A. González-Palacios, Il Mobile in Liguria, Genoa, 1996;
A. González-Palacios, L’Oro di Valadier: Un Genio nella Roma del Settecento, Roma, 1997;
E. Colle, A. Griseri, R. Valeriani, Bronzi Decorativi in Italia, Milan, 2008;
L. Cumont Caimi, L’Ebanisteria Genovese del Settecento, Parma, 1995;
Valadier: Three Generations of Roman Goldsmiths, Artemis Group, 1991;
J. Wilton-Ely (ed.), G-B. Piranesi: the Complete Etchings, San Francisco, 1994.
The spoils of the Grand Tour are often associated with the "exalted arts", that is to say the Italian and Dutch paintings and antiquities acquired by British travellers in the 18th and early 19th centuries. However the commodes offered here transcend the canon of decorative art and can be placed firmly in the former category in that they are the most superb examples of their type and demonstrate a desire, through their acquisition by the enlightened Grand Tourist to secure true trophies of the very best within a discipline. The mastery of the cabinet-maker, bronzier and marble worker come together in superlative fashion, something recognised by the individual who acquired them two-hundred years ago.
The Forbes family were financial titans of their day and what better way to expound their success than in the acquisition of important pieces for their newly designed mansion in Scotland: "show and tell" objects in every sense of the phrase.
Sir William Forbes, 6th Baronet of Pitsligo (1739-1806) travelled through Europe during a time of political turmoil and upheaval, not an easy enterprise, between 1792 and 1793. He had been a successful banker at Coutts before founding his own banking house of Forbes, Hunter & Co. in 1773. In addition to his commercial successes, he had a deep artistic disposition and was a keen draughtsman and amateur artist, as his sketch books attest. He counted the painters Reynolds and Raeburn amongst friends. Forbes was a true son of the Scottish Enlightenment; a polymath with an array of passions from the Sciences to the Arts. His position placed him in wealthy and fashionable circles: he was close to the Prime Minister William Pitt, acting as a trusted financial advisor. He regularly visited the treasure houses of Scotland and England his diaries are peppered with descriptions of Chatsworth, Hardwick, Kedleston and Strawberry Hill amongst others. These connections introduced him to an incredible network of agents and friends during his travels through Europe – a trip that was to be the finale of a gilded career. This was an entirely natural excursion for a man in his position and with his wealth and tastes.
His wonderful series of journals, bound in seven volumes, make for an evocative read and describe a trip which is heightened with wonderful tales (National Library of Scotland MS 1539-1545). We read of man whose experiences of the Italian art and architecture he encounters leave him spellbound. His visits to Canova’s studio, meetings with expatriate painters and sculptors in Rome such as Gavin Hamilton and John Flaxman are recorded with reverence and enthrallment. On the 4th April 1793, he writes that he was "never so struck" by the statue of Laocoön and His Sons at the Vatican, the works he encounters are recorded in detail and with palpable emotion. He was remarkably restrained in the acquisition of objects and he writes on the 22nd March 1793 "we made a decision on coming abroad not to purchase either paintings or antiquities as being an expense of which I feel there is no end".
His son, also Sir William and 7th Baronet (1773-1828), was not nearly so restrained and travelled extravagantly in Italy buying much, often through his agent William Irvine in the 1820s. The 7th Baronets Grand Tour was possibly born from the experiences relayed to him by his father; he definitely shared a passion for art. He did not though confine himself to written or verbal descriptions of the works he saw but through a ravenous appetite for acquiring wonderful pictures, drawings and hardstone objects. The 7th Baronet was to have the objects to illustrate his own experiences abroad.
His collection of Old Master paintings was superb, one of the highlights was a Titian and workshop masterpiece, Two Boys of the Pesaro Family, from circa 1540-45 (sold from the Forbes Collection, Sotheby’s London, 7 December 2016, lot 11). This acquisition formed part of a group of pictures acquired right at the end of his life for which he put up the enormous sum of £10,000. The "Pesaro Boys" can be seen hanging beside the commodes in a photograph taken at end of the 19th century at Fettercairn House. It seems most likely that it was 7th Baronet whom acquired the present commodes. Such statement and extravagant pieces seem entirely in keeping with his taste and their Italian origin perfect for a man who adored that country. He also spent lavishly on the design of his homes. His largest commission was to William Burn for the re-design and enlargement of Fettercairn House, his wife’s ancestral home, completed the year after his death in 1829. There are some extant drawings which show the picture hang at Fettercairn from this period, showing that the most important pictures and the best objects from the Forbes collection had left the family’s Edinburgh properties for this new home.
His son Sir John Stuart Hepburn Forbes, 8th Baronet of Pitsligo (1804-1866) rationalised the Forbeses art collection after his father’s death. Sir John was to make some sales from the collection, most probably to plug the gaps in family finances left by his extravagant father, but he did buy too. Like his grandfather and father he undertook his own Grand Tour and travelled with his wife in Italy. The 8th Baronets taste was for the neoclassical of the high Regency and he acquired some fine furniture including gilt-bronze mounted mahogany console tables and other items from George Oakley. Importantly, he also dealt with Edward Holmes Baldock, the great London furniture dealer and cabinet-maker for the aristocracy. It was from Baldock that, in 1834, he probably acquired a fine French 18th century gilt-bronze mounted kingwood table (sold Sotheby’s London, Two Great Scottish Collections, 28 March 2017, lot 27) and for which there is a surviving invoice, preserved amongst the Fettercairn Papers at the National Library of Scotland (Acc. no. 4796). It is possible it was he or a dealer-agent such as Baldock who acquired the commodes, which would have been a major purchase at the time for a newly finished Fettercairn House, but it could just have easily been his father in anticipation of its completion. Three generations of one of Scotland’s most important 18th and 19th century families had travelled in Italy and all shared a love of fine and decorative art. These commodes are perhaps the best representation of their passion and love for works of the best quality, objects which demonstrate an appreciation of the extraordinary skill of the craftsman, and are treasures from a country they loved deeply.
GENOA AND ROME
At the dawn of the 18th century, the Republic of Genoa had already seen its heyday as a Mediterranean power. Nevertheless, its location, open up to the sea, bordering the political and cultural stronghold which was then France and a short journey away from Rome, made the Ligurian territories and their capital an interesting and distinctive centre for the decorative arts.
The first decades of the century saw the trade between Genoa and the North of Europe to influence cabinet-making with English Queen Anne and early Georgian pieces achieving great popularity and leaving their mark in the local production. From the end of the 1730s and through the 1740s, France becomes the major political influence on the Republic. Cabinet-makers supplying the grand Genoese families such as the Dorias, the Spinolas and the Pallavicinis would look to Paris as a reference and model of supreme fashion. Parisian ebenesterie starts then to have a real impact, namely in the shapes but also on the use of veneering and the full exploitation of exotic woods such as kingwood, rosewood and tulipwood arriving in the city’s port from the Americas. Rapidly, the Genoese ébénistes seemed to have found a successful formula and will be faithful to it for several decades, ultimately to the detriment of originality and innovation.
Along these lines, Alvar González-Palacios, in his seminal Il Mobile in Liguria (1996), states that there are two main features in Genoese furniture: firstly, “la sua non comune qualità artigianale” and, secondly, “la sua scarsa orginalità formale e una certa tendenza alla ripetitività (p. 237). Nevertheless, in spite of this tendency for repetition, Genoese ebanesteria has a “delicato profumo”, as the scholar puts it, and certainly a firm identity. The present lot can be considered one of the finest, if not the finest example ever produced in the city in the 18th century.
In their interpretation of the Louis XV style, Genoese cabinet-makers fully embraced the bombé shape, especially on commodes. The overall design is however less graceful than that of the French models, with splayed, shorter legs on a lower body producing a heavier effect. These shapes were normally fully veneered with bookmatched rich cuts of kingwood that was sometimes bordered with small bands and frequently centred by oyster-type quatrofoil motifs, which became a quintessential local design solution.
Caumont Cami suggested that this particular type of veneering had been inspired by English and Dutch pieces from the beginning of the century, namely olivewood examples. Nonetheless, French ébénistes were also exploring multiple solutions for pattern veneering and this origin is also viable, if not necessarily more likely than the English. Likewise, it is interesting to note the varied use of veneering in the neighbouring Savoy court, for example the use of oyster veneering by the brilliant Pietro Piffetti.
In this context of French inspiration and model repetition the current commodes are, somehow contradictorily, distinctively Genoese and yet apparently unique. In the use of diagonal bookmatched kingwood veneers, slight bombatura, subtly shaped apron and splayed legs, these commodes are undoubtedly the product of a Genoese bottega. Nonetheless, the rich floral marquetry, the exceptional mounts and the bronze edged alabaster tops place these two commodes on a league of their own.
If most commodes from the mid-settecento display the above mentioned arrangement of veneering with quatrefoil, towards 1760s some examples of bombé commodes and bureaux appear decorated with floral marquetry (see Cami, 1995, pp. 222-30). Nonetheless, these are of very little variation in terms of woods used, and therefore colour, and of rigid designs. These commodes, on the other hand, displaying of a central basket of flowers framed by flowering scrolling branches in different tones and creating a cartouche, both to front and sides of the pieces, are examples of a late, controlled Rococo that already announces the neoclassical style to come. The commodes have the customary banding framing the main areas, but the detail of the further filletura to the apron, right on its edge, is a very rare feature that replicates the brass and bronze edges of French commodes, giving a much needed finishing touch to the visual structure of the piece.
When opening the fitted secrétaire-drawer (a rare element in Genoese furniture), protected from the sun through the years, the boldness of the kingwood veins and the marquetry colour is revealed. The floral branches interlace each other to form a central reserve with a scene with a playful man and a woman fetching grapes from a grapevine. The cartouches, veneering, inlaid scene, and even the use of ivory for the heads of the figures remind work produced in Piedmont a couple of decades earlier.
If the cabinet-making and marquetry are of the finest quality and without close comparable pieces, the mounts of these commodes are both fascinating and tantalising, and seem to be entirely without parallel. Bronze, and frequently gilt brass, mounts in Genoa in this period follow French models but are of an undistinguished quality, with very few exceptions. Mounts were always used parsimoniously; their use was limited to handles, escutcheons, sabots and corner mounts, never too elaborate and never assuming a dominant position visually. Frequently, they would overlap the marquetry.
The gilt-bronze ware that adorns these commodes and is in places superimposed to the inlaid design, follows this Genoese approach to mounts, one that is almost exclusively functional. Nevertheless, their superb quality, both technically and of design, suggest that they were purposely commissioned from a different production centre, most likely Rome, where workshops capable of achieving such a technical level existed. It was also in Rome that the Classical vocabulary was most present. The escutcheons are garlanded bucrania, the apron mounts, Zeus disguised as an Eagle and Ganymede, and the delightful handles represent Hercules in his infancy wrestling a serpent. The corner mounts depict the highly unusual head of a hound holding from a strap a festoon of fruits and flowers.
In the Eternal City, the 1760s saw the inception of a Neoclassicism that would later conquer Europe with the exceptional designs by Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720-1778) and bronze workshops such as that of Luigi Valadier (1726-1785), both at the forefront of this movement. The renowned silversmith and designer was, for example, supplying the Palazzo Chigi in the mid-1760s with bronze decorations for the Salone d’Oro imbued with neoclassical elements such as garlanded bucrania (see Colle et alii, 2008, pp. 214-15). Although not strictly comparable, it is interesting to note the use of sprawling putti on the Poniatowski Chalice, produced by the Valadier workshop sometime between 1780 and 1790 (see González-Palacios, 1997, pp. 154-55).
An essential source of inspiration for silversmiths and cabinet-makers at the time, Piranesi's ground-breaking Diverse Maniere d'Adornare i Cammini was published in 1769. Born in Venice, but based for most of his life in Rome, Piranesi was extremely conversant with classical antiquity, although he believed in “the imaginative adaptation of antique elements rather than the slavish copying of them” (Wilton-Ely, 1994, p. 3). Significantly, he “undertook various schemes of interior decoration, often involving furniture, for the Pope at Castel Gandolfo, for the Cardinal at the Lateran and for Senator Rezzonico at the Palazzo Senatorio” (idem, p. 886), and worked extensively for a largely English clientele, including the Earl of Exeter, Sir William Hamilton, and John Hope, further collaborating with the likes of Thomas Hollis, the antiquarian, Thomas Jenkins and Gavin Hamilton.
Nearly all the inspired and imaginative solution on the present pair of commodes have more or less direct precedents in the etchings of Diverse maniere. For example, note the spirited figures on the project for a commode and compare them to the present handles with infant Hercules, or compare the draped, fluctuating figure on the model for a clock (fig. 3) with the design of the Ganymede mount on the Fettercairn commodes. Finally, hounds are widely represented in Piranesi’s work: from a vase drawn from the antique with handles in the shape of dogs (“symbols of fidelity”, the artist notes on the etching) to the hounds’ heads found on an Egyptian-style chimneypiece. Serpents, bucrania and curnucopiae - sharing a language similar to Valadier’s - also abound.
The garlanded festoons of the corner mounts are typical neoclassical motifs; a print of a small monument to Pio VI displays relatable ram’s masks from which festoons of fruits and wheat in sections pend from a ribbon, much like the ones seen on the present lot (see González-Palacios, 1997, p. 40). Nonetheless, the hound mask seems to have no parallel whatsoever in contemporary mounts or drawings apart from Piranesi's.
The use of alabaster-veneered tops reinforces the Roman link and the gilt-bronze guilloche border seems to be coeval to the rest of the mounts. At a time when very few Genoese commodes featured marble tops, the choice of having these made - and, what is more, in costly alabaster - stands as a further statement of status and luxury. The type used is probably Alabastro Palombara, found in the excavations of the Villa Palombara, near Rome. This was thought to originate from Tuscany, near Montaione, but it was possibly also quarried in Turkey during the Roman Empire and therefore later available from Roman ruins.
An attribution for these pieces is virtually impossible due to the lack of signature and archival documentation. Apart from a couple of minor exceptions, there are no known makers signing their products in Genoa, and attributions on a stylistic ground therefore also become difficult. Equally intriguing and mysterious, the captivating mounts are nonetheless likely to have been made in a Roman workshop of a standing and sophistication similar to that of Luigi Valadier. The commission of such matchless mounts and alabaster tops from a city different from that of cabinet-making production is highly unusual, but further reinforces the uniqueness of these astonishing objects.
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