The presence of a woman micromosaicist in a male-dominated profession in nineteenth century Europe is no less than astonishing. No women are listed among the over two hundred micromosaic artists known to have signed works from the late eighteenth through the end of the nineteenth century. Their names have been gleaned from a multitude of sources: Vatican archives, tourist guide books, memoirs by Grand Tour travelers in Italy, personal correspondence, books, private sales, and auction records from 1775 up to the present day. Some of these names have become famous due to the quality and volume of their work. Others are represented by a single mosaic. Few mosaicists were in a financial position to work independently and supported themselves on the staffs of established studios.
Virginia Valentini Nobili was clearly trained in a major micromosaic studio to have attained such a high level of virtuosity. In looking at major workshops of the period, we find the following mosaicists listed in Murray’s 1864 Guide to Rome, (p. xxvii): M. Barberi, G. Barberi, Boschetti, Civilotti, Gabrini, Luigi Moglia, Poggioli, Rinaldi, Salandri, and Verdejo. No recorded mosaics by any of these artists have cartouches similar to those on the present table or the Gilbert and Hermitage table tops, except Michelangelo Barberi, the most famous and financially successful micromosaicist, patronized by European royalty including Czar Nicholas I.
Upon close examination of Murray’s Guide, it’s surprising to find another woman, Isabella Barberi, listed as a mosaic artist. When describing Barberi’s workshop, Murray states: “La Signoria Isabella Barberi, his daughter, is a very talented artist and composer of mosaic designs (Pittrice in Mosaico), whose studio, since the declining health of her father, she directs” [Murray, 1864, p. xxvi and 1867 p. xxvii). Again in Murray’s 1871 edition, (p. xxviii), she is listed under “Mosaic Artists” as follows: “La Signoria Isabella Barberi, a talented artist, now conducts the works of the Studio since the death of her father”. While there are no known mosaics signed by her, she was clearly important in the design and execution of mosaics, as well as wielding power as the director of the most important mosaic workshop in Rome. Isabella was undoubtedly trained by her father. During the nineteenth century, there were a number of successful females in other areas of the arts in Rome, usually from an upper class background. These women would have been in the same social milieu as the Barberis, who clearly supported the notion of women in the arts. It seems possible that Virginia Valentini Nobili may have been trained by the Barberis, worked in their studio, and received endorsement to sign her own work.
Important evidence relating to Nobili is found in the State Archives of Rome which sequentially records ongoing events of state: “ ‘785. Virginia Nobili’: Dono di un mosaico al re…. 1871”, 785. Virginia Nobili: gift of a mosaic to the king (Cacioli, 2005, p. 51). This would have been Victor Emanuel II (r. 1861-1878), the first King of a united Italy, who acquired Papal Rome in 1870 and established the new capital there on 2 July, 1871 and took over the Quirinale Palace as the royal residence. In this auspicious time, Virginia Nobili gave a mosaic, presumably by her own hand, to the King. Present day archives of the Quirinale list no micromosaics, so Nobili’s gift, possibly the present lot, must have been dispersed in the intervening 140 years. Nobili may also be related to the late nineteenth century mosaicist Salvatore Nobili, a Principal Artist of the Vatican Mosaic Workshop from 1885 and Director from 1891 to 1922 (Difederico, 1983, pgs. 151-152). It seems likely that he and Virginia Valentini Nobili are part of the same dynasty of mosaic artists.
The Nobili micromosaic table top has a black micromosaic background with a circular central view of St. Peter’s Square surrounded by four cartouches framing views of Rome. Depicted, clockwise from the top, they are: the Colosseum; Castel Sant’Angelo, with Saint Peter’s Dome in the background; the Pantheon; the Roman Forum, These four scenes alternate with vases of flowers, grains, and fruit, representing the Four Seasons. The most extraordinary features of the Nobili design which distinguish it from the Gilbert and Hermitage versions are the expansive green cartouches in the late Renaissance or Cinquecento style.
The use of such cartouches on micromosaic table tops can be traced to designs by Michelangelo Barberi. In his 1856 book Alcuni Mosaici: Usciti Dallo Studio del Cav. Michel’Angelo Barberi (p. 5), he describes a design for a rectangular black marble table top commissioned for the Portugese Minister, the Duke of Palmella. The table top features a central mosaic scene of “Rome by Night and Day”, framed by a broad oval cartouche with curling, symmetrical strap work borders. Similarly styled cartouches in each corner of the table top frame circular scenes of Rome. These design elements are described by Barberi as Nella cartella, che imita il bronzo, cartouches in imitation of bronze. Another version of this table dated 1843 was sold in London in 2000 (Christie’s). While not attributed to Barberi in the catalog, this table is clearly his work. Its central and corner cartouches are of the same green, scrolling bronze-like design as the Duke of Palmella’s table. The next table illustrated in Barberi’s book is titled “Bacile del Cinquecento”, A Sixteenth Century Basin, is ornamented overall with motifs, “che imita il bronzo cisellato ad ornoti” which imitates chased and decorated bronze (Barberi, 1856, p. 6). The elaborate scrolls on the present table are also intended as imitations of bronze and do indeed convey this three dimensional effect to the viewer.
The Gilbert table top is black marble, inlaid with five circular scenes set in scrolling strapwork cartouches. The central scene, titled Vecchio seduta e donna con cesto d’uova (Seated Old Man and Woman with Basket of Eggs), is after Francesco Londonio (1723-1783?), a Milanese artist whose engravings were widely distributed and used by micromosaic artists. The four outer scenes portraying personifications of the four seasons are interspersed with vases of fruit and flowers over scrolling cartouches in green.
The unsigned Hermitage table top, dated second half of the nineteenth century, titled “The Seasons” has a central scene of Romulus and Remus; the legendary founders of Rome, after a painting by Rubens (1577-1648) in the Capitoline Museum, Rome. Like the Gilbert Table, the four outer scenes depict personifications of the Four Seasons, framed by scrolling cartouches and alternating with urns of flowers.
The micromosaic composition of these two anonymous table tops again point to the Barberi workshop. Traditionally, Barberi table tops have been identified by their similarity to designs in his 1856 book, or by his tiny incised signature which is almost invisible to the naked eye and has only been found a handful of times. His workshop, unquestionably, produced numerous pieces that were not signed, and continued to produce mosaics after his death in 1867. Based on this evidence, the Gilbert and Hermitage tables may reasonably be attributed to the Barberi workshop. Similarly, the Nobili table is by a newly discovered woman artist who may have been trained and worked at the Barberi workshop. Whatever the case, the Nobili table stands alone as an example of work by a master mosaicist.
Sotheby's is grateful to Mrs. Jeanette Hansee Gabriel for the attribution of the present lot to the Michelangelo Barberi studio and for compiling this scholarly catalogue note.
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