Since the Renaissance, humanists supported the view that princely magnificence was symbolized best by luxurious displays, public ceremonies, large public projects such as dynastic buildings, and assembling important art collections. Artistic objects in pietre dure—literally, "hard stones" in Italian—embodied the goals of princely patronage. The Renaissance saw the exploration of the "New World" and the dawning of scientific inquiry. Steady increase in long-distance trade brought a vast array of curious natural specimens and unknown exotic hardstones that amazed European society. The Medici's transformation of their native Florence became a prototype, reflecting the power and social achievements of a dynasty. The demanding practice of working in pietre dure, highly developed in ancient Greece and Rome, enjoyed a spectacular revival in Florence and Rome during the Renaissance and continued throughout the Baroque and Neoclassical periods.
The Medici's passion for hardstone objects led to the foundation of the legendary Galleria dei Lavori, the grand-ducal workshops, in 1588 (renamed the Opificio delle Pietre Dure, it is active in Florence to this day). Captivated by the extraordinary objects they acquired or received as diplomatic gifts, princely patrons farther north established their own lapidary manufactories, thus supporting the diffusion of the technique throughout the continent. Workshops flourished in Prague, Paris, Madrid, and Naples and at various courts of the Holy Roman Empire; in the eighteenth century became an obsession of the czars and their courtiers in Saint Petersburg.
Extravagant luxury items, furniture, and sculpture were fashioned from pietre dure. Intricately inlaid landscapes, flowers, birds, geometric patterns, and other motifs—all assembled of finely cut colored hardstone pieces—and expertly carved rare specimens of lapis lazuli, jasper, and rock crystal became treasured collectibles and diplomatic gifts. The medium was esteemed beyond most others: Philip II of Spain paid 60 to 200 ducats for paintings by Titian but owned a table ornament of rock crystal valued at 500 ducats. Since the color of hardstones changes little over the centuries, the objects in this exhibition are as vivid as when they were first created.