The (Incomplete) History of the Harlequin Floor (since 1616)
"Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication." Leonardo di Vinci
The harlequin pattern is a timeless and sophisticated black and white style of flooring that was first placed in palaces and cathedrals, often using marble. It is usually in a 90 degree chessboard pattern or in a 45 degree diamond shaped pattern. In England it dates back to 1616 when it was designed by architect Inigo Jones (1573-1652) for the entrance of the Queen’s House in Greenwich. The floor was placed in 1638 and is the oldest building in England of the neoclassical style. Inigo Jones had spent time in Italy and was influenced by classical as well as High Renaissance architecture of Palladio (1508-1580, Republic of Venice) who was best known for his country houses and villas. Similar to modernism and its response to the elaborate Art Nouveau period (see more in Tropical Modernism blog post), the neoclassical style was a response to the ornate Rococo. Geometric forms, such as the harlequin floor pattern, demonstrated neoclassical simplicity. We can also see where later the modernists pulled inspiration with their geometric shapes and stark lines.
Jones had worked in theatre designing costumes and sets which may explain his inspiration for the pattern, as it is named after the costume worn by the harlequin jester that would perform in comedies (and comes from the Italian word arlecchino).
1616 England is where my research began but I believe this was influenced by Islamic architecture which also used bold and elegant geometric patterns. This unique floor pattern tells the history of empires, colonization, and presently, globalization.
It’s remarkable to see the pattern never go out of style, and always look modern and chic no matter what year or century we are living in. Perhaps that is the true test of beauty: timelessness.
The Queen's House in Greenwich, entrance by Inigo Jones 1573-1652, from geograph.org.uk
At the National Gallery Singapore
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