An Italian pietre dure and pietre tenere table top, probably Granducal Workshops, Florence, first quarter 17th century
- Marble and hardstones
Umberto Baldini, Anna Maria Giusti, Annapaula Pampaloni Martelli, La Cappella dei Principi e le Pietre Dure a Firenze, Milano, 1979, page 294, cat. 107, fig. 163;
Anna Maria Giusti, Paolo Mazzoni, Pampaloni Martelli, ll Museo dell’Opificio delle Pietre Dure a Firenze, Milano, 1978;
Alvar González-Palacios, Il Gusto dei Principi, Milano, 1993, fig.791, p. 403;
I Quaderni dell’ Antiquariato, Mosaici e Pietre Dure, Firenze, (dir. Alvar González-Palacios), Milan, 1981, Ill. page 34.
This type of figured calcareous stone is commonly known as pietra alberese, but also as pietra dell’Arno or pietra di Firenze, as it is found almost exclusively in the region around Florence by the Arno valley. It can be found in two types, pietra paesina and lineato dell’Arno, both with rich figuring to its surface, creating attractive naturalistic effects; the effects of paesina can be interpreted as rocky landscapes, while lineato as wave or sea views.
The foundation of the Medici workshops of hardstones by Ferdinand I in 1588 found the perfect working milieu for this local stone, sourced in limited quantities since around 1500 and becoming particularly popular under the rule of Ferdinand’s son Cosimo II (1609-1621), when these stones were both used as mosaics but also as background for trompe l’oeil paintings. In his residence at Poggio Imperiale, the Grand Duke Cosimo formed a collection of paintings in whimsical natural stones, well documented in the inventories of 1624, where table tops in alberese are also listed (Pittura su Pietra, Firenze, Centro DI, 1970). The grand ducal and other Florentine workshops created a number of small panels in this stone, often used on cabinets not only locally made but also in the North of Europe where they become particularly sought-after, where this stone was known as ruinenmarmor.
The taste for these creations in stones can be understood in the context of North-european wunder- and kunstkammer, where naturalia evoked worlds not fully comprehended, where art was seen as not able to surpass nature. If the poet Dante said that art was only a child of nature, and nature a child of God, these objects would have been treated with a mystical aura that placed them close to the Creator. Interestingly, Dante’s themes were quite fashionable in the beginning of the 17th century and the present mosaic, displaying a symmetrical pietra lineato seascape with an island and an empty boat, might refer to Ulysses shipwreck in front of Mount Purgatory.
The present top can be related to another mosaic dated from the first quarter 17th century and sadly destroyed in Munich during the World War II (Fig.1). It uses analogous mannerist cartouche partitions for each panel and also combines pietre paesina and lineato, with the use of inlaid fishes, leading us to belive that these two pieces were done by the same hand.
Other examples of similarly dated pietra albarese tops that should be mentioned are one in the Musée d’Art et Histoire in Geneva (fig.1) with its pendant in Museo della Specola, Florence. There is another mosaic at Villa del Poggio Imperiale with similarly inlaid fishes in alabaster, although some colour foiled, and a related double filet border. The Poggio Imperiale table was admired by the traveller German Johann Georg Keysler in Florence in 1729-1730 (Travels through Germany, Italy, (…), London, 1756, vol. I, p. 173, apud González-Palacios, 1993, p.466, n. 30).
A striking mosaic with flowers to corners and paesina and lineato panels inlaid with fishes is currently in Palazzo Vecchio and is a close comparable to the mosaic here presented (fig.2). Although on our top the flower cartouches can be associated with the drawings of Jacopo Ligozzi as seen in other coeval floral mosaics, the names of the designers for any of these pietra alberese compositions remain unknown. A