The English taste for pietre dure

Section of the pietre dure table in the Library at Charlecote Park, purchased by George Lucy from dealer Thomas Emmerson in 1824. Inv. no. 532986. ©National Trust Images/Derrick E. Witty

Section of the pietre dure table in the Library at Charlecote Park, purchased by George Lucy from dealer Thomas Emmerson in 1824. Inv. no. 532986. ©National Trust Images/Derrick E. Witty

The English taste for Italian pietre dure, or hard stone mosaic work, goes way back – that much is clear from a quick perusal of the new book  Roman Splendour, English Arcadia, about the Sixtus cabinet at Stourhead.

Section of a pietre dure table-top made in Rome in about 1580, at Powis Castle, probably acquired by George Herbert, 2nd Earl of Powis, in the 1770s or 1780s. Inv. no. 1181054. ©National Trust Images/John Hammond

Section of a pietre dure table-top made in Rome in about 1580, at Powis Castle, probably acquired by George Herbert, 2nd Earl of Powis, in the 1770s or 1780s. Inv. no. 1181054. ©National Trust Images/John Hammond

One of the earliest examples is the so-called Great Pavement in Westminster Abbey, which was created in 1269 by the Roman craftsman Petrus Oderisius or Odericus. But many English palaces and country houses subsequently also acquired tables, cabinets and caskets incorporating pietre dure.

Cabinet mounted with pietre dure panels, made in Florence in about 1650, at Chirk Castle. Inv. no. 1170817. ©National Trust Images/John Hammond

Cabinet mounted with pietre dure panels, made in Florence in about 1650, at Chirk Castle. Inv. no. 1170817. ©National Trust Images/John Hammond

At Chirk Castle there is an ebony cabinet mounted with Florentine pietre dure plaques dating to about 1650, probably picked up by Sir Thomas Myddelton during his Grand Tour in the early 1670s. The central panel shows the mythical Orpheus, and the other panels show various animals, whom Orpheus famously charmed with his music.

The scagliola chimneypiece in the Queen's Closet at Ham House. ©National Trust Images/John Hammond

The scagliola chimneypiece in the Queen’s Closet at Ham House. ©National Trust Images/John Hammond

At Ham House there is a chimneypiece made of scagliola or imitation marble which appears to be an expression of the same taste for Italian marble. It was made by the Roman craftsman Baldessare Artima for the Duke of Lauderdale in about 1673.

Detail from one of a pair of scagliola table-tops with landscapes and flowers, made by Don Petro Belloni in 1754, at Uppark. Inv. no. 137667 ©National Trust Images/Angelo Hornak

Detail from one of a pair of scagliola table-tops with landscapes and flowers, made by Don Petro Belloni in 1754, at Uppark. Inv. no. 137667 ©National Trust Images/Angelo Hornak

A scagliola table top at Uppark closely follows the style of many pietre dure panels in having floral motifs and a landscape cartouche against a black background. It was made by Don Petro Belloni near Florence for Sir Matthew Fetherstonhaugh in 1754.

English chinoiserie cabinet incorporating oriental lacquer, Florentine pietre dure and ivory medallions, made in about 1754, in the Little Parlour at Uppark. Inv. no. 137638. ©National Trust Images/Nadia Mackenzie

English chinoiserie cabinet incorporating oriental lacquer, Florentine pietre dure and ivory medallions, made in about 1754, in the Little Parlour at Uppark. Inv. no. 137638. ©National Trust Images/Nadia Mackenzie

The same Sir Matthew Fetherstonhaugh also purchased several Florentine pietre dure plaques which he then had inserted, together with ivory medallions and oriental lacquer panels, into a chinoiserie cabinet possibly made by William Hallett in about 1754. It was common for the Chinese style to be combined with the Gothic, but a mixture of chinoiserie and Grand Tour taste in one piece of furniture is much rarer.

Ebony cabinet mounted with lapis lazuli, made in Rome in about 1640, at Belton House. Inv. no. 435082. ©National Trust Images/Dennis Gilbert

Ebony cabinet mounted with lapis lazuli, made in Rome in about 1640, at Belton House. Inv. no. 435082. ©National Trust Images/Dennis Gilbert

An architecturally-shaped cabinet inlaid with lapis lazuli, made in Rome in about 1640, survives at Belton House. It may have been acquired Sir John Brownlow, later Lord Tyrconnell, during his Grand Tour in 1711.

Ebony cabinet mounted in gilt bronze and pietre dure, made in Rome in about 1610, at West Wycombe Park. ©National Trust Images/John Hammond

Ebony cabinet mounted in gilt bronze and pietre dure, made in Rome in about 1610, at West Wycombe Park. ©National Trust Images/John Hammond

The Roman cabinet at West Wycombe Park, made in about 1610 and again with architectural features, was probably purchased by Sir Francis Dashwood, later Lord le Despencer, when he visited Rome in 1740.

Ebony casket with gilt bronze mounts incorporating hard stone fruits and with panels of pietre dure, made in Florence, at The Vyne. Inv. no. 718777. ©National Trust Images/James Mortimer

Ebony casket with gilt bronze mounts incorporating hard stone fruits and with panels of pietre dure, made in Florence, at The Vyne. Inv. no. 718777. ©National Trust Images/James Mortimer

Pietre dure were also used for the decoration of smaller casket-like cabinets, such as the one at The Vyne acquired by John Chute in Florence in the 1740s.

Section of a pietre dure table top, made in Rome in about 1580, said to have been owned by the Borghese family and purchased by George Lucy at the Beckford sale in 1823, in the Great Hall at Charlecote Park. Inv. no. 532954. ©National Trust Images/Derrick E. Witty

Section of a pietre dure table top, made in Rome in about 1580, said to have been owned by the Borghese family and purchased by George Lucy at the Beckford sale in 1823, in the Great Hall at Charlecote Park. Inv. no. 532954. ©National Trust Images/Derrick E. Witty

The English interest in pietre dure persisted in the nineteenth century, the wealthy aesthete William Beckford being a notable collector. A number of pieces now at Charlecote Park were purchased by George Lucy at the sale of Beckford’s collection in 1823.

And these are just some of the pietre dure objects in the care of the National Trust. The book mentions many more examples of this English taste – including the splendid so-called Badminton cabinet, now in Liechtenstein.

5 Responses to “The English taste for pietre dure”

  1. Andrew Says:

    Ah, “pietre dura” or “pietra dura”. Discuss!

  2. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Good question! I used to assume it was ‘pietra dura’, but here I have followed the authors’ usage. I assume they have used the plural (pietre dure) rather than the singular (pietra dura) because each piece contains a number of different stones.

  3. Kate Hay Says:

    I think ‘pietre dure’ is used as a shortened version of the Italian term ‘commesso di pietre dure’ (hardstone mosaic). I’m not sure that ‘pietra dura’ is accurate, but it’s often used as an alternative. Another point: ‘pietre dure’ implies an Italian origin, and can become confusing when it’s used for marble mosaics made in other countries – in fact the English and Maltese makers used the term ‘marble mosaic’ for their own products in the nineteenth century. Thanks for these wonderful images.

  4. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Thank you very much, Kate. Indeed it is important to note that this is strictly speaking an Italian type of mosaic. And the authors of the book make the case for the rehabilitation of Roman pietre dure, traditionally overlooked in favour of Florentine pietre dure.

  5. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    My colleague Christopher Rowell corroborates the above by saying that pietre dure is the Italian usage, and therefore preferable.

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