Royal cabinet-maker at the very pinnacle of Italian craftsmanship, Pietro Piffetti (1700-1777) largely worked in Turin, having arrived there from Rome at the invitation of Carlo Emanuele III, King of Sardinia. He was appointed ebanista reale on July 13, 1731, and worked continuously for the Royal court until his death. He provided works not only for the King and Queen, but also for the King’s eldest son, the Duca di Savoia, later Vittoria Amedeo III (1726-1796), the Royal princesses, the King’s youngest son, the Duca del Chiablese, and to other members of the Royal family and aristocracy.
Piffetti’s furniture pieces are characterized by the extraordinary fluidity of line, elaborate floral and figural motifs combined with technical skills and a lavish use of exotic materials, from precious woods to ivory, mother of pearl and tortoiseshell. The exuberance of his lines and marquetry cartouches is often balanced with the architectural fantasy of the structures and his virtuosity of execution. His creativity has found no equivalent throughout Italy in the 18th century.
An artist of extreme versatility, each creation shows off their originality and rarity. While some of his works may be considered overly exuberant in design, other examples attributed to him solely make use of woods, where exoticism and beauty are thoroughly emphasized. In this sense, the liberties he took with the architectural elements, design and execution of the marquetry may be identified as further characteristics of Piffetti’s work.
Many of Piffetti’s works are documented, but very few are signed. However, in this case, a description from 1779 gives us more information about the present piece. Indeed, it is most probably one of a pair from Piffetti’s own apartment at the Universitá di Ebanisti e Minusieri of Turin, offered in a lottery in November 1779, following his death, as one of fourteen works by the ebanista:
“3. Due burreau fatti ad urna di radice di noce con quattro cassettini, a profili al di sotto a tre ordini, che pajono nastri, e fascie d’ebano, ferrati com guarniture di bronzo dorato, che formano teste di Leoni portanti anelli in bocca.” [N.3.Two commodes shaped as urns in Burr walnut with four drawers with low profiles, in three rows, resembling ribbons and ebony bands, with gilt bronze mounts forming lion heads bearing rings in their mouth.] (Torino, Archivio di Stato, Controllo generale di Finanza, Patenti, 1779, vol. 57, p.139 apud G. Ferraris, op.cit., p.217).
The companion commode recently appeared on the market and features the gilt-bronze mounts mentioned in the description: four escutcheons corresponding to the four drawers and four handles in the form of lion heads holding a ring in their mouth, on either side of the two long drawers. Interestingly, a closer look at the present commode shows filled holes to the drawers that would have been dedicated to hold gilt-bronze mounts in place.
Both commodes present small dark dots scattered on their respective surfaces. The dots were created by small wooden nails or pegs inserted by Piffetti to adhere the layer of burr walnut closely to the accentuated curve of the panels. Glue was traditionally used, but due to the given curvature of the design, the ebanista opted for a technically optimal solution. Piffetti intelligently disguised the nails as a natural feature of the burr walnut.
This commode is an outstanding example of Piffetti's talent and his mastery of the art of marquetry in rare woods. Marquetry panels with such lavish bouquets of flowers became popular in France and Holland at the end of the 17th century and this top is clearly following that fashion. Related examples with vases and bouquets in marquetry can be seen on the top of several documented works by Piffetti, including a series of four console tables today divided between the collections of the Victoria & Albert Museum (W.5-1985), the Intesa San Paolo Collection in Turin, and the Palazzo Madama in Turin (which owns two of them, see Antonetto, op.cit., pp.159-163, 10.f, 10.h, 10.i, 10.l). Another close example is the cabinet on stand in the Turin Royal Palace (fig.1 from Antonetto, op.cit., pp.149-150, 5a, 5c.). The bold geometrical lines may also relate to two pregadio in the Palazzina di Caccia di Stupinigi (see fig.2 from Antonetto, op.cit., pp. 180-181).
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