Art of the Royal Court: Treasures in Pietre Dure from the Palaces of Europe

July 1–September 21, 2008

Paris, Naples, Madrid

In seventeenth-century France the influential cardinals Richelieu and Mazarin were the first connoisseurs to develop a serious interest in pietre dure carvings and inlay, which they popularized at the French court, initiating a campaign to establish local workshops for hardstone objects. In 1668 Louis XIV brought lapidary craftsmen from Florence and installed them at the Royal Gobelins workshops in Paris to train French assistants. At the Gobelins manufactory, the principal artistic center for the production of decorative artifacts for the royal palaces of France, these artisans achieved an outstanding reputation, producing mosaic panels employed as tabletops and mounted into cabinets. The French crown presented these fanciful and often propagandistic objects as diplomatic gifts to foreign dignitaries, and for the glory of the realm they were displayed in the Galerie d'Apollon at the Louvre and in the state apartments of Louis XIV at Versailles alongside other prized rarities, including finely carved vases and cups.

The Medici dynasty ended with the death of its last scion, the childless grand duke Gian Gastone, in 1737. Fearing the collapse of the Galleria dei Lavori under the new Habsburg rulers, some of the masters of the workshop accepted an invitation to the court of Naples. The Royal Neapolitan workshop was established by King Charles VII of Bourbon (1716–1788). The designer Francesco Ghingi (1689–1766) headed the real laboratorio. While Giuseppe Torricelli had overshadowed his artistic skills in Florence, Ghingi and his craftsmen flourished in Naples, creating works in intaglio as well as hardstone mosaics. The workshop in Naples remained active for well over a century until the Kingdom of Italy was established in 1861.

In 1759 King Charles of Naples inherited the crown of Spain and departed from his former capital for Madrid, where he ruled as Charles III. As a monarch with a passion for pietre dure, he enlisted Italian specialists to activate a manufactory in his new country. He lured several hardstone artisans away from Florence, and, supported by local Spanish workers, these specialists established an enterprise in 1761 in the Buen Retiro palace, where it was was housed together with a porcelain factory. The workshop grew quickly and steadily: it had nineteen fully productive craftsmen by 1784 and thirty-five by 1808. The occupation of Spain by Napoleon in 1808 closed down the hardstone works in Madrid, and the site was largely destroyed in 1812 by the armies of the Duke of Wellington.