A Collector's Guide: What Is Pietre Dure? An Introduction to a Most Delicate and Scintillating Art (2024)

The art of pietre dure (or 'hard stones') has long been prized throughout the history of decorative art as an important part of aristocratic and royal collections. To this day, they continue to be appreciated for their vibrant colours, exceptional craftsmanship and symbolism, imbued with wealth and connoisseurship. Sotheby's expert and specialist in Furniture, João Magalhães casts an eye over the centuries of craftmanship and beauty that define pietre dure.

What is Pietre Dure?

The art of pietre dure (or hard stones) has long been prized throughout the history of the decorative arts; works appreciated for their beauty and technical prowess, creating bewitching trompe l’oeil compositions of arresting colours.

The technique was revived towards the end of the 16th century following excavations of Roman archaeological sites. Marbles and hard stones became celebrated for their connection to Ancient Rome and were re-imagined, appropriating the antique technique known as opus sectile, an innovative mosaic technique placing together irregular sections of coloured stone to create floors and adorn walls. The craze for pietre dure led to the establishment of workshops in Rome, soon followed by Florence.

Rome

Inspired by those archaeological discoveries as well as rare and beautiful stones and marbles being brought to the city during the Empire, from southern Italy, Greece, Africa and Asia Minor, Renaissance Rome embraced the taste for embellishing palaces and churches with these mosaics, the interior of St Peter’s Basilica being the most prominent example.

The trend also materialised in magnificent tables, prized trophies for enlightened princes, cardinals and fervent collectors of antique marbles from Italy and across Europe. The composition of an archetypal table top involved a large central marble specimen (often alabaster), surrounded by a border of symmetrically-placed cartouches, especially those dating from the last quarter of the 16th century.

A Collector's Guide: What Is Pietre Dure? An Introduction to a Most Delicate and Scintillating Art (1)

One of the very first examples is the famous Farnese table currently at the Metropolitan Museum, commissioned by Cardinal Farnese, and another slightly later example - a magnificent table top in Rome in the late 16th century – was purchased by the illustrious Venetian Grimani dynasty, remaining in the family until the 19th century, when it was acquired by the Earl of Warwick, and recently sold at Sotheby’s

Florence and its influence

The technique’s popularity spread from Rome to other Italian centres and, in 1588, Grand Duke Ferdinand I de'Medici - who had spent a considerable amount of time surrounded by the antique marbles of the Eternal City - founded the Galleria dei Lavori in pietre dure in Florence as a rival to the Roman workshops. Renamed Opificio delle Pietre Dure in the mid-1800s, the workshops originally supplied the Medici family's palaces and chapels, but later produced table tops and panels for a wider clientele.

Florentine commessi developed into what would become the trademark of the Grand Ducal workshops: a richly-varied chromatic palette with naturalistic motifs, such as floral sprays and birds, largely influenced by drawings by Jacopo Ligozzi (1547-1626), as seen in a table top sold at Sotheby’s in June 2015.

Florence dominated as a centre for pietre dure but some of the Florentine craftsmen would be invited to establish other competing workshops - for example, Rudolf II established one in Prague, led by Cosimo Castrucci between the late 16th/early 17th century. Using an intricate mosaic technique, Castrucci used locally-available jaspers and marbles, creating a very distinctive pictorial style, which was carried on in his workshop by his son Giovanni and namesake grandson.

The French royal Gobelins factory also had a dedicated pietre dure workshop established in 1688 working in a style close to Florence and creating items such as the magnificent pair of cabinets at Alnwick Castle, made by Domenico Cucci for Louis XIV.

A Collector's Guide: What Is Pietre Dure? An Introduction to a Most Delicate and Scintillating Art (4)

Naples

By the 17th century, the technique had spread to Naples, the largest and most important city in Southern Italy. Naples is sometimes overlooked as a centre for pietre dure manufacture, however a proliferation of ecclesiastical commissions in the 17th century, and the opening of the Real Laboratorio delle Pietre Dure by Charles VII (King of Naples and later Charles III of Spain) in 1737, helped establish Naples as a major force.

While Neapolitan tables tops and altar fronts are clearly inspired by Baroque Florentine models, they tend to take on bolder lines and curves and lush foliage. Some table tops, given their stylistic design and their materials, belong to a group produced in Naples by marmorari, followers of the celebrated architect and sculptor Cosimo Fanzago (1591-1678), considered to be one of the greatest Neapolitan artists. Fanzago's work is recorded in many local churches, with perhaps the best example of his triumphal marble intarsia work being in the Certosa di San Martino, which is stylistically linked to a magnificent table top sold at Sotheby’s in 2019.

Collecting

It becomes clear that pietre dure and marble table tops have remained important treasures in aristocratic and royal collections throughout history, and to this day, continue to be appreciated for their vibrant colours, exceptional craftsmanship and symbolism, imbued with wealth and connoisseurship.

Reaching most European courts firstly as diplomatic gifts, pietre dure objects quickly gained a following in the 17th century, with an important array of French patrons such as Marie de' Medici, Anne of Austria, Richelieu and Mazarin coveting these pieces for their collections.

Nonetheless, the British had a great role to play in the history of pietre dure and marble tops, particularly as the main protagonists of the Grand Tour. Italian table tops found their way into English collections as soon as the late 16th century with, for example, a Roman square table top dated from about 1570, imported in 1588 to England (today at Aston Hall, Birmingham).

Documents from the period recorded the presence of Italian inlaid tables in England, including two at Hatfield House in Hertfordshire and one at Arundel Castle. These examples suggest that in 17th century England, there was a clear awareness of, and taste for pietre dure. And the birth of the Grand Tour only nurtured and amplified this appetite.

One example of a Grand Tour acquisition is a table top with reputed Medici provenance, sold in London in July 2013. Brought to England from Florence by the Rev. Mr Sanford in 1840, it is now on view at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

The execution of a table top

The traditional technique was extremely labour-intensive. The first step was acquiring a slab of marble. The design was then transferred in pencil on to the marble surface through carbon paper; then the work of scasso began - removing the areas that were designed to accommodate the inlay of coloured marbles. Working with a chisel and hammer, scassi of about a centimetre deep were applied, leaving the thin white outlines that defined the decorative design exposed - the cigli, according to the antique term.

The process of scasso and the following intarsia of polychrome marbles was carried out in sections, from the outer strip towards the centre of the slab. The individual sections were executed with traditional techniques and instruments - by pasting a tracing paper on the chosen 'slice' of marble, of around six or seven millimetres thickness. The slice was then blocked by a clamp to a workbench.

At this point the process of cutting started, using an arched saw, with a copper wire. By rhythmically moving the bow, the slice is sawed following the outline of paper and covering the wire with abrasive powder, which was humidified at each cut of the saw. To ensure a perfect join with the corresponding breaking point, the edges of the cut sections are smoothed with iron shavings. The sections were then inlaid in the marble ground and fixed with traditional glue made of beeswax and resin, dissolved in hot water and poured in the gaps of the marble top.

The final step was the polishing of the surface, which also involves flattening the stones in order to achieve a perfectly smooth surface. This polishing was done by manually rubbing a block of chalcedony repeatedly over the surface, progressively rubbing finer abrasives on the surface.

Anything from abstract patterns to detailed depictions of flora and fauna were brought to life from stone.

Classic Design
A Collector's Guide: What Is Pietre Dure? An Introduction to a Most Delicate and Scintillating Art (2024)

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