AN OCTAGONAL ITALIAN PIETRA DURA TABLE TOP FROM THE FLORENTINE GRAND DUCAL WORKSHOPS
By Alvar González-Palacios
The outstanding quality of this masterpiece from the Grand Ducal Workshops in Florence is demonstrated above all by the materials - an exceptional variety of hard stones - used in its manufacture. Such rare and expensive stones were only employed on artefacts of extraordinary importance.
The only known example in Florence for the octagonal form of the present object is the table top made in 1633-1649 during the reign of the Grand Duke Ferdinand II for the Tribuna in the Uffizi where it is still to be found. An octagonal table top that may have come from Florence is housed in the Residenz in Munich, but, although the contrary has been written, it is almost entirely composed of coloured marbles, to which were added a few hard stones, such as the pieces of lapis lazuli that make up eight ovals (1).
Precedents for this octagonal form existed in sixteenth century Rome: these include the table designed by Giorgio Vasari for Bindo Altoviti; a table top in the Quirinal Palace; another in Granada, a third in a private collection and one more in Arundel Castle; and, finally, drawings by Giovanni Antonio Dosio, a Florentine architect active in Rome (2) and by G.V. Casale, a Florentine Jesuit in Spain in the late XVI century. These works belong, however, to the Renaissance, and were inlaid essentially with coloured marbles, and do not feature the costly and difficult technique of hard stone mosaic.
DECORATION AND DESIGN
The present table top is remarkable for the particularly rich design of the overall composition, centred on a garland of rare flowers. The latter include the bizarre tulips which were avidly sought out by Baroque collectors, including the Medici who were among the first to follow this new direction in taste. Furnishings and objects belonging to the Grand Ducal family often made use of these ornamental motifs. It is not surprising, therefore, that the flemish cabinet-maker in Florence, Leonardo van der Vinne (in Florence from 1659 till his death in 1713), should have been among the first interpreters of the tulipmania which spread outwards from the Low Countries to the rest of Europe at this time. In about 1664, he executed, for example, a marquetry table in rare woods and ivory in the Galleria dei Lavori, whose inlay followed this decorative trend.
A number of painters in Florence, Bartolomeo Bimbi (1648-1725) who was greatly favoured by the Gran Principe Ferdinando di Toscana, depicted still lifes of this type, and their works are housed in the historic collections of the city and its environs. Other artists, such as Andrea Scacciati (1642-1710) provided cartoons of floral compositions for use in the Galleria dei Lavori (3). Moreover, this tradition had begun in the early Seventeenth Century, and found its highest expression in the work of Jacopo Ligozzi. These earlier compositions are obviously different, more sober in style and attentive to the scientific aspects of the decoration (4). A second register, where eight bunches of fruit alternate with birds and insects - butterflies, worms, fruit flies or dragonflies - that hover on the ground or alight on the leaves, is arranged around the central garland on this table top. It was the custom in the Galleria dei Lavori to repeat favourite cartoons or modelli in different contexts. The hoopoe - one of the eight birds in the second register of this table top - for example, appears in a panel on the side of the Badminton Cabinet, although its position is reversed and colour changed. The same procedure of adapting cartoons and chromatic solutions is again found on the Badminton Cabinet. We are referring to the birds illustrated on page 49 and the lower section of page 81 in the 2004 catalogue of the sale. Because of a change of colour on the present table, the first bird of the Badminton Cabinet, having lost the red marking on its head, ceases to be a goldfinch, while the parrot is no longer green, but blue and red (5).
It would seem appropriate at this point to say something about the border that so happily closes the entire composition of the present table top. We are yet again struck by the rich interlacing of the natural motifs of birds and flowers to which foliate scrolls, stylised vegetal elements and curling lines are added in abundance. This decorative exuberance is similar to the manner of Giovanni Battista Foggini (1653-1725), who directed the Grand Duke's Galleria dei Lavori from c. 1695 until his death. He was responsible for both the design and execution of all the objects, including those in pietre dure, which issued from the workshops. We believe that Foggini was the Grand Ducal responsible for the design of the border of the present table top because of the use of these highly complex, abstract and elegant decorative motifs. This can be demonstrated by comparison with other works from his years in the Galleria dei Lavori, such as the table top of 1716 in the Palazzo Pitti, Florence, where the same rich pattern of foliate scrolls and winding lines serves to divide flowers, leaves and birds.
The 1716 table top is the object nearest in style to the present work. However, an unequivocal dating of the latter does not necessarily follow on from this premise because the working methods in the Galleria dei Lavori express a style that is not automatically linked to chronology. It is, in fact, possible to state without fear of contradiction that the late Florentine Baroque did not change between the late seventeenth century and the extinction of the Medici dynasty at the death of Gian Gastone in 1737. The evidence of this essential continuity is provided by famous examples, such as the Badminton Cabinet which was finished by 1732 but bears signed hard stone panels by Baccio Cappelli, an artisan of the Galleria dei Lavori, that date to 1720. Nor is there any real difference in style between the inlay on the table tops at Rosenborg in Copenhagen and Nymphenburg, near Munch, of 1709 and 1716 respectively or the plaque with the Annunciation of 1720 in Karlsruhe and works of an earlier period.
Florentine court art under the last Medici's was interested in perfect design, the unequalled splendour of the materials and the exquisite quality of facture. Stylistic evolution in the arts was a characteristic of other capital cities.
We must, therefore, conclude that the present table top should be dated to either the reign of the Grand Duke Cosimo III (1670-1723) or the beginning of his son Gian Gastone.
Translated from the Italian by Donald Garstang
1.B. Langer, A. Herzog von Württemberg, Die deutsche Möbel des 16 bis 18 Jahrhunderts, Munich-New York, 1996, pp. 52-55.
2.A. Gonzalez-Palacios, Il gusto dei principi, Milan, 1993, pp. 380-381, figs. 688-689 (Altoviti table-top) and p. 384, figs. 696-697 (table in the Quirinal Palace and Dosio drawing).
A. Gonzalez-Palacios, Il mobile in Liguria, Genoa, 1996, pages 58-59;
M. Paz Aguiló Alonso, 'Predras Duras', in Archivo Espano de Arte, 299, 2002, pages 255-267.
3.For Andrea Scacciati and the other Tuscan flower painters see: M. Gregori, in La natura morta italiani, exhibition catalogue, Naples, Milan [Palazzo Reale], pp. 79-80; Floralia, florilegio dalle collezioni fiorentine del Sei-Settecento, catalogue of the exhibition edited by M. Mosco and M. Rizzotto, Florence, 1988, passim; and Il giardino del Granduca, edited by M. Chiarini, Turin, 1997, pp. 206-237 and passim. For Andrea Scacciati's relationship with the Galleria dei Lavori and Foggini see: A. Gonzalez-Palacios, Il Tempio del Gusto, Milan, 1986, pp. 46-47, note 9.
4.A. Gonzalez-Palacios, Las colecciones reales espaqolas de mosaicos y piedras duras, Madrid [The Prado], 2001, no. 12, table-top given by the Papel Nunzio Massimo of 1624.
5.Similar practices are to be noted with regard to many works from the Galleria. For example, the cabinet, dating to the turn of the Eighteenth Century in the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, shows at lower right the same bird with a long beak that is found on the border of the present table top (U. Baldini, A. Giusti and A.P. Pampaloni, La Cappella dei Principi e le pietre dure a Firenze, Milan, 1979, fig. 155, cat. no. 104). The central opening on the same cabinet also features a bird that is found on our table, as well as on the middle section of the Badminton Cabinet (The Badminton Cabinet, Christie's, London, 9 December 2004, p. 19). It also seen on a plaque in The Prado and a panel that was reused on a cabinet in the J.P. Getty Museum (Gonzalez-Palacios, Las colecciones ... , op. cit. [note 4], pp. 103 and 108-109).
The distinctive seated griffins that support the base were inspired by an 'Antique fragment of a table foot' in the Vatican, published by Charles Heathcote Tatham in his Etchings of 1799. Interestingly this very same motif supports the scagliola slabs on a pair of console tables supplied by Tatham, Bailey and Sanders for George, Prince of Wales' use at Carlton House in January 1814. Intended for the Crimson Drawing Room, they were moved to the Corridor at Windsor Castle in 1828 by Nicholas Morel and are discussed in 'Carlton House, The Past Glories of George IV's Palace', Exhibition Catalogue, London, 1991, p.37, p.87.
established during George IV's Regency by George Bullock (d. 1818), who opened his Piccadilly 'Grecian Rooms' in 1812. He followed it with the opening of his 'tasteful repository' in Tenterden Street, Hanover Square. In the year after the Battle of Waterloo, these rooms were lauded in Rudolph Ackermann's The Repository of Arts, for their splendid 'British Oak' furniture. Ackermann however regretted his columns were unable to 'afford space to notice adequately the merits both of the material and tasteful feeling with which the articles of Mr. Bullock's manufactory are composed'. Much of this furniture was richly inlaid to harmonise with the taste, led by the Prince Regent, for British textiles with elaborate passementerie.
Perhaps Bullock's most famous commission was that for Napoleon's exile to St. Helena in 1815. The Times, 24 October 1815, records...'It was at length specially determined by express order of the Prince Regent, that B. (Buonaparte) should be furnished in his banishment with every possible gratification and comfort.... an order was last month issued by Earl Bathurst (Secretary for War and Colonies), to one of the most tasteful and ingenious artists of the metropolis-this order comprised every species of furniture, linen, glassware, clothes, music and musical instruments... the whole work to be made up in a style of pure and simple elegance, with this only reservation that in no instance should any ornament or initial creep into the decorations, which would be likely to recal (sic) to the mind of B. the former emblematic appendages of Imperial rank. The order was to be completed within six weeks, and by the indefatigable exertions of four hundred men it has been finished in the given period, and in greater part packed up for immediate conveyance to Plymouth.
The Byng pietra dura centre table is a newly identified addition to George Bullock's oeuvre, which was first fully researched in C. Wainwright et al., George Bullock: cabinet-maker, London, 1988, p. 79. It seems highly probable that Byng commissioned further pieces from Bullock - particularly for the newly-designed Library at Wrotham circa 1811-12. Designed in the newest Grecian style - as can be seen in Jane Paris' watercolour of circa 1845 (for detail see lot 99) - this was furhished with a Regency writing-table which is also executed in oak and pollard oak and shares an almost identical ormolu border to this centre table (lot 50).
THE ORMOLU MOUNTS
The distinctive ormolu mounts are almost certainly the work of William Bullock. The brother of George Bullock, William began his career in Liverpool, opening a public museum or 'Cabinet of Curiosities' in 1800 and dealing in bronzes and other ornamental wares. By 1805, he had moved to larger premises in Church Street, advertising his 'Museum and Bronze Manufactory' and his 'New Egyptian Hall'. His advertisement boasts of a 'complete and entire new assortment of every article in Bronze Figure and Ornamental Business' as well as a variety of furniture types (Gore's 'General Advertiser'). William was the first Bullock to transfer his business to London, building a new 'Egyptian Hall' on Piccadilly designed for the 'reception, exhibition and sale, by commission, of every article connected with the Fine Arts, Antiquity and Natural History'. A view of the Roman Gallery at the Egyptian Hall, published in 1816, shows a display of furniture including a 'bronzed Griffin tripod', derived from the antique. A pair of cast-iron tripods of this model stamped 'W. Bullock PUB. 1 JUNE 1805' was supplied by George Bullock in 1814 for Hinton House, near Bath (M. Levy, 'The Roman Gallery at the Egyptian Hall, Piccadilly, and Some Tripods By William Bullock and George Bullock', Furniture History Society Journal, 1997, pp. 234-5, figs. 5-8). The above collaboration is but one indication that there was an interdependence between the enterprises of George and William, but the degree of cooperation is not fully known. The design for this tripod as well as the other stands in the view of the Roman Gallery appears in the book of designs for furniture, interiors and metalwork, entitled Tracings by Thomas Wilkinson from the designs of the late Mr. George Bullock of 1820. The rendering of the mounts and finial relate to specific drawings in The Tracings (as reproduced in George Bullock Cabinet-Maker, H. Blairman & Sons, London, Exhibition Catalogue, 1988, p. 73, fig. 27 and p. 38, fig. 11, respectively).
A MAGNIFICENT ITALIAN PIETRA DURA TABLE TOP ON A REGENCY ORMOLU-MOUNTED GILTWOOD AND ROSEWOOD BASE
The octagonal pietra dura top profusely inlaid with fruit, flowers and birds in specimen marbles and semi-precious stones (pietre dure) including jasper, lapiz lazuli, cornelion, amethyst, agate, moss agate, gilt-foil backed jasper, florspa, coral, bloodstone, various types of chalcedony and transparent quartz on a black Belgian marble (pietra di paragone) ground with moulded edge, the whole framed by a berried laurel ormolu border, supported by four chimerical griffins with scrolled wings and tails framing an acanthus carved central tapering shaft, on an octagonal plinth with lotus leaf wrapped border, the base with sunk castors
The measurements in the catalogue are incorrect and should read:
29 in. (73.7 cm.) high 52¾ in. (134 cm.) wide
28½ in. (72.4 cm.) high; 52¼ in. (132.7 cm.) wide
St. James's Square 1847 Inventory, 'LARGE DRAWING ROOM a splendid Octagon table top inlaid with parrots [sic. parrots] & c. on rose wood base supported by 4 gilt eagles'
Almost certainly commissioned by George Byng Esq. M.P. (d.1847) for his house in St. James's Square, London and by descent.