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

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

Koeppe, Wolfram, ed., and Anna Maria Giusti with contributions by Cristina Acidini, Rudolf Distelberger, Detlef Heikamp, Jutta Kappel, Florian Knothe, and Ian Wardropper
412 pages
307 illustrations
College Art Association Alfred H. Barr Jr. Book Award, Finalist (2008)
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In the royal and princely courts of Europe, artworks made of multicolored semiprecious stones were passionately coveted objects. Known as pietre dure, or hardstones, this type of artistic expression includes "paintings in stone"—presenting subjects such as landscapes, townscapes, flowers, birds, and decorative motifs—which were composed of intricately cut separate pieces and were made into magnificent tabletops, cabinets, and wall decorations. Other works are vessels and ornaments carved with virtuosic skill from a single piece of rare and brilliant lapis lazuli, chalcedony, jasper, or similarly prized substance; exquisite objects such as boxes, clocks, and jewelry that employed both the stonecutter's and the goldsmith's art; and portraits of nobles sculpted in variously colored stones. The medium was esteemed beyond most others: for example, 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.

Derived from ancient Roman decorative stonework, the art of pietre dure was developed in Renaissance Florence, where the manufacture of such objects was enthusiastically sponsored by Medici princes. Ideally suited for ostentatious display, the works sent an unmistakable message of wealth and political might that was understood in center of power everywhere. From Italy the medium spread across Europe—to Prague, Madrid, Naples, Paris, and later Saint Petersburg.

Pietre dure had intellectual and spiritual appeal as well. Symbolic and mysterious meanings were ascribed to some stones. At the same time, in this age of exploration and dawning scientific inquiry, exotic shells, coral, petrified wood, ostrich eggs, and natural "wonders" or all sorts were avidly collected and displayed (in cabinets decorated with hardstones). Works in pietre dure—of natural substances but artfully crafted through human skill and imagination—were seen as a harmonious joining of nature and art.

Precious and fragile, pietre dure objects are rarely brought together in large numbers. The exceptional survey presented in this richly illustrated catalogue contains more than 150 masterworks from across Europe, dating from five centuries. They display almost every artistic use of semiprecious stone during this time and include some of the finest—even legendary—examples of the medium.

Eight essays by European and American experts describe the individualized development of pietre dure in every European region, present the latest developments in scholarship, point out interrelationships between art and dynastic politics and between cultures, and elucidate a variety of techniques by which the works were made.

Cosimo de' Medici (1519–1574), Duke of Florence and Grand Duke of Tuscany, Grand-ducal workshops, Florence, Lapis lazuli, Italian, Florence
ca. 1567–69
Casket, Michel Redlin  German, Amber, gold foil, gilt brass, wood, silk satin, paper, German, Danzig (Gdansk)
ca. 1680
Senwosret III as a Sphinx, Gneiss
ca. 1878–1840 B.C.
Banded agate amphoriskos (perfume bottle), Banded agate, Roman
late 1st century BCE–early 1st century CE
Stone bowl, Granite, Roman
1st century BCE–1st century CE
Glass mosaic panel, Glass, Roman
mid-1st century CE
Ewer, Jasper body, silver-gilt mounts, Bohemian
ca. 1350–80 (ewer); ca. 1400 (mounts)
The Farnese Table, Jacopo [Giacomo] Barozzi da Vignola  Italian, Marble of different colors, semiprecious stones, Egyptian alabaster, residue of paint of different colors on the piers, Italian, Rome
Multiple artists/makers
ca. 1565–73
Design for an Octagonal Table and Top (Recto); Design for altar or tomb monument (Verso), Anonymous, Italian, 16th century  Italian, Pen and brown ink, brush and gray-brown wash (recto); pen and brown ink, brush and brown wash (verso)
ca. 1530–60
Pietra dura table top, Hardstones, alabaster, and marble (pietra dura); marble frame and walnut stand (replacement), Italian, Rome
Italian, Rome
late 16th or early 17th century
Holy-water stoup with relief of Mary of Egypt, Giovanni Giardini  Italian, Lapis lazuli, silver, and gilded bronze, Italian, Rome
ca. 1702
Barberini Cabinet, Galleria dei Lavori, Florence, Oak and poplar veneered with various exotic hardwoods, with ebony moldings and plaques of marble, slate (paragon); pietre dure work consisting of colored marbles, rock crystal, and various hardstones, Italian, Florence
ca. 1606–23
Table ornament in the form of a monster, The Saracchi, Milan, Rock crystal, enameled gold mounts, set with diamonds and rubies, Italian, Milan
ca. 1575–1600, mounts with diamonds late 19th century
Hercules and Nessus, Annibale Fontana  Italian, Rock crystal; gold and champlevé enamel frame, Italian, Milan
before 1584
Hercules and Acheloüs, Annibale Fontana  Italian, Rock crystal; gold and champlevé enamel frame, Italian, Milan
before 1584
Cup with cover, Rock crystal, partly gilded silver mounts, German, Freiburg im Breisgau
German, Freiburg im Breisgau
ca. 1560–70
Standing Cup and Cover Supported by an Enchained Turk, Jade (nephrite), aragonite, chalcedony, banded agate, gold, silver gilt, diamonds, rubies, garnets, enamel, and paint., German, perhaps Frankfurt-am-Main
German, perhaps Frankfurt-am-Main
ca. 1705–11
Cup, Sardonyx, gold, enamel, gem, Byzantine (cup) and French, Paris (stem, base, and mounts)
Byzantine (cup) and French, Paris (stem, base, and mounts)
cup 900–1100 CE; stem, base, and mounts ca. 1655–60
Standing cup with cover, Agate, silver gilt, gold, enamel, rubies, diamond, French, Paris
French, Paris
mid-17th century, finial 19th–early 20th century
Still Life with Silver, Alexandre François Desportes  French, Oil on canvas
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Koeppe, Wolfram, Annamaria Giusti, Rudolf Distelberger, Cristina Acidini Luchinat, and Metropolitan Museum of Art, eds. 2008. Art of the Royal Court: Treasures in Pietre Dure from the Palaces of Europe ; [in Conjunction with the Exhibition Art of the Royal Court: Treasures in Pietre Dure from the Palaces of Europe Held at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, July 1 - September 21, 2008]. New York, NY: The Metropolitan Museum of Art.