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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.