Friday, 23 November 2012

The Decorative Art of Pietra Dura

During the 17th and 18th century the Grand Tour of Europe was principally undertaken by upper-class young men of means, primarily associated with the British nobility and wealthy landed gentry. The value of the Grand Tour, it was believed, lay in the exposure to both the cultural legacy of classical antiquity and the Renaissance. It was normally taken in the company of a Cicerone, a knowledgeable guide or tutor. During the tour many works of art would be collected and sent back to the young men's stately 'piles' and country houses. One particular object of desire was invariably Pietra Dura. Often purchased to be inserted into cabinet doors or table tops on their return, or they commissioned the making of a piece of furniture which included inlays of Pietra Dura. 
Pietra Dura is a decorative art and a term used for the inlaying of coloured marble or semi precious stones to create images or patterns.
The finest example is the Badminton Cabinet auctioned in London eight years ago, and sold for £19,045,250 million pounds the most expensive piece of furniture ever sold.
The cabinet is huge, it stands 12.5 feet high (the height of two tall men) and 7.5 feet wide.
Henry Somerset, the third duke of Beaufort, was only 19 in 1726, when he passed through Florence on his grand tour of Europe. He stayed a week and ordered the piece, making a rare private commission at the Medici workshop. The cabinet required about six years and 30 expert craftspeople to make it. Documents record that the young duke paid £500, plus £94 in duty. A substantial sum of money in those days.
All of the following pieces are examples of Florentine Pietra Dura which I photographed in The Argory, Northern Ireland. 
This table top has rather lovely branches of olives intertwined with ribbon around its edge.
It was not unusual to have the families coat of arms incorporated into a table top or on one of the panels in a cabinet.
The following Pietra Dura pieces were photographed at Stourhead House, Wiltshire.
This is called the Pope's cabinet, because it is believed to have belonged to Pope Sixtus V. The stand for the cabinet was made for Richard Hoare when he returned home from his Grand Tour with the Pope's cabinet.
The carved gilded head of the pope reflecting that it had once belonged to him.
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The village of Ashford in the Water is considered to be one of the most attractive villages in the Peak District National Park, Derbyshire. However its fame rests on more than its idyllic setting, as it will be forever associated with a remarkable rock, a jet black bituminous limestone known as the Ashford Black Marble which used to be found in the hills surrounding the village. During the early years of the 19th century, one William Adam, having it is presumed seen examples of Florentine Pietra Dura in the collection of the Duke of Devonshire at nearby Chatsworth House, realised that the Black Marble could be employed as a suitable base material for inlay work. The work subsequently produced in Derbyshire  was considered equal to the finest produced in Florence, and examples were shown at the Great Exhibition in 1851.
The black marble eventually fitted in ideally with the sombre mourning period and mood of Queen Victoria's reign following the death of her beloved Albert in 1861.
Having my roots in Derbyshire, I own a piece of Derbyshire Black Marble Pietra Dura dating back to around 1850. An elegant black ebony box with an inlaid Ashford Black Marble Pietra Dura lid showing two white lilies. 

40 comments:

  1. I am impressed that today I learned about this art !I think that it was very difficult to put all these little stones to make this performance .
    You are very lucky that you have this beautiful
    old box!Thank you for sharing !
    Have a nice weekend !
    Olympia

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    1. Dear Olympia - I think that one of the wonderful things about blogging is learning something new - I love it when I come across something new to me. An artist that I have never heard of, travelling to a country I am not familiar with, or a technique, such as this Pietra Dura, it is so enriching.
      Thank you for your visit.

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  2. I love petra dua..what intricatre pieces...have seen some in Florence.thnak you

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    1. The skill used in choosing the stones to give perspective to the designs is exquisite. It must be something that gives great satisfaction to the expert crafts people.

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  3. Hello Rosemary, These pietra dura pieces are dazzling. I'm guessing that the small rectangular cabinet had a dark cover board, so that when closed it looked severely plain, but could be opened to astonish the viewer with its interior.

    The large pieces can be overwhelming in their explosion of color and carving, but your elegant pietra dura box brings the art form down to a more human scale, so it is easier to appreciate the incredible craftsmanship--that quality of the inlay and the play of light on the flowers and leaves. That it is made of a local stone adds greatly to its appeal.
    --Road to Parnassus

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    1. Dear Jim - I do believe that you are right, I cannot remember now, but there are hinges clearly visible. Many of the cabinets have a secret opening in the middle which often reveal an area where a reliquary or small altar would be hidden away for private devotions during the Reformation.
      En masse it can be rather overwhelming, but as you mention, the detail in my small box is more easy to appreciate.

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  4. Dear Rosemary,
    Your black marble Pietra Dura inlaid box is exquisite,simply beautiful.
    What magnificent pieces of art.
    How richly the nobility lived, It seems some still do! To sell a piece of art for 19 and some million pounds is incredible .. Do you know who bought it?
    Another great post Rosemary. I learnt again something i didnt know.
    thank you.

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    1. Dear Val - Yes, I do not think there is any shortage of money amongst the top layer of society. In fact I understand that the gap between the rich and the poor is bigger today than it has ever been.
      The exquisite Badminton Cabinet, which actually used to live not far from me before it was sold, now resides in the Liechtenstein Museum in Vienna. It was actually bought by Prinz Hans-Adam II of Liechtenstein.
      Glad you found it interesting Val.

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  5. There aren't words to describe the beauty of this art form. The time, talent and dedication it takes to produce each piece boggles the mind, especially in our age of "fast" everything! Your last photo is perfection.

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    1. Dear Rosemary - it is amazing what humans can achieve if they want to. To be able to turn lumps of marble and stone into these exquisite little works of art is admirable and extraordinary.
      I am pleased that you like my little piece, I am always picking it up and marvelling at the detail.

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  6. Dear Rosemary - These are all impressive pieces of Pietra Dura, and I like your own example especially, for both its simplicity and gracefulness of design. I've always enjoyed how gradations in the stone become perfect shading in the final designs.

    I saw a Pietra Dura workshop when I was in Florence, and the shop was in the process of constructing a marble table that would easily have sat 20. I would have loved to have known who was the client, and I imagined that it might have been an emir.

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    1. Dear Mark - it must have been interesting to visit a Pietra Dura workshop in Florence. I wonder if the table was in a contemporary design or in the traditional style?
      We have had our little box for at least 25 years, but I still enjoy it as much as I did when we first acquired it - I think that is the secret to buying what you like and admire.

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  7. Rosemary,
    Such exquisite examples of Continental Pietra Dura. I do not often see it in Scandinavian furniture from the 17th and 18th cen. There are examples found in furnishings from Stockholm, but rare. Your box is very fine. I love the high/lowlights of the foliage.

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    1. Dear Loi - I am very fond of my little box - the two lilies are beautifully crafted using as you mention the high/low lights on the leaves, and the delicate veining on the petals. Thanks for your visit, and hope you had a happy Thanksgiving yesterday.

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  8. Dear Rosemary,
    Pietra Dura is wonderful isn't it.

    I remember when we were in Florence with my mother, we went to see an exhibition of Pietra Dura at the Pitti Palace. How wonderful it would be to own a piece as magnificent as that collection by Duke of Beaufort although I guess we would need to sell our house, furniture and probably our clothing to obtain it!

    Your black marble box is very elegant: I do like the lily design.

    Kirk

    PS
    Gosh its a long time since I thought of Ashford in the Water! It is a lovely spot!

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    1. Dear Kirk - 19 million pounds is an astronomical sum for a cabinet.
      I do like my pietra dura box - it has a simple design but effectively makes use of the different depths of colour and the veins in the stones.
      Pleased that this post reminded you of Ashford in the Water - next time I visit Derbyshire I intend to reacquaint myself with it.

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  9. You won't be surprised to hear that we sometimes buy pieces of pietra dura, especially paperweights and boxes. Even now I am sometimes puzzled about attribution - sometimes Derbyshire and Italian pieces are very similar, especially the small rectangular paperweights. I think your lovely photos have made it clearer. Perhaps the colourful birds are more likely to be Florentine and the delicate flowers are probably from Derbyshire.

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    1. Dear Nilly - most of the Derbyshire Pietra Dura has a very limited pallet unlike Florentine work. Normally it has a less shinny finish, and usually uses flowers. Mainly white but also blue forget-me-nots. The other style is called scrapwork which has inlaid stones done in a random or uniform pattern - a bit like patchwork. I have never seen birds on Derbyshire work.

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  10. Dear Rosemary,great post!These pietra dura pieces are amazing!Love your black ebony box !You are very lucky having it!Wishing you my dear a lovely weekend!
    Dimi..

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    1. Thank you Dimi - glad that you enjoyed seeing the Pietra Dura pieces. I am very attached to my little black ebony box, it is simple but very effective.
      Hope the sun shines for you this weekend.

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  11. how colourful+exquisite! happy weekend from Holland+me:-))

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    1. Thank you Jana and enjoy your weekend too in tulip land.

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  12. Dear Rosemary

    I have found this fascinating and informative.

    I am also delighted to read that you are the proud owner of a Pietra Dura and I might add it is a stunning piece of art work.

    Have a glorious weekend

    Helen xx

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    1. Dear Helen- I have been fascinated by Pietra Dura ever since I first saw it in so many British stately homes. Some of it is extremely over the top, but gets away with it, some not so. I like my small box because it is simple but also beautifully crafted.
      Thank you for your visit.

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  13. Never heard of it before but every time I visit your blog I learn. Hope the weather is fine in your part of the uk.
    Have a wonderful weekend Rosemary.

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    1. Dear Marijke - this weekend is supposed to be weather that is in the extreme - strong winds and lots of heavy rain. However, we are just wondering where it is. As I look out of the wind the view is very calm and dry. Hopefully the weathermen have got it all wrong.

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  14. Now that was a surprise. It's good to open a blog and learn something new. I was in Ashford in September, so I enjoyed the wee connection. Your box is beautiful!

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    1. Thank you for your visit and how lovely to know that you have visited Ashford in the water. Sadly the seam of black marble is all spent, just a few small pieces to be found these days. However, I am happy to have my Ashford marble Pietra Dura box as a memento of times past when it was made.

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  15. Thank you once again for teaching me something I didn't know before Rosemary. Those pieces of furniture are so exquisite. They each tell their own story I guess. I love your box with the white lilies, so very elegant, so precious.
    Bye,
    Marian

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    1. Dear Marian - I do feel fortunate to have this little box particularly as there is not a lot of it around. The lady who sold it to me about 25 years ago told me she thought it was from Derbyshire but wasn't sure. However, having grown up in that country I knew that it was.

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  16. Dear Rosemary, I have seen many Pietra Dura pieces in Italy but did not know that they were also manufactured in Derbyshire. Of all the pieces shown in your post the table top of olive branches and white ribbon is my favorite. Sometimes simplicity, as in your beautiful box, makes more of an impact than all the colors and intricate designs of the more complex pieces.

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    1. Dear Gina - you are right. Although I greatly admire the skill and the intricacy of the details in some of the pieces, a simpler design has more impact for me. Like you, I really enjoyed the olive branch detail too, and I am very fond of my own little box.

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  17. I liked reading your post, it's very interesting!

    Have a grand weekend

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    1. Dear Saskia - thanks for visiting and commenting - glad you enjoyed reading the post.

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  18. What a price, not sure I would want it my home even if I could afford it, but I do love the table with the olives, now I wonder why that is? :)

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    1. Most of us would have a job getting it through the door, it is so high. Yes, the olives are lovely, remind you of Italy!!!

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  19. I think I love yours best of all, Rosemary, although the pope's has some merit :-D

    I love the idea of a cicerone.

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    1. Mine is just the right size for most houses these days Kate. There is a touch of nostalgic romance to touring through Europe with one's own cicerone don't you think?

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  20. This has been another very interesting post. Thank you for describing and photographing the different pieces so beautifully. Such expertise and patience needed to complete each item. To see your beautiful box close up shows how carefully each piece is put in place, creating a lovely effect of light and shade.
    I enjoy and learn so much from your posts, Rosemary.

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    1. Dear Betty - It is lovely that you both enjoyed seeing and learning about Pietra Dura - thank you very much.

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