Pair of panel touchstone

Florence workshops

Firenze, 18th century

Material: semi-precious stones, marbles and touchstone

Size: 71 x 49 cm

review by DOTT.SA LORENZA DI BARTOLOMEO

Elegant and precious rectangular pair of panels in Belgian black marble, finely decorated with floral and fruity motifs in relief, made of semi-precious polychrome stones.

These specimens, given the excellent quality and refinement of the workmanship, were most likely produced by the skilled and expert artisans of the Medici workshops, in the eighteenth century.

In order to amaze and show their magnificence to the other States, the Medici and then the Lorraine, great patrons and collectors, were the first ones to commission alto-rilievos such as these ones, or furniture embellished with panels made of semi-precious stones: to this purpose, cabinets, tables, consoles were created- with some large decorative compositions on top, some real “stone paintings” and authentic masterpieces.

Similar furnishings, for their beauty, rarity and preciousness of the materials, the richness of the colors, aimed for decorating the noblest and rich apartments, fully responding to the desire for ostentation and pomp of the princes and aristocrats of the whole world – which at the time was Europe. In Florence, the “Galleria dei Lavori (Gallery of Works) was active since 1588, and was the prestigious and exclusive manufacture of the Court, being established by the third Grand Duke of Tuscany, Ferdinando I de ‘Medici; it was devoted to the creation of stately furnishings, in particular to the processing of semi-precious stones. It was the first case in Europe of artistic manufacture at the service of a reigning dynasty.

In the second half of the sixteenth century and at the beginning of the seventeenth, the Roman and Florentine workshops fostered orders with geometric motifs inspired by the ancient Opus Sectile but under the influence of Ferdinando I de ‘Medici’s taste, these motifs gave way to figurative decorative elements, in particular birds, flowers, fruits, which had some sumptuous polychrome effects.

Following the death of Ferdinando I, his son Cosimo II succeeded on the throne of the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, and under him between 1609 and 1621, Jacopo Ligozzi, a refined painter of botanical and zoological subjects, provided the Galleria dei Lavori with naturalistic and exotic models such as birds of paradise and parrots, like the ones which could be admired in the aviaries of the Grand Ducal garden in Boboli.

The naturalistic subjects followed one another almost unchanged for several decades. Later on, in 1732, as found in some documents, the French goldsmith and engraver Louis Siries – qualified in France as orfèvre du Roi (jeweler of the King) – began to work as the director of the works. Other subjects also joined naturalistic motifs. His artistic policy, combined with his son and grandson’s one, who succeeded him in the leadership of the manufacture, aimed at an effective collaboration with the major artists active in Florence at that time, whose creations in semi-precious stones were often the leading ones related to the European decorative taste.

In 1737, after the death of Gian Gastone, the last of the Medici’s and with the arrival of the new Habsburg-Lorraine Grand Dukes, under the guidance of the Siries who directed the Works Gallery until the early 1800s, landscapes and genre scenes were preferred; based on the models of the painter Giuseppe Zocchi, who collaborated from 1750 to 1767 and Antonio Cioci who collaborated from 1750 to 1792.
Furthermore, at the end of the XVIII century, a new event was that the Grand Duke Ferdinand III of Habsburg-Lorraine granted the manufacture to work for private although still illustrious clients too, given the cost of these courtly works. Then numerous Florentine nobles and aristocratic strangers commissioned some works to the Galleria dei Lavori, which in the XIX century would take the current name of “Opificio Delle Pietre Dure”.

Both these panels are made up of a black marble top, rectangular-shaped, and acting as a background, against which the naturalistic compositions stand out with a white vase, with proper veins of the used semi-precious stone, and based on a shelf with some floral sprays and fruits coming out.

The two rectangles differ slightly for their color,  which changes almost imperceptibly as if to indicate the passing time, the seasons that follow one after the other, the fruits and plants maturing, depending on the period of time.

The marbles generally used in masterpieces of this type are manifold: from the white and red jasper, greens of Volterra, Serpentine of Prato, Arno soft Jasper, Portasanta, Yellow of Siena, Bardiglio, Cipollino Apuano, lighter and more veined Rosso di Francia – the precious ancient Rosso, with an intense hue and rare dark veins, or else with snails like the Broccatello di Spagna (so-called because of the often found inclusions of small fossil animals).

Various tonalities of marbles  were used, ranging from yellow to pink, from red to gray, to spotted ancient green marble, to ancient yellow golden marble, alabaster, Albarese dell’Arno and then fossilized or siliconized wood, mother of pearl for the luminous inserts, and the ever-present black marble from Belgium. This last one was also known as the “touchstone”, which served as a splendid backdrop, highlighting the striking polychromies of the stones, as in these two panels.

Then, the semi-precious and soft polychrome stones – even more precious than the marbles – were commonly used.  The transparent chalcedony which, lined with a colored metal foil, made the objects brighter. Lapis lazuli, agate with streaks of different colors (white, brown, blue, black, green, pink), carnelian characterized by a red-yellow orange color, chrysoprase with a uniform light green hue and then opaque or semi-opaque onyx, with its uniform color covering the red-brown hues and the whole range of grays up to black, dark green jade and turquoise.

This pair of panels, both for the type of soft stones used, recurring in the historical tradition of the inlays and reliefs made in Florence and for the taste of the ornaments, is to be referred to the Florentine area. Furthermore, an additional would consist of the enhancement of the black marble background which is typical of the Florentine mosaics, in the ‘600s and’ 700s. The preference for delicate chromatic arrangements responds to the neoclassical taste, as well as the design of the woven wicker baskets from which flowers bloom, recurring in frescoes and wall stuccos of the time.                                                  

Two splendid and very rare ancient frames in carved and gilded wood adorn these panels. The typically neoclassical sobriety of the golden, linear and elegant rectangular ebony frame with four grooves on its sides, is offset by the pomp of the corners; these last being left empty by the oval shapes and filled with lace, festoons, spirals and plant racemes. This is a sort of extension, on the three-dimensional nature of the wood, of the same theme already proposed in relief on marble and extending it outside the “picture”. In fact, we could literally define such masterpieces as “stone paintings”.

The most amazing thing in these works of art is the ability, not only to create a “stone painting” exceeding the pictorial model with extraordinary precision in cutting the stones but in addition making the most of the tonality and variety of the stones themselves. The polychrome marbles and semi-precious stones are the evidence of what was the magnificence of the rulers in an Italian artistic wonder, realized between the 16th and 18th centuries.

These works of extraordinary value, from furniture to objects, enrich today the most important museums in the world, testifying the genius and technique of the artisans of the time. One cannot fail to cite, as an example, the magnificent ex-votive offering mosaic relief made of semi-precious stones of Cosimo II de ‘Medici, as part of a collection of the Grand Dukes Treasury and now preserved at the Museo Degli Argenti in Palazzo Pitti. The pair of panels is in excellent condition.

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