Lot 24
  • 24

Alighiero Boetti

1,000,000 - 1,500,000 GBP
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  • Alighiero Boetti
  • Tavole Pitagoriche
  • each: signed, dated 1990 and variously inscribed on the overlap
  • embroidered tapestry on panel, in twenty parts
  • each: approximately 45 by 45cm.; 17 3/4 by 17 3/4 in.
  • overall dimensions variable


Galleria Emilio Mazzoli, Modena (acquired directly from the artist)

Alessandro Grassi, Milan (acquired directly from the above in 1993)

Thence by descent to the present owner


Achille Bonito Oliva, Collezione Privata, Milan 1993, pp. 142-43, illustrated in colour


Colour: The colours in the catalogue illustration are fairly accurate, although the overall tonality is slightly darker in the original. Condition: This work is in very good condition. Close inspection reveals a few minor thread pulls and irregularities in the fabric in isolated places throughout.
"In response to your inquiry, we are pleased to provide you with a general report of the condition of the property described above. Since we are not professional conservators or restorers, we urge you to consult with a restorer or conservator of your choice who will be better able to provide a detailed, professional report. Prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition and must understand that any statement made by Sotheby's is merely a subjective, qualified opinion. Prospective buyers should also refer to any Important Notices regarding this sale, which are printed in the Sale Catalogue.

Catalogue Note

Tavole Pitagoriche is the pinnacle of Alighiero Boetti’s oeuvre. It is supremely rare, intellectually complex, elegant in design, and nuanced in implication. Across twenty embroidered panels, this work deftly engages with dualism, mathematical structure, and the polarity between order and disorder. Completed only four years before the artist’s death, it shows his poetic expression reach maturity and is the undoubted peak of his creative ambition.

Tavole Pitagoriche translates as Pythagorean table; a grid whereby the multiplication of any two numbers can be completed quickly and easily. However, while a similar sense of reciprocal multiplication abounds through the present work, it takes a different form. It is composed of twenty grids of letters, each of which spell out the numbers one to twenty, in twenty different languages. We can observe English, French, Spanish, and Italian, as well as Swahili, Malay, Albanian, and Greek, across the surface of the work. Instead of showing one mathematical structure in its entirety, Boetti represents the proliferation of Pythagorean mathematics across twenty different mathematical structures. It is a table for the multiplication of multiplication, a scheme of schemes, and a codification of codes.

That the artist should choose to champion the spread of Pythagorean mathematics in such a fashion is not out of character. Boetti revered Pythagoras for the way he used mathematical theorems to schematise and comprehend everything from geometric trigonometry to musical harmony – in other words, the way he imposed order on the disorder of nature. To this end, we might observe the prominent use of the grid structure, which undoubtedly makes reference to Pythagorean magic squares. These consist of a grid of numbers arranged in such a fashion that the figures in each vertical, horizontal, and diagonal row add up to the same value. In his allusions to two sorts of Pythagorean grids, Boetti pays allegiance to the original purveyor of the calculative system, and makes reference to the tension between human order and natural chaos, which he believed characterised the entirety of existence.

However, while in subject this work is all about numbers, its appearance is dominated by letters. This verbal lattice was a mode of depiction that Boetti used in his arazzi series and another method of toying with the dualism of ordine e disordine. At first glance, they seem like a disordered jumble of letters. However, after prolonged examination, words emerge from the chaos and we can identify some order from the disorder. In the present work, this practice is advanced: owing to the multiplicity of languages deployed there are very few people for whom all of the work will make sense. As such, although at least some of the work will be comprehensible for most viewers, there will always be an element of chaos in the composition no matter who observes it and for how long. In the words of the artist, “If one does not know them one will never recognise the order inherent in things, just as somebody who is not familiar with the order of the stars will only ever see chaos, whereas an astronomer has an extremely clear view of things” (Alighiero Boetti quoted in: Exhibition Catalogue, London, Ben Brown Fine Arts, Alighiero Boetti: Un Pozzo senza fine, 2006, p. 11).

This large and complex work is the pinnacle of Boetti’s artistic output. Out of the daunting disorder of its massive multi-partite composition emerges a clear cut message – a celebration of the global uniformity of mathematical structure. Tavole Pitagoriche is a vast woven love letter to Pythagorean order. It is a virtuosic schematisation of the schemes which, for Boetti, made sense out of the otherwise incomprehensible chaos of human existence.