Exhibitions/ Art of the Royal Court

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

July 1–September 21, 2008
Exhibitions are free with Museum admission.

Exhibition Overview

This is the most comprehensive exhibition to date on the tradition of hardstone carving (pietre dure) that developed in Italy in the sixteenth century and subsequently spread through Europe. Renaissance masters working in Rome cut colored marbles and laid them in geometrically patterned tabletops, such as the celebrated Farnese Table in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, while Milanese artisans preferred to cut designs in rock crystal, lapis lazuli, and other precious materials. In Florence, the passion of the Medici for importing precious stones led to Ferdinando I de' Medici's founding of the court workshops that still survive as the Opificio delle Pietre Dure. Royal patronage encouraged Florentine craftsmen to migrate to Prague, and their practices gradually spread to such centers as Augsburg, Paris, Madrid, and Saint Petersburg. Some 150 tables, cabinets, caskets, jewelry, vases, and sculptures represent the range of this extraordinary art form cultivated by the courts of Europe through four centuries.

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.

The exhibition is made possible by Mercedes and Sid Bass and Frank Richardson and the Honorable Kimba Wood.

Additional support is generously provided by Mr. and Mrs. J. Tomilson Hill.

The catalogue is made possible by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the Friends of European Sculpture and Decorative Arts.

Additional support is provided by the Mary C. and James W. Fosburgh Publications Fund.

Every pietre dure mosaic produced at the Galleria dei Lavori in Florence or at another manufactory was based on a full-scale design commissioned from an artist. Beginning in the sixteenth century these models were either finished paintings in oil on canvas or, more often, watercolors on paper. When choosing his colors, the artist had to consider the natural palette of the available stones and set forth general, rather than precise, chromatic instructions. The precious material was entrusted to only the most skillful masters, who executed the pietre dure work, often changing small details that were dictated by the patterns in the hardstone itself. The pieces of stone were cut using an archetto—a chestnut bow saw—with dampened abrasive powders spread on its iron wire.

Large vessels or cups were produced at the grinding mill. The grindstone wheels were often driven by waterpower or pure physical effort. In many cases it could take a group of specialized lapidary workers years to finish one object. It is remarkable that the technical aspects of the art of cutting hardstones had changed little since ancient times. Even today, traditional methods have to be used to create a pietre dure masterpiece.

Under Piero de' Medici (1416–1469) and his son Lorenzo the Magnificent (1449–1492), pietre dure underwent a spectacular revival as part of the broad political propaganda of these Florentine art patrons, who wished to transport their fame beyond their territories. Various grand dukes who were as passionate as the Medici about this ancient mosaic technique provided generous support and personal commitment to the manifattura, or grand-ducal workshop, enabling this evolution aimed at the supremacy of the "Florentine mosaic." Established in 1588 as the Galleria dei Lavori, this workshop was a formalized artistic enterprise under the auspices of courtly artistic patronage. Following the progressive papal Roman model, Ferdinand I de' Medici (r. 1587–1609), the Galleria's founding father, appreciated the seemingly limitless pietre dure color variations and sophisticated designs. The first grand duke, Cosimo I de' Medici (r. 1537–74), and his son Francesco (r. 1574–87) reserved a special place for le belle pietre, as it was called by the Dominican monk Agostino del Riccio, in their boundless passion for the arts.

After 1600 the naturalistic themes that first appeared in the sixteenth century prevailed over other subjects. Jacopo Ligozzi (d. 1627), a naturalist and a fascinating draftsman, dominated the field of Florentine mosaic. In Florence, the colors, shapes, and various shades within even a single piece of hardstone were imaginatively exploited to define images, a development that clearly sets Medici Florence apart from papal Rome. The utilization of the natural changing of colors within one stone to create illusionistic effects was highly influenced by Prague landscape compositions of the famous Castrucci family of about 1600 and dominated Florentine mosaics for the next two hundred years. Thus the ground was prepared for the masterpieces created by the Galleria under the leadership of the brilliant artist Giovanni Battista Foggini (1652–1725) and the sculptor Massimo Soldani-Benzi (1656–1740).

The ancient art of opus sectile, or "cut inlay"—the ancestor of the Italian commesso di pietre dure—was revived in Rome in the mid-sixteenth century, albeit in a new form. All the stones used for works of art decorated in this fashion were of ancient origin. Many of them came from the Baths of Caracalla, where excavations began in the 1540s, initiated by the art patron Cardinal Alessandro Farnese. There were other "harvesting" sites within Rome or in the ruins at Ostia Antica, the harbor city of imperial Rome, where the famous architect Jacopo Barozzi da Vignola went in 1547 "to get colored marbles for the [Farnese] Palace." For Renaissance artists and their high-ranking patrons, such stones represented the remnants of the opulence of ancient Rome—the capital of a vanished empire—and their reuse must have seemed to be physical proof that Rome was indeed the Eternal City. Pieces of ancient hardstones and marble were recut and assembled into sophisticated, nonfigural designs used to decorate wall revetments and tabletops. Learned humanist architects were mostly responsible for creating patterns that "literally" came down from the walls or were elevated from the pavement onto polychrome tabletops and other sumptuous furnishings. The decor would evolve—like papal Rome itself—into an ostentatious display of wealth and power during the Baroque period.

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.


The hardstone workshops in Prague were the first true offshoots of the Galleria dei Lavori in Florence. Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II of Habsburg (1552–1612) was described by contemporaries as "the greatest art patron in the world," and at his magnificent court princely art patronage in post-Renaissance Europe was elevated to unknown heights of humanistic refinement and excessive lavishness. By about 1600, "Rudolphine Prague" had developed into Europe's third major center of hardstone refinement, after Florence and Milan. The obsession with treasury objects, including pietre dure, was about to conquer all of Europe. The value of hardstone vessels made of rock crystal or jasper far surpassed that of paintings or sculpture as embodiments of princely wealth. Celebrated bronze sculptures, such as Leone Leoni's bust of Emperor Charles V and Adrian de Vries's bust of Rudolph II, were valued at a few hundred guilders shortly after the emperor's death, whereas one single basin made of "yellow jasper" was appraised at four thousand. Because of its richness in deposits of semiprecious stones, "Bohemia became known as a land where the stones which the cowherd threw at his flock were worth much more than a single animal," as Bohuslav Balbín noted in 1679. By attracting the hardstone craftsmen of the Miseroni family from Milan and the Castruccis from Florence, Rudolph achieved a major goal: uniting a group of superior artisans who would create only the best for his Kunstkammer. The Castruccis were the first to incorporate the pure shades of a single piece of stone into mosaic inventions, thus creating the first landscapes with accurate perspective in pietre dure panels.

Stuttgart and Freiburg-im-Breisgau

Two craftsmen stood out among the stoneworkers in Stuttgart. Hans Kobenhaupt worked there for the Kunstkammer of the ducal court of the Württemberg dynasty. The workshop applied mostly German hardstones, such as jasper and agate, from deposits around Idar and Oberstein in the Palatine. It has been suggested that the creator of the mounts for Kobenhaupt's vessels was the goldsmith François Guichard, who began working at the court in Stuttgart in 1610, shortly after Kobenhaupt arrived. It seems perfectly conceivable that several pieces represent collaborations. The rock-crystal and agate cutters in Freiburg could not compete with the virtuosity of their counterparts in Milan, but they developed their own style, mainly by refining small stone units that were assembled with precious metal, thus archiving an array of impressive objects for the southern German market. As late as 1753 there were at least fourteen hundred workers directly or indirectly connected to Freiburg's lapidary industry.


Hardstone cutting had already enjoyed a long tradition in this region, albeit under modest circumstances. This situation changed dramatically with the arrival of the sculptor Christoph Labhardt, a gifted artisan at the court of Landgrave Karl I of Hessen-Kassel (1654–1730). The discovery of deposits of agate, jasper, and other semiprecious stones in the Hessen region encouraged the Landgrave to invest in a stonecutting mill, which was erected about 1680. A record of 1697 mentions the production of "cups of crystal de Montagne [rock-crystal] with carved figures, scenes, and portraits, which were not seen before" made by the "famous Labhardt."


Besides silver veins, colored gemstones were Saxony’s most valuable natural resource. As early as 1575 Elector Augustus (r. 1553–86) commissioned Giovanni Maria Nosseni to undertake a systematic search for new deposits. However, it was not until February 1697, under the elector of Saxony Frederick Augustus I (Augustus the Strong), that several varieties of agate were found in the village of Halsbach, near Freiburg, in the Saxon Erzgebirge (ore mountains). Only polished samples displaying the Güthe und Schönheit (quality and beauty) of the stone were produced at a polishing mill outside Dresden. After 1708 Frederick Augustus I, who also ruled Poland-Lithuania as King Augustus II, engaged Johann Friedrich Böttger (1682–1719), the inventor of Meissen’s famous porcelain, to oversee a grinding and polishing mill for Saxon gemstones, which operated from 1713 to 1715. At the same time the ingenious Johann Melchior Dinglinger (1664–1731) created masterpieces that today are part of the German national heritage at the Grünes Gewolbe and not allowed to travel, and the gifted stonecutter Johann Christoph Hübner (1665–1739) collaborated with the sculptor Paul Heerrmann modeling busts of exceptional quality. Pietre dure reached a highpoint in Saxony with the work of Johann Christian Neuber (1736–1808), whose hardstone mosaic inventions mesmerized affluent society all over Europe in the last quarter of the eighteenth century.


Always concerned with the state of his country’s Exchequer, King Frederick the Great of Prussia (r. 1740–86) attempted to develop a luxury-goods industry on par with the one in France. The king ordered protectionist measures: "For the good of the Berlin gold workers . . . [we] totally forbade the import of all French gold boxes, étuis, and objets de bijou." The king's chamberlain, Michael Gabriel Fredersdorff, visited Paris in 1751 with the order to bring back a snuffbox, "the best that can be found there, so that we can find out how they are made." Frederick's mercantilist efforts eventually led to the establishment of successful manufactories of gold objects and jewelry in Berlin, and, after Augsburg and Dresden, Berlin became one of central Europe's most important centers for such artistic hardstone creations. The king also collected earlier Italian pietre dure works that he displayed in his painting gallery and his bedroom at his palace Sanssouci in Potsdam.

Suetonius (d. A.D. 122) recalled that Emperor Augustus "had his villa embellished, not only with statues and pictures but also with objects which were curious by reason of their age and rarity, like the huge remains of colossal beasts which had been discovered on the Island of Capri, called giants' bones or heroes' weapons."

Thus the taste for the utterly abnormal—for bizarre oddities such as the unusually large or the unusually small, and for extravagant shapes—was an ancient invention. The collecting of such curiosities was, however, cultivated to an extreme degree during the Renaissance. Highly appreciated were veined hardstones with naturally grotesque patterns further enhanced by a decoration reflecting the artistic virtuosity of the craftsmen. Whether the Renaissance and Mannerist objects incorporating these natural wonders (naturalia) were horrid or strikingly beautiful, they frequently were given multiple symbolic meanings. If naturalia were of exotic origins or procured with much effort and risk—possibly harvested or mined under highly dangerous circumstances from domestic or foreign soil—their material value was equal to that of the most lavish luxury items of precious metal.

In this way, the Kunst- und Wunderkammer (chamber of art and curiosities) as well as the Kunstschrank (collector's cabinet), with its "collection of collections," embodied a symbolic image of the elements, of dimensions of time and space, and mirrored the place of man in the universe through compiled microcosms that summarized the unreachable macrocosms. They represented the multifarious, chaotic, and ungraspable world in the form of an intelligible, steady, and easily memorized order within chambers or single pieces of furniture.

The czars took great pride in the ever-increasing number of hardstone deposits being newly discovered in one corner or another of their far-flung realm during the eighteenth century. In 1721 Peter the Great (r. 1682–1725) founded the first imperial Russian lapidary at Peterhof, near Saint Petersburg, and encouraged mercantilist interest in the workshop. The enterprise soon became successful, producing widely admired objects of great beauty and variety. Under the monarchs who ruled Russia from the 1730s to the 1750s, the factory established itself as one of the leading creators of luxury goods in Eastern Europe. Semiprecious stones and rare marbles were brought to Saint Petersburg from all over the empire as well as from foreign countries and were transformed into lavish works of art. Other hardstone manufactories followed in Yekaterinburg (founded 1726), located on the threshold between Europe and Asia, in the Ural Mountains. This manufactory was able to process large hardstone blocks or boulders that would have been difficult to transport across the country. Together with the Kolyvan lapidary in the remote Altai Mountains (founded 1786), all hardstone works came under the administration of Count Aleksandr Sergeievich Stroganov in 1800. Until his death in 1811, this sophisticated aristocrat revolutionized the Russian lapidary industry. As an art connoisseur of international renown, his principal goals were to raise the quality of Russian lapidary products by modernizing the grinding mills and to perfect the quality and designs of the bronze mounts that complemented the stone objects. The second important Russian hardstone dynasty was the Demidov family. In winter 1874–75, while a student in Florence, the American sculptor Daniel Chester French described the interior of the Villa San Donato, a palace of the Russian count Demidov, located near Florence. It contained numerous malachite works of art, including vases five feet high. Overwhelmed by the abundance, he added, "The Demidov Family, it seems, own all malachite mines in the world."

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.