Art/ Collection/ Art Object
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The Farnese Table

Designer:
Designed by Jacopo [Giacomo] Barozzi da Vignola (Italian, Vignola 1507–1573 Rome)
Maker:
Marble piers carved by Guglielmo della Porta (Italian, Porlezza, near Lake Lugano ca. 1500–1577 Rome) and by the Farnese palace under his supervision
Maker:
Pietre Dure top attributed to Giovanni Mynardo (Jean Ménard) (French, active Italy, 1525–1582)
Date:
ca. 1565–73
Culture:
Italian, Rome
Medium:
Marble of different colors, semiprecious stones, Egyptian alabaster, residue of paint of different colors on the piers
Dimensions:
H. 37 1/2 x W. 149 1/4 x D. 66 1/4 in. (95.3 x 379.1 x 168.3 cm)
Classification:
Sculpture-Architectural
Credit Line:
Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, 1958
Accession Number:
58.57a–d
On view at The Met Fifth Avenue in Gallery 503
The Farnese table, one of the most beautiful and evocative pieces of Renaissance furniture in existence, was acquired by the Museum in 1958. Two years later, curator Olga Raggio presented it as a "rediscovered work by Vignola" in a magisterial article that has remained a model for subsequent studies in the history of furniture.[1]

In its form-a marble top supported on three marble piers-the table reflects ancient Roman prototypes, such as are depicted in ancient frescoes.[2] Each pier is carved in the center of each side with a grotesque torso and a coat of arms and on each end with a sphinx emerging from foliage. The top is a slab of white marble sumptuously inlaid in ancient Roman style with many different colored marbles and with semiprecious stones called pietre dure. So rich is the inlay that the white marble matrix is visible only in the lines that surround various borders and the larger geometric figures, which include medallions, cartouches, rectangles, and ovals. In the center of the slab, enclosed within black slate borders decorated with pietre dure rosettes and stylized lilies, are two panels of Egyptian alabaster.[3]

The coats of arms on the piers are embellished with six lilies carved on oval panels surmounted by a cross and a galero, or cardinal's hat. Lilies appear again on the tabletop, not only in the narrow pietre dure borders but also in the wide border of noble rosso antico marble, where they are bracketed by pairs of stylized peltae, or ancient Roman shields, which "protect" them, as important dignitaries would be guarded by armed foot soldiers. The lilies, rosettes, cross, and hat all refer to Alessandro Farnese (1520–1589), "the Great Cardinal," a man of enormous wealth and an enthusiastic patron of the arts.[4] He envisioned the precious table as a focal point in the state rooms of the Farnese Palace in Rome, which was under construction during the sixteenth century. This magnificent building housed not only a large collection of Renaissance and Mannerist paintings commissioned or acquired by Alessandro and other members of his family—portraits by Titian (ca. 1487–1576), frescoes by Annibale Carracci (1560–1609), Francesco Salviati (1510–1553), and Daniele da Volterra (1509–1566)-but also wonderful works of antique sculpture, such as the Farnese Hercules, the Urania, the Flora, and the Farnese Bull. Originally placed in the main hall of the palace, where it would have harmonized with both the contemporary and the ancient works of art that filled the room,[5] the Farnese table was later installed in the Philosophers' Hall, an elaborately furnished room next to the Carracci Gallery, on the Tiber side of the palace.[6] It is described as being in that room in all the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Roman guidebooks that mention the treasures of the palace. The German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832) probably saw it there on his visit to Rome in the spring of 1787, although by then, in one of the largest art transfers in history, many of the paintings and sculptures had been removed to Naples by King Charles III of Spain (1716–1788), who had inherited the palace from his Farnese mother. Goethe said wryly, "If they could take also the Carracci Gallery, they would do it."[7]

An inventory of the Farnese Palace compiled in 1653 indicates what a high value was placed on the table. In the absence of the owner of the house, the "large table of hard and soft stones, the center being of Oriental alabaster, supported by three marble feet in the shape of harpies with the arms of the Lord Cardinal" was protected "in a wooden box [with] a chain that loops to close it and in the middle a small mattress full of wool, covered with a quilted checkered cloth." There was also "a cover for this table, made of tooled and gilded leather with four fringes, decorated borders, and fleur-de-lys."[8] It is as though the table—which is so heavy that even with the aid of a modern lifting device it can only be moved by a dozen men—was regarded as an objet de vertu, some precious gold or rock-crystal bibelot that could easily be packed up in a beautiful leather case and travel with its owner.[9]

The Farnese table and especially its top were created after the designs of Jacopo Barozzi da Vignola, who began working at the palace shortly before 1547 under the supervision of Michelangelo (he became the cardinal's chief architect about 1550).[10] Since Alessandro adopted the coat of arms carved on the table legs only in 1566, Vignola's design must date from or after that year. Inventories of the Farnese Palace made in 1566 and 1568 include references to other inlaid tables-two of alabaster, two of porphyry, and one set with many different types of stone.[11] It is thus probable that the Museum's table was under construction in the late 1560s-certainly by 1573, when Vignola died.

Vignola's design masterfully contrasts the piers, whose vigorous modeling creates wonderful effects of light and shadow, with the flat, reflective, and richly colored top. Its ornamental details, such as the winged sphinxes and heraldic symbols, convey the idea of majesty and magnificence that would have been important to Cardinal Alessandro. A recent examination of the piers has disclosed slight residues of paint in small areas under the profiles supporting the top. This astonishing discovery may change the current estimation of the table, for if the piers were originally painted, then the overall appearance of the piece must have been quite different.[12]

Many of Vignola's favorite decorative motifs appear on the tabletop, for example, the confronted peltae and the broken rectangles enclosing the Farnese lilies. He may have discovered them in the patterns of ancient Roman floors, such as the one in the Curia of Diocletian in Rome.[13] Other ancient works with peltae ornaments are to be found at Ostia, the port of ancient Rome,[14] where in 1547, shortly after Vignola began to work for Cardinal Alessandro, the architects went "to get colored marbles for the Palace."[15] All the stones used for the table are of ancient origin, and many of them were taken from the Baths of Caracalla, where excavations were begun in the 1540s under the supervision of the cardinal. For him and for his architects and stonemasons they represented the opulence of imperial Rome, the capital of a vanished empire, and their reuse must have seemed to be physical proof that Rome was indeed the Eternal City. The two alabaster panels were probably stripped from Egyptian monuments and brought to Italy in ancient times. They are of especial beauty, "the climax," as Raggio observes, "of the whole composition. Large, pure, and quiet, they fulfill the promise of their sumptuous frame. Their hard onyxlike translucent surface, marked by wavy, irregular amber[-colored] veins and elusive whitish formations, has the mysterious attraction of light clouds traveling through a misty sky, or of the frozen ripples of bottomless waters."[16]

At the time the table was under construction, the sculptor Guglielmo della Porta was in charge of the palace workshop where ancient sculptures were restored and excavated stone was reshaped into furnishings for the rooms. Close inspection reveals that the piers were carved by more than one person. This is to be expected, for it reflects workshop practice: as master in charge, Della Porta supervised the workmen who transformed Vignola's designs into stone, carved major elements himself, and added the final touches. In creating these furnishings Della Porta and his masons were emulating ancient artists–not imitating them (imitatio) but attempting to surpass them (superatio).[17] The pietre dure and classical inlay are believed to have been done by a little-known French master named Jean Ménard, called in Italy Giovanni Mynardo, who was considered one of the finest craftsmen in stone intarsia and mosaic decoration working in Rome during the 1560s.[18]

The Farnese table is listed in an inventory of the palace made in 1796 but not in one of 1834. The next record of the table's existence is in a fire-insurance document drawn up shortly after 1844 for Hamilton Palace in South Lanarkshire, Scotland.[19] We may suppose that, like many other Italian antiquities, the treasured table of the Farnese family was acquired by some English or Scottish grandee while on a tour of Italy. In 1919 it was sold at auction from Hamilton Palace to Viscount Leverhulme (1851–1925) for his London collection. Forty years later, in 1958, the monumental table, created to affirm the Great Cardinal's status, erudition, and taste, was transported across the Atlantic to be admired again, as one of the jewels of the Metropolitan Museum's encyclopedic collection.

[Wolfram Koeppe 2006]

Footnotes:
[1] Olga Raggio. "The Farnese Table: A Rediscovered Work by Vignola." The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 18 (March 1960), pp. 213–31.

[2] For a pier from a prototypical Roman table, see John Morley. The History of Furniture: Twenty-five Centuries of Style and Design in the Western Tradition. Boston, 1999, p. 24, fig. 24. For a fresco in which such a table is depicted, see Morley, op. cit., p. 30, fig. 36. This fresco from the House of the Vettii in Pompeii had not been excavated at Vignola's time; however, similar illustrations of classical tables may have been accessible to him.

[3] Enrico Dolci. "La cultura del marmo." In Eternità e nobilità di materia: Itinerario artistico fra le pietre policrome, ed. Annamaria Giusti, pp. 105–38. Opificio delle Pietre Dure. Florence, 2003, p. 109, fig. 2.

[4] Elizabeth Clare Robertson. "The Artistic Patronage of Cardinal Alessandro Farnese (1520–89." Ph.D. diss., Warburg Institute, University of London, 1986; and Bertrand Jestaz. "Le collezioni Farnese di Roma." In I Farnese: Arte e collezionismo, ed. Lucia Fornari Schianchi and Nicola Spinosa, pp. 49–67. Exh. cat., Palazzo Ducale di Colorno, Parma; Haus der Kunst, Munich; and Galleria Nazionale di Capodimonte, Naples, Milan, 1995, p. 54.

[5] Elizabeth Clare Robertson. "The Artistic Patronage of Cardinal Alessandro Farnese (1520–89." Ph.D. diss., Warburg Institute, University of London, 1986.

[6] Sylvia Ginzburg Carignani. Annibale Carracci a Roma: Gli affreschi di Palazzo Farnese. Saggi. Arti e lettere. Rome, 2000.

[7] Quoted in Olga Raggio. "The Farnese Table: A Rediscovered Work by Vignola." The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 18 (March 1960), p. 213.

[8] Quoted in ibid., p. 215.

[9] See Dirk Syndram and Antje Scherner, eds. Princely Splendor: The Dresden Court, 1580–1620. Exh. cat., Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe, Hamburg; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; and Fondazione Memmo, Palazzo Ruspoli, Rome. Milan, Dresden, and New York, 2004, p. 263, no. 141 (entry by Jutta Kappel).

[10] On Vignola's work at the Farnese Palace, see Olga Raggio. "The Farnese Table: A Rediscovered Work by Vignola." The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 18 (March 1960), pp. 223-25. See also John Morley. The History of Furniture: Twenty-five Centuries of Style and Design in the Western Tradition. Boston, 1999, pp. 107, fig. 189 (the present table), 108-9, fig. 192 (the Guicciardini table designed by Vignola and made in wood by Fra Damiano da Bergamo).

[11] See Bertrand Jestaz. "Le collezioni Farnese di Roma." In I Farnese: Arte e collezionismo, ed. Lucia Fornari Schianchi and Nicola Spinosa, pp. 49–67. Exh. cat., Palazzo Ducale di Colorno, Parma; Haus der Kunst, Munich; and Galleria Nazionale di Capodimonte, Naples, Milan, 1995.

[12] I am most grateful to Jack Soultanian Jr., Conservator, Department of Objects Conservation, Metropolitan Museum, for having confirmed and further investigated this observation, which was made when the table was moved in 2002.

[13] See Federico Guidobaldi. "Sectilia pavimenta e incrustationes: I rivestimenti policromi pavimentali e parietali in marmo o materiali litici e litoidi dell'antichità romana." In Eternità e nobilità di materia: Itinerario artistico fra le pietre policrome, ed. Annamaria Giusti, pp. 15–75. Opificio delle Pietre Dure, Florence, 2003, p. 47, fig. 53. For similar shield-shaped forms (peltae), see ibid., p. 64, fig. 78. See also the sixth-century pattern illustrated in the same essay, p. 70, fig. 93, which is similar to the border design of the present table.

[14] Alberto Di Castro, Paola Peccolo, and Valentina Gazzaniga. Marmorari e argentiari a Roma e nel Lazio tra Cinquecento e Seicento: I committenti, i documenti, le opere. L'universo barocco. Rome, 1994, fig. 23.

[15] Quoted in Olga Raggio. "The Farnese Table: A Rediscovered Work by Vignola." The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 18 (March 1960), p. 219.

[16] Ibid., p. 218.

[17] Wolfram Koeppe. "'...mit feiner Bildhauer-Arbeit verfertigte Stücke': Zu einem bislang unbekannten Schreibmöbeltypus der Roentgen-Werkstatt." Kunst & Antiquitäten, 1989, p. 37; see also Günter Irmscher. "Christoph Jamnitzer als Plastiker." Weltkunst 58 (October 15, 1988), p. 3067.

[18] Jean-Nérée Ronfort. "Jean Mérnard (c. 1525–1582): Marqueteur et sculpteur en marbre et sa famille." In Antologia di belle arti, n.s., nos. 39–42 (1991–1992), p. 139; and Olga Raggio. "Rethinking the Collections: New Presentations of European Decorative Arts at The Metropolitan Museum of Art." Apollo 139 (January 1994), p. 8.

[19] Olga Raggio. "The Farnese Table: A Rediscovered Work by Vignola." The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 18 (March 1960), p. 215.
commissioned by Cardinal Alessandro Farnese , Palazzo Farnese, Rome, Italy ; Farnese collection , Palazzo Farnese, Rome (listed in palace inventories from 1653 to 1796, but not in one of 1834); by tradition, Convent, Verona , Italy ; acquired by that convent by Alexander Hamilton, 10th Duke of Hamilton , Hamilton Place, South Lanarkshire, Scotland (in 1844 [in a fire insurance document], 1852, and 1876 [inventories]); Dukes of Hamilton (by 1844–1919; descended in the family until 1919 sale, Christie , Manson and Woods, London, November 13, 1919, no. 333; to Leverhume); William Hesketh Lever, 1st Viscount Leverhulme , The Hill, Hampstead Heath, London ; [ Art market , London ] ; [ Galleria Sangiorgi (until 1958; sold to MMA) ]
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