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An Italian pietra dura and hardstone inlaid table top, Florence, from the Grand Ducal workshops, circa 1620-1630. Photo courtesy Sotheby's

of rectangular form centred by a panel inlaid with a bird on a fruiting branch enclosed by roundels and geometric motifs flanked on either side by a landscape scene, one with Orpheus playing a violin seated amongst animals, the other with a figure playing a flute, each corner inlaid with a baluster vase of amethyst, the whole inlaid with roundels and geometric motifs in Scilian jasper, lapis lazuli and agates, on a black marble ground; 142cm x 96cm; 4ft. 8in., 3ft. 1¾in. Estimate 150,000-300,000 GBP

PROVENANCE: Private American Collection
Private English Collection

Comparative Literature: A. Giusti, in A. Giusti, P. Mazzoni, A. Pampaloni Martelli, Il Museo dell’ Opificio delle pietre dure a Firenze, Milan 1978, cat. nos. 68/70, pp. 288-9, plates 70-72).
A. Giusti in L’ombra del genio. Michelangelo e l’arte a Firenze 1537-1631, catalogue of the exhibition curated by M. Chiarini and A. Darr, Florence-Detroit 2002, cat. no 127, pp.265-6.
E. Koch, Pietre Dure and other artistic contacts between the court of the Mugals and that of the Medici, in A Mirror of Princes, ed. D. Jones, Bombay 1987, p.46 fig.23.
A. Giusti, in U. Baldini, A. Giusti, A. Pampaloni Martelli, La Cappella dei Principi e le pietre dure a Firenze, Milan 1979, cat. no.110, pp.295-6, plate.168.

Text by: Dr. Annamaria Giusti
Translated by: Emma Bassett

006L12305_6JKX4_comp2This table top is made from a slab of white marble used as a base and cut in such a way as to leave a raised design of white outlines which enclose inlaid geometric ornament to form an outer border, the articulated centered cartouche and the frame around the central pattern of ovals. The four stylised vases at the corners, the two scenes on the shorter sides of the table and the little bird on a flowering branch at the centre are made a commesso – a technique using precisely cut and close fitted hard stones. The geometric partition in white marble and the use of jasper is reminiscent of the iconic Florentine pietre dure intarsia table top,also inlaid with a variety of jaspers, circa 1570-85 in the Palazzo Pitti, Museo degli Argenti, reproduced here in fig.1.

The vivid polychromatic effect of both the inlays and the commessi results from the use of a variety of stones - most of which are semi-precious. There are different types of jasper and agate in the geometric ornament as well as the lovely speckled blue of Persian lapis lazuli which is also used  for the vibrant skies of both the scenes. In the corners a single piece of amethyst has been used for the body of each vase while the handles are of broccatello di Spagna and coral. Coral is also used amongst the ornament making up the intricate central cartouche.  The neck of each vase is stoppered by an oblong of German agate with attractive concentric rings.

Vases are amongst the most popular motifs chosen by the Florentine mosaicists of the early period and they appear in a variety of shapes on panels, table tops, wall coverings, altars and other furnishings. Almost all of them are shown with detailing that recalls the goldsmiths’ mounts which were such a feature of the precious vases – the pride of the Medici collections of Cosimo I and his sons Francesco and Ferdinando. On this table top the vases are shown with handles, which in their shape and use of coral, broccatello and chalcedony call to mind those gold and enamels mounts which can still be seen today on vases produced in the Medici workshops.

Representations of vases first appear on Florentine pietre dure table tops in the late sixteenth century, in a simple stylised form like those featured in an otherwise purely geometric design on a table top at Aston Hall, Birmingham. From the early years of the seventeenth century the shape of the vases gradually became more elaborate, although in most cases the body of the vase cut from a single piece of stone still retained a geometric appearance. Though monumental in scale, the jasper vases featured on the walls of the Cappella dei Principi are examples of this type, while vases containing flowers and with a shield-shaped profile quite similar to that seen here, appear on a pair of small panels made in the early seventeenth century for the altar of the same chapel. (A. Pampaloni Martelli, in A. Giusti, P. Mazzoni, A. Pampaloni Martelli, Il Museo dell Opificio delle Pietre Dure a Firenze, Milan, 1978, cat. no. 65 a. B, p.287, plate 69). In the  panels and on this  table top the same stone, a single piece of amethyst, is used for the body of the vase and is typical of the ‘palette’ of stones in use in the time of Ferdinand I and his successor. Its transparency was often exploited by laying a sheet of dark red metal underneath it, which enhanced the natural violet coloured markings in the stone.

The beautifully executed scenes of commesso work give this table top its distinctively Florentine character, aligning it perfectly with other work produced by the Galleria dei Lavori in the early decades of the seventeenth century, both in subject matter and composition as well as in the range of stones employed. Semi-precious hard stones are used together with softer stones in order to take full advantage of  the chromatic possibilities. In particular the scene showing Orpheus charming the animals includes the clever use of ‘pietra d’Arno’ a limestone typical of the upper Valdarno. The varied markings of this stone are exploited to suggest the contours of two boulders that frame Orpheus like pieces of stage scenery, as well as the sheared-off cliff wall which provides a backdrop, whilst the slender trees just coming into leaf beside the rustic building on the right are in fact represented by the dendritic markings within the pietra d’Arno itself.

In the other landscape scene a tiny figure playing a flute appears in the distance and the furrowed fields in the foreground are made up of the undulating striations of Sicilian jasper. The same stone is found in the panels made in 1607-08 for the altar of the Cappella dei Principi (see A. Giusti, in A. Giusti, P. Mazzoni, A. Pampaloni Martelli, Il Museo dell’ Opificio delle pietre dure a Firenze, Milan 1978, cat. nos. 68/70, pp. 288-9, plates 70-72). These panels were the earliest to show landscape scenes-a theme which became very popular.

It was not long before landscapes made their appearance on table tops, including the much celebrated table, now lost, which was sent  from the Medici workshops to the Emperor Rudolph II in 1597. As a result of the success of the Imperial table, Florentine mosaics (pietre dure work) began to be produced in Prague where craftsmen specialised in landscape subjects. The table with landscapes made in Prague at the Museo degli Argenti in Florence is a wonderful example of their work and shows landscapes and architectural capricci within a geometric layout. Contact and exchanges with the Prague workshops which lasted throughout the first quarter of the century probably influenced the fashion for  ‘paesini’–little landscape scenes–in Florence and their use in table top compositions seems particularly concentrated in this period. The table featured here is a rare example and at least two relevant documents have emerged from the partial examination of the Medici papers undertaken so far.

In 1611 a table top was being made in the Galleria dei Lavori for Christina of Lorraine ‘dove vanno certi paesini di commesso inventati da Antonio Francesco Burchielli detto il Rosso’ – ‘in which there will be little scenes in commessodesigned by Antonio Francesco Burchiello, known as il Rosso’. The work was entrusted to three craftsmen (ASF. G.M. 306, c.136). Burchielli does not seem to have been a professional artist, like Poccetti who drew the Tuscan landscapes for the altar of the Chapel, but rather a specialist in commesso work. It is with this description that he is recorded working in the first decade of the seventeenth century on the coats of arms for the cities of the Grand Duchy in the Cappella dei Principi. Another document from 1613 (ASF, Guardaroba medicea 337, cc. 113 and 179) records that Giovan Battista Sassi, grandson of the Milanese Gaffurri family, who was amongst the most gifted craftsmen of the grand-ducal workshops was working on a table with ‘paesini’ and ‘corone nelle cantonate’ – crowns in the corners. 

006L12305_6JKX4_comp3We can only speculate that the landscapes on the two lost tables were not too dissimilar to the scenes shown on this table top, which have quite close links with the prototypes mentioned above for the Cappella dei Principi, both for their exploitation of the character of the stone as well as in the freshness and delightfully naive compositional and design elements. The luminous views of Tuscan hills, with rustic dwellings nestling amongst cypress trees are very close to the landscapes drawn by Bernardino Poccetti at the beginning of the century for the commessi intended for the altar of the Chapel, even if, in the background of the Orpheus scene, the anonymous artist has managed to insert an octagonal temple in ruins and a bridge lined with statues, to evoke mythical antiquity. A comparative pietre dure intarsia panel depicting a Tuscan landscape and showing the façade of San Lorenzo, designed by Bernardino Poccetti, is in the Museo dell'Opificio delle Pietre dure, Florence and reproduced here in fig. 2.

In spite of the classical origin of the Orpheus story the subject is treated here as a charming pastoral scene, based on a pictorial model used many times by the Galleria dei Lavori. In the famous cabinet made for Maffeo Barberini around 1620 and now in the Metropolitan Museum, New York, the figure of Orpheus soothing the animals with his music is shown on the central door (see also W. Koeppe and A. Giusti, New York 1988, cat. no. 41, pp.265-266). Exactly the same representation in the same position apppears on the cabinet in the Detroit Museum of Art (see A. Giusti in L’ombra del genio. Michelangelo e l’arte a Firenze 1537-1631, catalogue of the exhibition curated by M. Chiarini and A. Darr, Florence-Detroit 2002, cat. no 127, pp.265-6), and on a third cabinet at Chirk Castle in Wales. To these examples we can now add the scene from this table top, where the only difference, in the depiction of Orpheus surrounded by the animals and framed by two trees, is the absence of a laurel wreath, which in the three cabinets crowns the head of the mythical musician. In fact, even the chalcedony with its delicate shades of orange, which in the table top is used for Orpheus’ robe, is the same type as that used in the New York cabinet.

A fourth version of Orpheus playing music, based on a different and more developed pictorial model, can be seen in the Throne Room of the Red Fort in New Delhi where together with other Florentine commessi of naturalistic subjects, it was set into the marble wall covering between 1639 and 1648 (see E. Koch, Pietre Dure and other artistic contacts between the court of the Mugals and that of the Medici, in A Mirror of Princes, ed. D. Jones, Bombay 1987, p.46 fig.23). 

The popularity of Orpheus as a subject in Florentine pietre dure objects made in the Galleria dei Lavori in the first half of the seventeenth century, was probably due to its use as an allegory of the ‘Pax Medicea’ and the good government of the Prince. It is significant that, at the beginning of his reign, Cosimo I commissioned a portrait of himself as Orpheus the Musician. This wonderful painting by Bronzino is now in the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

The legend of Orpheus not only offered a classical model that could be harnessed to the celebration of dynasty but also the opportunity to set the story in a landscape.  This opportunity is fully exploited in the scene on the table top (in contrast to the cabinet doors where only the principal subject is shown) and is in keeping with the increasing popularity of landscape in commesso work  made in the grand-ducal workshops from the first decade of the seventeenth century onwards.

The little bird shown with fruit and flowers on a black background in the central oval of the table top is a subject inspired by the prints of Jacopo Ligozzi whose naturalistic themes were taken up by the Florentine mosaicists and enjoyed long lasting popularity and widespread use.  Here the oval is set within an elegant geometric composition, which looks back  to the work of the earliest Florentine mosaicists. Both the subject matter and the frame show close similarities with a small table top centered with a parrot on a fruited branch, datable  to between 1610 and 1630, which came from the Villa La Petraia and is now in the Museo dell’Opificio (A. Giusti, in U. Baldini, A. Giusti, A. Pampaloni Martelli, La Cappella dei Principi e le pietre dure a Firenze, Milan 1979, cat. no.110, pp.295-6, plate.168).  A similar date seems appropriate for the Orpheus table top featured here, especially in view of its compositional framework of white borders describing a geometrical layout which refers back to the early Florentine mosaics and their Roman models. Despite its greater complexity, the design of the white border of the central cartouche with its sharp points and concave lines recalls the distinctive elegance of the Prague table in the Museo degli Argenti which dates from the late sixteenth century and features geometric ornament and flowers. It would seem that the cartouche enclosing the Medici coat of arms on the table of alabastro pecorella in the same museum is closer in date.
Sotheby's. Treasures, Princely Taste. London | 03 juil. 2013 - www.sothebys.com