parsley, and thistle leaves, the acanthus leaf has been used in architecture, interior design, furniture, and textiles for centuries.
Colorful massed display of Acanthus mollis leaves
The Greeks use of the acanthus leaf as a decorative architectural element dates back as early as 500 BC, when lavishly carved acanthus leaves (based on the popular anthemion design in Greek architecture) began appearing on the beautiful capitals of slender and elegant, fluted Corinthian columns. These first carved acanthus leaves, with their sharp points, deeply carved corners, and sharp ridges between the lobes, were clustered together so that their clear shadow lines could easily be seen from a distance. A symbol of eternal life and rebirth, acanthus leaves were perfect for decorating temples and monuments to the gods. Famous examples include the Temple of Zeus in Athens and the Temple of Apollo Epicurius at Bassae in Arcadia, the oldest known use of acanthus in architecture.
The Temple of Olympian Zeus is one of the best examples of acanthus leaf use in the Corinthian order
Once the Romans began using acanthus leaves in architectural design, the popular motif soon became a featured symbol in a wider range of decorative ornamentation, including capitals, dentils, friezes, and other decorated parts of both Corinthian and Composite order columns. This Roman period produced a leaf that had a more natural feel, with the tip often curling and twisting in a more realistic way that reflected the Roman's love of beauty and art. Other countries and cultures continued following suit, but there's rarely a time that the acanthus leaf wasn't a significant part of Italian ornamental design.
France was not to be outdone, though. By Medieval times and into the Renaissance, the acanthus leaf became a prominent motif used in everything from architecture to artwork and textiles to tapestries, not to mention sculptures, manuscripts, and carved furniture. Becoming particularly popular in the court appointments and furnishings of France's Fab Four — Louis XIII, XIV, XV, and XVI — the ornamental feature found in all four king's styles differed only in the details of the curls and swirls. Ébénistes and menuisiers all over France incorporated the acanthus leaf into their furniture designs, featuring the lovely leaf on the stiles of chairs, the knees of legs, corners of frames, and everything in between!
Antique French Louis XVI Style Parcel Gilt and White Painted Dining Side Chairs, Set of 6 / Item #LOP547 / Lolo French Antiques et More
Fine 19th Century French Louis XV Rococo Style Giltwood Wall Console with Marble Top / Item #LOP909 / Lolo French Antiques et More
19th Century Carved French Louis XVI Style Oval Shaped Giltwood Mirror with Beveled Glass / Item #LOP520 / Lolo French Antiques et More
19th Century French Hand Carved Walnut Black Forest Jardiniére or Planter / Item #LOPA15 / Lolo French Antiques et More
Centuries later, the acanthus leaf is as popular as ever, constantly transforming into new and exciting shapes. Those serrated lobes pop up on products and interiors such as shoes, wallpaper, lighting, handbags, votives, vintage jewelry, planters, and wood bowls to name a few. No wonder it's a symbol of eternal life! The acanthus design never goes out of style!
When this self-described Francophile is not reading or writing about all things French, she's dreaming up charming new ways to showcase Lolo French Antiques et More or traveling to France with Lolo to buy delightful treasures for their store. Mimi, Lolo, and their new French Bulldog, Duke, live in Birmingham, AL.