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

July 1–September 21, 2008

The Reclaiming of Pietre Dure in the Eighteenth Century

The undiminished importance of semiprecious hardstones led to a complex and pervasive reuse of jewels, stone panels, vessels, and other decorative objects. Because of their cultural and prestigious social context, certain pearls and stones in royal collections have been mounted and remounted for successive rulers, adapted to embellish the ever-changing necklines and regalia dictated by fashion.

An enormous quantity of pietre dure panels decorating "old and useless" furniture from the various palaces of the French royal collection swept through the Parisian art market into the public domain. Four auctions at the Palais des Tuileries held between 1741 and 1752 dispersed much of the opulent and colossal Baroque furnishings of Louis XIV, which had become unpopular compared to the graceful lightness of Rococo designs. While many of these pieces were dismantled and their valuable materials salvaged, their pietre dure units were kept and continuously appreciated. With the dawn of Neoclassicism in the 1760s, the pierre fines (fine stones) regained their position as aristocratic status symbols. In all variations, whether in vessels complemented by gilded mounts or fashionable small center tables, hardstones embodied the newest fashion of the ancien régime before the Revolution. Elaborate Florentine hardstone panels, particularly the decorative fruit and floral reliefs made in the seventeenth century at Gobelins, were treated like relics of a glorious era long gone. Under the supervision of the marchands-merciers (dealers), they were set into some of the most sumptuous and stylish furniture creations ever made, by the most elite French cabinetmakers.