Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
October 29, 2008
Annamaria Giusti and Wolfram Koeppe, eds. Art of the Royal Court: Treasures in Pietre Dure from the Palaces of Europe Exh. cat. New York and New Haven: Metropolitan Museum of Art in association with Yale University Press, 2008. 428 pp.; 272 color ills.; 35 b/w ills. Cloth $65.00 (9780300136722)
Exhibition schedule: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, July 1–September 21, 2008
Gallerie dei Lavori, Florence. The Barberini Cabinet (ca. 1606–23). Ebony and other exotic woods on oak and poplar, marbles and hardstones. 23 1/4 x 38 1/8 x 14 1/8 in. (59.1 x 96.8 x 35.9 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Visitors to the Metropolitan Museum of Art recently had the rare opportunity to see a survey of hardstone carving in Europe, an art form best known by its Italian shorthand term, pietre dure. By assembling some of the best-known works and a great variety of objects in terms of technique, origin, and appearance, the exhibition was well worth seeing, if not always consistent in the strength and coherence of its presentation.

The introductory gallery of the show, as well as the first chapter of the catalogue, might have struck more knowledgeable viewers and readers as somewhat haphazard and could have been puzzling for newcomers to the subject. Surely everyone agrees that as a material, stone, because of its hardness and apparent incorruptibility, acquired special meaning very early on—even in pre-historic times. Specimens that were colorful and rare quickly assumed magical and religious properties, concepts that were refined throughout human history and endure to this day. This hardly needs to be reviewed, but what the visitor really wanted to know is how pietre dure work is defined, both historically and technologically. The few objects in the “Origins” gallery fulfilled this need only partially. Most people would consider the Egyptian sphinx (cat. no. 1) a straightforward piece of sculpture, albeit in a less common material (anorthosite gneiss); the specific reason for its presence in this exhibition was not made clear. Likewise, the beautifully proportioned, simple bowl in granodiorite (cat. no. 3), as exquisite as it may be, first raises questions about the basis for its dating into the first century BCE, rather than its contribution to the history of pietre dure. The rock crystal jug and the famous jasper vase carved with Lorenzo de’ Medici’s initials (cat. nos. 5 and 7) are also vessels, which for all their skillful production seem counterintuitive as precursors of the flat and multicolored pietre dure mosaics that followed. If mastering a hard material is the defining factor, why was no example of cameo carving, one of the most prized ancient glyptic art forms, included in the introduction? In addition to the marvelous opus sectile fragment from the first century CE (cat. no. 4), it would have been helpful to have an example, a fragment, or even an illustration of one of the geometric stone inlays by medieval Cosmati that provide a bridge to the blossoming of hardstone work in Renaissance Rome and Florence. A number of the issues raised here are dealt with in the essays that precede the catalogue, but the visitor to the exhibition was not given enough guidance or information.

After this unsure beginning, the show hit its proper stride in the next, large gallery gathering objects from Italy, mainly from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Visually, the display contrasted the generally more abstract and geometric works from Rome with the more figurative and pictorially inclined productions from Florence. The undisputed expert of pietre dure, Annamaria Giusti, explains in her excellent catalogue essay how Roman mosaic work (commesso) was influenced by architects, like Vignola and Dosio, who were inspired by ancient and medieval polychrome walls and pavements and rethought them as designs for tabletops and cabinets (13–27). The Farnese Table of about 1568–73 (cat. no. 10) was the signature piece from Rome and one of the star objects in the Metropolitan’s collections. Understandably, it was too heavy to transport into the second-floor temporary exhibition galleries, but four splendid tabletops ably represented the Roman tradition (cat. nos. 11, 12, 14, 15). A particularly intriguing, square design (cat. no. 12) recalled stage sets and ancient Roman wall painting by placing engravings of temples and friezes under semi-translucent alabaster. The friezes were also reminiscent of grafitto decoration found on building facades of this period.

In Florence pietre dure artistry was established thanks to the patronage of the Medici, who for generations collected ancient works and commissioned new ones in the areas of cameo carving (cat. no. 13), hardstone vessels (cat. no. 22), and mosaic (commesso) (cat. no. 9). With the foundation of the Galleria dei Lavori in 1588 at the behest of Grand Duke Ferdinand I, the loose assembly of designers and specialist craftsmen was formalized into one of the earliest, most successful, and influential court workshops (Giusti, exhibition catalogue, 16). Leading designers included Giorgio Vasari and Bernardo Buontalenti in the late sixteenth, Jacobo Ligozzi and Bernardino Poccetti in the early seventeenth, and Giovanni Battista Foggini in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. In contrast, during the same time period Roman pietre dure patronage and production remained relatively anonymous. Under the painters Ligozzi and Poccetti work at the Galleria progressed from oils applied onto plaques of precious stone (cat. nos. 20, 31, 33, 40) to painterly representations in stone (cat. nos. 25, 27–30, 32, 34). Two small masterpieces designed by Poccetti (cat. no. 27) were executed by Galleria stonecutters with breathtaking skill: the distant, intensely lyrical views of the Tuscan landscape manage to convey painterly effects that resemble Brueghel or even French Impressionism, all through the sophisticated use of colored stones and their natural shadings or patterns. The virtuosic splendor of flat Florentine pietre dure work is on display in table tops and wall panels that span the entire seventeenth century (cat. nos. 37–38, 43–45, 60). An important innovation, however, was introduced in the 1690s under the sculptor Foggini’s direction: three-dimensional, relief-like commesso, usually fruit and flower garlands, in combination with sculptural gilt-bronze mounts and ebony or ebonized wood.

Both in Rome and Florence, tabernacles, as well as secular cabinets and caskets, were inlaid with pieces of colored stone. Not surprisingly, Roman works excelled in architecturally inspired designs (cat. nos. 16–19), while Florentine pieces often feature smaller pictorial plaques set into the dark wood of the structure (cat. nos. 41, 48, 51, 54). The highly ornate examples designed by Foggini combine both flat and raised pietre dure work, blurring the lines between sculpture and decorative arts, as conventionally understood (cat. nos. 46, 51, 52, 54). The Foggini designs executed by Giuseppe Antonio Torricelli (cat. nos. 49, 55–59), with their strange mixture of abstraction and wax-museum realism, will appear disconcerting to many modern viewers, but raise interesting questions concerning the categorization and appreciation of colored sculpture. Ian Wardropper’s catalogue essay tracks the history and variations of sculptural pietre dure (71–83) and, one hopes, will engender further exploration of this rich and complex topic. Unfortunately, these pieces are displayed in different rooms, making direct comparisons difficult.

Compared to Florentine and Roman productions, pietre dure carving of Milan, especially from the lapidary dynasties of the Saracchi and Miseroni, was meagerly represented in the exhibition (cat nos. 62–65), although Milanese workshops were the sources that the Medici drew from to build their own manufactory. At about the same time, in the late 1590s, Emperor Rudolf II, a great patron of the arts and voracious collector, succeeded in attracting Florentine and Milanese artisans to his court at Prague. There he created his own pietre dure workshop headed by members of the Castrucci family from Florence specializing in landscape commesso (cat. nos. 66–71), along with Ottavio Miseroni from Milan, who shaped fantastic hardstone vessels from the great mineral deposits in Central Europe (cat. nos. 72–77). The frequent give and take and artistic cross-fertilization between Milan, Florence, and Prague in the seventeenth century make this the most exciting period of pietre dure artistry.

During the second half of the seventeenth century, Louis XIV of France and his able minister Jean-Baptiste Colbert built up a whole array of royal workshops at the Gobelins, including one for pietre dure, and, although its output was limited, the works could be very fine (cat. nos. 98–99). August the Strong in Dresden and other eighteenth-century German princes also tried to sponsor similar works (cat. nos. 80–93), but never matched the quality of Rudolf’s earlier center in Prague and those continuing in Italy. While the representation of these northern patrons’ interests is valid, the comparatively large number of works, which do not stand up to the comparison with Italian examples, threatened to dilute the exhibition’s focus.

The history of pietre dure during the second half of the eighteenth century is dominated by the “Florentine matrix” (Giusti, exhibition catalogue, 21) and a variety of its offshoots. The end of the Medici dynasty in 1737 led to the exodus of several Florentine pietre dure masters, who started the Real Laboratorio at the behest of the enterprising King Charles of Naples and Sicily (cat. nos. 127–28). When the same monarch succeeded to the Spanish throne in 1759, he again hired artists from Florence for the Buen Retiro manufactory in 1761 (cat. no. 129). All the while, the workshop in the Tuscan capital continued to flourish under the patronage of the Habsburg-Lorraine rulers. The delightful designs by Giuseppe Zocchi and others show how trends in contemporary painting—floral, genre, and still life—could result in marvelous pictorial commessi for tabletops and plaques (cat nos. 104–119). Yet works that emphasized the individual material beauty of stones, rather than using them for illusionistic representations, also continued to retain their popularity. Rome, Paris, and St. Petersburg were the major centers where vessels of colored stone were embellished with gilt-bronze mounts, and luxury objects were inlaid with precious veneers (cat. nos. 102, 120–123, 126, 142–144). Some of the most sumptuous pieces on view were a series of tables and commodes from the 1780s, made by top-tier Parisian ébénistes, such as Martin Carlin and Adam Weisweiler, which incorporate earlier, seventeenth- and eighteenth-century pietre dure and demonstrate the lasting attraction of this work.

Although pietre dure work continued throughout the nineteenth century, perhaps best exemplified by the popular hardstone figures of Fabergé in St. Petersburg, the Metropolitan’s exhibition ended with works of the Napoleonic era from the early 1800s. Miraculously, the Florentine workshop survived years of war and political upheaval to re-emerge as the Opificio delle Pietre Dure after the unification of Italy in 1870. It still operates today, mainly as a state-sponsored restoration laboratory and museum of pietre dure history. Many of the highlights on view in the exhibition came from the incomparable collections housed in the museums of the Opificio and the Pitti Palace in Florence, but the industrious curators of the show, Annamaria Giusti, Wolfram Koeppe, and Ian Wardropper, were remarkably successful in obtaining loans from other public and private sources as well. The catalogue, edited by Koeppe and Giusti, provides the historical context that the show, with its strangely indifferent layout and design, failed to make clear. The book, in contrast, is produced with the Metropolitan’s customary excellence: lavish and large illustrations, informative essays, and a helpful glossary and index.

Stefanie Walker
independent scholar