Art of Stone A pair of rare 17th-century Italian pietre dure inlaid cabinets, from Castle Howard – part of
‘one of the finest art collections in the world’ – goes under the hammer this month.
James Yorke looks at the art of the Italian masters of stone
THE ART OF CREATING INLAID DECORATION from semi-precious stones has been an Italian specialty from about 1550, if not earlier. First known as commesso (joined together), and more recently as pietre dure (literally ‘hard stones’), it has been associated with Rome, Milan, Naples and particularly Florence.Ancient marbles, buried beneath the soil of Italy, could be easily excavated and put to new uses.The stones within the specialist’s palette, particularly in Florence, ranged from comparatively soft alabasters, such as onyx and the wavy-lined alabastro marino to chalcedony, rock crystal, varieties of jasper, such as Corsican and Sicilian, lapis lazuli, carnelian and porphyry, as well as a whole spectrum of marbles, including black paragone, red rosso antico, green verde antico and yellow giallo antico.When used by the ancient Romans, they would have been imported from the furthest reaches of the Roman Empire and regarded as extravagant and even decadent. But by the 16th century, they lay hidden under ground, just waiting, as it were, to be excavated. John Raymond (An Itinerary containing a Voyage Made through Italy in the yeare 1646, and 1647 (London, 1648) referred to ‘… stones naturally, all of which I have since been told are dug up within the great Duke’s dominions of Tuscany.’
16TH-CENTURY ROME However, it was in Rome that ancient marbles were more abundant than anywhere else in Italy. Patrons included Cardinals Alessandro Farnese and Giovanni Ricci, Sebastiano Gualtiero, Bishop of Viterbo, and the banker, Bindo Altoviti (d. 1557). It was to Rome that artists, designers and craftsmen flocked from all over Europe, as well as Italy, such as Jacopo Barozzi di Vignola (15071573), who designed the Farnese Table (New York, Metropolitan Museum) for Cardinal Farnese in about 1565, and Giovanni Mynard (Jean Ménard) (fl. 1552- 1570) a French inlay specialist who most likely made it. Mynard’s skill was in such demand that he was sought by Grand Duke Francesco I of Florence, Catherine de’ Medici in Paris and Emperor Rudolph II in Prague.The Farnese Table served as a prototype for other inlaid marble tables. Specialists in pietre dure based in Rome preferred to use architectural patterns, such as scrolls and pelta shield motifs, in borders round a large central piece of re-used antique marble, so as to exploit the natural beauty of the stone.Their Florentine counterparts came to prefer using birds and flowers on a paragone background.
STOURHEAD CABINET Surviving examples from Rome include the Stourhead Cabinet (fig 2), originally made in the 1570s for Pope Sixtus V, possibly by Giovanni Vasanzio, a Flemish cabinetmaker based in Rome, to Carlo Maderno’s designs. According to Giovanni Baglio, Le Vite de’
Fig 2 The Stourhead Cabinet was brought to Stourhead in 1740 by Henry Hoare ‘the Magnificent’, of the Hoare banking dynasty it was made in Rome for Pope Sixtus V