An Italian pietre dure and pietre tenere white marble inlaid table top, Florence, circa 1560-1580
- hardstones, marbles
Private European Collection.
Director Opificio delle Pietre Dure, Florence (1977-2008)
Made from a single, seven centimetre thick slab of white marble, this table top is inlaid with hard stones and soft stones, which together have become known in English, without differentiation, as pietre dure. By cutting into the thickness of the slab to create fields for the inlay, only narrow borders of the white marble are left visible as the settings for the coloured stones. The white marble slab, possibly antique, is surrounded by a walnut frame.
At the centre is a large octagon of the soft stone, alabastro fiorito, an oriental alabaster, which is particularly richly figured. A rare piece of recycled marble from an ancient Roman site, it is similar to that used for the background of the tomb of Filippo Caetani (1618) in Santa Pudenziana in Rome, which has the same unusual green markings. A second soft stone with an archaeological provenance is the broccatello di Spagna, used in the lobed shapes that separate the ten Sicilian jasper ovals in the wide border. These are set off against a background of the highly prized, nero antico, that was also used in Imperial Rome.
Apart from these, hard stones extensively predominate, both in the large fields, like the ten jasper ovals or the lapis lazuli lobed shapes in the centre, and in the smaller and sometimes tiny geometrical elements. The composition invites careful examination because the well spaced design is in fact quite densely filled with minute and refined details.
The variety of hard stones, their sumptuous colours and the finely judged choices of specific gradations of those colours, is very striking. The large and small ovals and the hexagons in the wide border and the trapezoidal shapes inside the central frame, are Sicilian jaspers, so red predominates, but the pieces have been matched for similarities in their shading. A yellow Sicilian jasper is used for the banding around each of the ten ovals, where little discs of carnelian complete a ‘necklace’ effect. The same tiny discs punctuate the series of reddish yellow jasper strips in the frame around the central panel. Meanwhile, for the outer border a greenish-yellow Sicilian jasper has been selected, with ovals of red jasper and discs of carnelian.
Carnelian has also been used for the palmettes in the corners of the central panel where a wider range of stones is deployed. Chalcedony from Volterra makes a luminous band around the alabaster octagon, and the blueness of the lapislazuli is juxtaposed with green Monreale jasper, polygonal shapes of golden jasper, and triangles of German agate. Multicoloured agate is used for the twelve ovals, (some of which are missing), that lie against the lapis lazuli shapes. Each of these ovals has a black band around it and is centred with a little green disc, while two rows of five discs, with concentric markings, appear along either side of the octagon.
The overall design, which has a sort of simple complexity, has been perfectly realised as a harmonious and sophisticated polyphony of colours and shapes.
In the 1568 edition of Vasari’s Vite, he describes a «table that is a rare thing, assembled with oriental alabaster, large pieces of jaspers, bloodstones, carnelians, lapis and agates, with other stones and precious gems that are worth twenty thousand scudi». His account relates to the table top executed by Bernardino di Porfirio da Leccio for Cosimo I de Medici, on the basis of the design provided in 1560 by Vasari himself.
The strikingly beautiful table shown here also has “large pieces” of hard stones, along with a shimmering specimen selection that includes jaspers, agates, carnelians and lapis lazuli, around a central piece of oriental alabaster. It, too, has a Florentine provenance, having been the property of the noble Alessandri family. The taste for inlaid stones that developed in Florence in the second half of the sixteenth century subsequently became a prestigious tradition and the importance of this beautiful table lies in the fact that it represents one of the earliest and rarest examples from those years. For its striking kaleidoscopic and geometric design and the ample use of jaspers inset in a white marble slab, our table should be studied in relation, and possibly as a forerunner, to the iconic Florentine table top (albeit solely made of hard stones), which has been traditionally dated around 1570-1585 (fig.1) (Museo degli Argenti, Florence).
There are many documentary sources, from Vasari onwards, that refer to table tops made in Florence using a variety of hard stones, though not all were for the Medici court. In contrast Roman table tops, which began to appear in Florence from the third quarter of the sixteenth century, were inlaid with stone retrieved from the archaeological ruins of Imperial Rome.
It is interesting, therefore, that although most of the stones used in this table top are hard stones there are also a few that come from the excavated sites of ancient Rome. Amongst these is the central octagon of ‘fiorito’ alabaster which makes a bold statement, its markings and colour competing for notice with the jaspers that surround it. There is also a rare nero antico used as a background to the abstract ornament in the wide border as well as the cartouches of broccatello di Spagna.
The composition is based on geometric forms that are carefully calibrated and well spaced out suggesting an artist with architectural expertise, who chose to avoid the sort of decorative distractions of ornament fashionable in Rome at that time. There is another geometric table, now in the collection of Banca Unicredit, Rome, which has a wooden octagonal top inlaid with Sicilian jaspers between ivory borders and was designed by Vasari for Bindo Altoviti before 1557. This too was made by Bernardino di Porfirio who subsequently made the table for Cosimo I, and a second “small table with gems and rich ornament”, that Vasari tells us was begun in 1568 for Francesco de’ Medici. It is well known that Francesco, who succeeded his father as Grand Duke in 1574, loved the arts and pietre dure in particular. The little table of 1568, designed for him by Vasari, was followed by others using “very valuable stones” that were mentioned by the Venetian Ambassador, Andrea Gussoni, in 1576, after he saw them in the workshops established by Francesco in the Casino di San Marco.
A year earlier, in a dispatch to Alfonso II d’Este, the Ferrarese ambassador commenting on works promoted by the Grand Duke, referred to a white marble table “worth several hundred scudi, and very beautiful to look at, made with pieces of carnelian, bloodstone, lapis, jasper, agate and many other stones, finely assembled, and thought to be a very rare thing, which has taken many months to make and is still not finished”.
This could be the same table of white marble and pietre dure, that the Frenchman, Nicolas Audebert, saw being made when he visited the Casino in 1577. White marble and pietre dure are also mentioned by the French ambassador, commenting on the arrival in Istanbul, in 1578, of a table sent as a gift by Francesco I to the court of Sultan Murad III. He describes a “large table of marble... embellished with fine inlay made of agates, jaspers, lapis and other precious oriental stones”.
Documents show that those involved in creating such tables worked with the specific aim of emphasising the natural beauty of the stones they used. The intention is borne out in the table featured here and is the distinctive characteristic of the Florentine inlays made in the time of Francesco I which differ from their Roman counterparts. Later, under Ferdinand I, there was a change of direction when the markings of the stones began to be harnessed for pictorial effects in figurative scenes.
In the early period, the passion for pietre dure in Florence extended beyond the Grand Duke’s patronage, to other “honourable and industrious Florentines” and in 1597 Agostino del Riccio dedicated his Istoria delle Pietre to them, after years of study and aged over fifty. Del Riccio was a Dominican from the convent of Santa Maria Novella and he is a direct and authoritative source of knowledge on the different varieties of stones found in the area around Florence. So we can rely on his observation that “many little tables are being made in the city... and can be found in the beautiful rooms and chambers of gentlemen”. He also tells us that there were few craftsmen able to execute these tables before his time, whilst now the most brilliant of them all was the “insufficiently highly praised Florentine Maestro Giulio”.
I have identified this virtuoso of stone inlay as Giulio Balsimelli, who in 1584-85 was working on the altar of the Cappella Niccolini in Santa Croce. He does not feature amongst those craftsmen employed in the workshops founded by Ferdinand I in 1588, probably because he was fully occupied with commissions for his notable Florentine customers. Del Riccio records that Maestro Giulio worked for Giovanni Antonio Soderini (1526-1596), “the most prominent man in the city” to create small stone tables “of which he had a number”. Del Riccio’s account is confirmed by a letter that Soderini sent, in 1575, to Francesco I in which he requests some lapis lazuli, promised to him by the Grand Duke and otherwise impossible to find, which was needed to complete a table that “messere Giulio” was working on. 
Soderini’s table, which is lost (or its whereabouts unknown) could well have been similar to the table here, with a large polygonal piece of lapis lazuli at its centre. The green veining suggests that it comes from France where there are altered beds of lapis lazuli with malachite inclusions. There are similarities also with the generous use of lapislazuli (of the same type and quality) in another wonderful 16th century table, also richly inlaid in hard and soft stones, that recently appeared on the market. This one features inlays depicting vases of flowers, so would seem to be of a later date than the table here, although it shares the Alessandri family provenance (fig.2).
The Alessandri Family
Breaking away from the main branch of the Albizi family in 1372, the Alessandri, as they were known from that date, were amongst the most distinguished of Florentine families in the Republican period and under the Medici Grand Dukes, when they became senators. Their main residence was in Borgo degli Albizi (fig.3), where the family palace in typical 14th century bugnato style still stands, but they also owned many farms and villas in the surrounding countryside. During the Napoleonic period and the Restoration, Giovanni degli Alessandri (1765-1828) was director of the Uffizi and president of the Accademia di Belle Arti. At the time this table was made the two brothers Niccolò and Vincenzo degli Alessandri were the heads of the family and their Giornali di ricordi which are still in the Archivio di Stato in Florence show that they were wealthy landowners. Although they are not named by Del Riccio as being amongst those noble Florentines who were enthusiastic collectors of “pietre belle”, these two early and very splendid tables suggest that the family was amongst the most engaged of Florentine patrons of this type of work.
 G. Vasari, Le Vite, ed. G. Previtali, Novara 1967, VIII, p. 37
 Altoviti, died in Rome that year, an exile from his Florentine homeland. It is Vasari who has enabled us to identify Altoviti’s wooden octagonal table : see A. Giusti in Art of the Royal Court. Treasures in pietre dure from the palaces of Europe, New York 2008, cat.no.9, pp.118-119
 S.B. Butters, in La grande storia dell’artigianato, III, Florence 2000, p.173
 N. Audebert, Voyage d’Italie, ed. critica a cura di A. Olivero, Rome 1983, I, p.260
 M. Spallanzani, Una tomba rinascimentale per un alto dignitario di Murad III, in “Rivista di Studi Orientali” LXIX, vols. I-IV, 1987, pp.299
 A. del Riccio, Istoria delle pietre, ed. R. Gnoli and A. Sironi, Turin 1996
 A. Giusti in Tesori dei Medici, ed. C. Acidini, Florence 1997, pp.116-117
 P. Barocchi-G. Gaeta Bertelà, Collezionismo mediceo. Cosimo I, Francesco I e il cardinale Ferdinando, Modena 1993, doc. 113, p.112
 The celebrated stone carver Giuseppe Antonio Torricelli, who worked in the Grand Ducal workshops at the time of Cosimo III, notes in his manuscript Trattato delle Pietre Dure e tenere (1714) that as well as the best known Persian lapislazuli there are other sources «From France we have lapislazuli which differs from the Persian, in that it includes a lot of green, because there is copper in the mine, it also polishes up very well”.
 ASF, Fondo degli Alessandri, Registri nos. 25 (1574-1602) and 81 (1559-1602)
Translated by Emma Louise Bassett