day 3 of 5: travelling to Europe in the 18th century (Rome – Decorative Art)

image credit: Badminton Cabinet: copyright © 2013 Fürstliche Sammlungen Art Service GmbH & Co. OG / The Princely Collections of Lichtenstein

Yesterday our Grand Tour brought us to Rome after a stop in Paris, and as everyone knows, one day in Rome is simply not enough, so while yesterday we looked at paintings, today we turn to the decorative arts and furniture that the Grand Tourists took away from the Eternal City.

Micro mosaics are small pieces of glass or stone that are used to create images.  First used by the ancient Romans (who covered their floors and walls in incredible mosaics as can be seen in places like Pompeii), micro mosaics returned as a decorative element during the Renaissance with the creation of the Vatican Mosaic Studios in 1576 which furnished the new Basilica of St. Peter’s with images.

image credit: Christie’s

You see with all those candles burning in Roman churches, the smoke was a disaster for the painted images leading inventive designers to make images of the saints in micro mosaic rather than wood or canvas.  Soon the Vatican Studios were creating all sorts of micro mosaic tchotchkes for the tourist market.  Images naturally included religious scenes, but also vistas of the Roman churches and monuments, narrative genre scenes as well as depictions of plants and animals.  Varying in size, these could be mounted into furniture, snuffboxes or jewelry.

image credit: Christie’s

Of the most copied of images in micro mosaic is that of Pliny’s doves which appears in every size imaginable.  The original had been discovered on the floor of the Villa Hadrian in 1737 and sold to Pope Clement XIII.  It’s still on view today in the Capitoline Museum in Rome.

image credit: Christie’s

Small micro mosaic panels like the one above were of the perfect subject and size to be sent home to London as the perfect memento.  The detail is amazing … especially when you remember these are not paintings but tiny miniscule pieces of stone, which are graded and used by artists to show even the slightest variations in tones and shades.

image credit: Pietra Dura tabletop (detail), Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Cabinets and furniture could also be found set with vibrant specimens of stone in a technique called pietra dura and like the micro mosaics, all sorts of things were produced using this technique.  Perhaps the best example of both technique and Grand Tour memento was that of the Badminton Cabinet (main image), ordered in Florence by the 19 year old Duke of Beaufort.  It allegedly took 30 artisans and 6 years to build.  In 2004, it sold at Christie’s for £19 million and its one of my highlights as I had the pleasure to be involved in its consignment for auction. But don’t get disheartened.  Smaller cabinets occasionally appear at auction at much pocket friendlier prices.

richard rabel
principal
richard rabel: interiors + art
interior design and art advising
new york city

Check out the first part of the Grand Tour – Paris and Rome (Fine Art)and tomorrow and Friday as we move along to Naples and Venice for the rest of the week.