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French & Continental Furniture

The Spectacular Art of Neapolitan 'Pietre Dure'

By Adèle Bourbonne
Ahead of Sotheby's Collections sale on 31 October , specialist Adèle Bourbonne examines some of the magnificent examples of pietre dure that feature in the auction.

T he art of pietre dure (or hardstones) has long been prized throughout the history of the decorative arts; works appreciated for their beauty and technical prowess. The art form was revived towards the end of the 16th century following excavations of Roman archaeological sites. Marbles and hardstones became celebrated for their connection to Ancient Rome and were re-imagined appropriating the Antique technique known as opus sectile. The renaissance for pietre dure paved the way for the establishment of workshops across Northern Italy, with the two main centres located in Rome and Florence.

By the 17th century the technique had spread from Florence and Rome to Naples, the largest and most important city in Southern Italy. Naples is sometimes overlooked as a centre for pietra dura manufacture, however, a proliferation of ecclesiastical commissions in the 17th century and the opening of the Real Laboratorio delle Pietre Dure by Charles VII (King of Naples and later Charles III of Spain) in 1737 has helped establish Naples as a major force.

The technique is extremely labour intensive. The first stage in preparing a panel would have been to make a full-size working drawing. Paper cut-outs, traced from drawings, were then glued to carefully selected veneers of stone. The stone pieces were placed in a vice and laboriously cut with a bow-saw, before being fixed to a slate ground and finally being rubbed smooth with fine abrasives creating the finished polished surface. Anything from abstract patterns to detailed depictions of flora and fauna were brought to life from stone.

Unsurprisingly, Neapolitan pietre dure works initially took inspiration from Roman and Florentine specimens but quickly diverged thanks to the use of a variety of local stones combined with the boldness and exuberance of Neapolitan designers. The art form reached its apogee in the 17th century and Sotheby’s is delighted to offer two lots from this period of Neapolitan production in our forthcoming Collections sale.

These three table tops, two being offered as a matched pair of console tables on Louis XV style giltwood bases, are certainly of the type of opera di commessi (“fitted together work”) most prized by collectors at the time and remind us of the golden age of Neapolitan craftsmanship. Their debt to Cosimo Fanzago (1591-1678), a sculptor, architect, and entrepreneur is obvious and his far reaching influence on Neapolitan pietre dure cannot be overstated.

The matched pair of Neapolitan tables shares similarities with Roman specimens including the gadrooned borders and central oval cartouches. However, a number of traits are distinctly of Neapolitan. The tell-tale bold foliate scrolls, hefty flower heads and thick white borders point to their Neapolitan origin. As a result, these two tables are rare examples, demonstrating the influence of Roman pietra dura on Neapolitan marble workers whilst being imbued with a local decorative language.

The single top, is perhaps even more Neapolitan in its overall conception and incorporates a huge array of additional materials to the pietre dure. Here we find iridescent mother-of-pearl, translucent rock crystal, glittering aventurine and fiery bands of jasper. Slim ribbons of giallo antico di Numidia draw the eye to a magnificent showcasing of a variety of flowers. The overall richness, boldness and fluidity of the design is masterfully executed.

A number of precise comparisons can be drawn between these table tops and inlaid decorations by Fanzago inside the Churches of San Martino, of San Francesco di Paola, of SS. Trinità delle Monache, of Saint Teresa, of Santa Maria Nova and of San Lorenzo Maggiore: the floral branches, the rosettes, the thin yellow ribbons, the flowers of all kinds and colours, the white borders, the mother-of-pearl dots, the theatrical visual effects.

It is difficult to confirm whether these table tops are by the hands of Fanzago himself. Fanzago established his workshop in 1623 at the Certosa di San Martino, the interior of which remains to this day his best-known work. Following his success, Fanzago’s workshop grew in stature and importantly in the number of assistants under his employ. This allowed him to take on many more commissions at any one time which in turn lead to greater commercial success and the homogenisation of his highly recognisable style across Southern Italy.

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