T his December, Sotheby’s London is delighted to present the second edition of STONE, an auction dedicated to marble, hardstones and micromosaics. The sale showcases an incredible array of colours and the rich use of these materials in Decorative Arts. From antique marble inlaid table tops from Rome, pietre dure panels from Florence, Blue John vases from Derbyshire to porphyry objects, this selection explores the baroque, rococo and neoclassical styles, but also themes such as the Grand Tour, the origins of these stones and generally the fascination throughout the Modern Age to collect and treasure these objects. Highlights include a late 16th century framed Roman top (lot 70), a striking Russian jaspers and lapis lazuli table top (lot 18) and a group of Blue John vases (lots 20-24).
Blue John is a rare fluorspar characterized by its purple and white bandings which occurs only in Derbyshire where it has been treasured since Roman times. It was however mainly in the second half of the eighteenth century that the demand for Blue John was reignited, largely through the entrepreneurial metal-worker Matthew Boulton and the renowned neo-classical architect Robert Adam who realised the potential of the wonderful colouration to be found in this mineral and used it to great effect in decorative objects and architectural detailing respectively. Lots 22 to 24 come from a single private collection and display the sheer beauty of this stone, its transparency and iridescence, revealing the technical heights achieved by Derbyshire artisans.
No other stone in Western Civilization has attained the same prestigious status as that of porphyry. A stone which embodied the power of Emperors and rulers since Antiquity, and from the end of the Roman Empire represented a means to legitimise and underline the power of any pretender to the throne. Of a deep purple color with flecks of white, the bullet hard volcanic stone was, according to Pliny’s Naturalis Historia, discovered by legionary Caius Cominius in the year 18 AD at a location now called Mons Porphyrites (Porphyry Mountain), in the eastern desert of Egypt. Romans gave the stone a name: “porphyry”, deriving from the Latin word for purple, the color of nobility. With exceptional strength and durability, its intrinsic qualities were perfectly suited to the message of power and authority but also made it extremely hard to work and carve, making objects in this hardstone both political and artistic statements. After the 5th century, the quarries ceased to be mined and Mons Porphyrites was lost to oblivion. Thereafter, the sole source for porphyry of this type used in Western Europe were ruins from Ancient Rome, imbuing the new works created with a deep spiritual connection to Antiquity.
The vase, both as a practical object and a design motif, is the ultimate symbol of the ancient world. Strictly speaking, the term ‘Vasemania’ is used to describe the revival of classicism in Europe in the late 18th century as exemplified by the vase motif. Following the excavations of Antique cities like Herculaneum (1738) and Pompeii (1748) and their corresponding archaeological findings, Ancient Greek vases had an immense influence on objects and decorative motifs produced in Europe. While the vase forms remained in essence classical, this revival observed ornamental phases starting in the 1760s with the ‘goût grec’, which then evolved into the more refined ‘goût etrusque’, and finally in the more restrained ‘goût antique’ often called Empire in the early 19th century. To a larger extent, the term ‘Vasemania’ underlines the craze for the vase, as a motif and form, across many medias including ceramics, silver, textiles, furniture, works on paper, and paintings.
Vases in this sale showcase how interdisciplinary the form is: sculptural [lot 69], with details implicitly architectural [lot 76] and their depiction at times rivalling painting [lot 60]. The selection of vases in this sale also showcase the wide variety of colours and the natural beauty of stones they were carved from.
The Grand Tour was seen as a rite of passage in the education of those from the North European upper class and nobility in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. Spearheading the concept of tourism, Grand Tours were perceived as 'circular' and were punctuated by compulsory stops like Rome and Florence before returning to the place of departure. The trip could last anywhere from a few months to several years. The goal of each traveller on the Grand Tour was to soak in the culture of these cities and expose oneself to as much art and music as possible. It became incredibly fashionable to pick up mementos or souvenirs from these lengthy trips. For British Grand Tourists, these souvenirs would be shipped back to Britain where they would furnish aristocratic homes, serving as symbols of their owner's worldliness and appreciation for ancient culture.
These mementos included pietre dure panels [Lot 1], small micromosaics [lot 61] and models of Roman temples [lot 41], some of which are offered in this sale. The depiction of the ruins of the Roman Forum, Roman monuments and typical Roman architectural forms [Lot 38, lot 39] would become emblematic mementos of the Grand Tourists’ passage via the Eternal City.