NEW YORK, N.Y.- The Italian term pietre dure literally meaning "hard stone" refers to the artistic cutting of semiprecious stones, such as agate, lapis lazuli, and other colorful hardstones, to fashion extravagant luxury objects, from architectural ornament and furniture to ornate display items and personal jewelry. Opening July 1 at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the landmark exhibition Art of the Royal Court: Treasures in Pietre Dure from the Palaces of Europe will feature more than 170 masterpieces in carved stone, many of them embellished with gold and silver mounts or decorated with exotic woods and other coveted materials. From the Renaissance to the early 19th century, the affluent societies of Europe were mesmerized by works in pietre dure, both as diplomatic gifts and as objects of desire. The presentation at the Metropolitan will offer the most comprehensive overview ever dedicated to this magnificent medium.
Works of art in pietre dure were cherished highlights of many of the royal treasuries that eventually evolved into Europe's most renowned museums. Art of the Royal Court will feature unique objects that have never been seen in America and have rarely left the museums and palaces to which they belong. Indeed, several examples come from private rooms in palatial settings and are seldom seen by the public. Treasures from the Medici collection, today at the Palazzo Pitti, the Galleria degli Uffizi, and the Opificio delle Pietre Dure (Florence), will be shown alongside stunning examples from the Louvre (Paris), the Victoria and Albert Museum (London), and the Imperial Habsburg collection at the Kunsthistorisches Museum and the state apartments in the Hofburg (Vienna). Also on view will be masterpieces from the Royal Collection of Her Majesty, the Queen of England, that have never before left Buckingham Palace; the Imperial Russian Lapidary Manufactories, today preserved at the State Hermitage Museum (Saint Petersburg); the presidential suite at the Quirinale Palace (Rome); and the Green Vault at the Royal Palace (Dresden).
The Metropolitan Museum's own superb holdings will be represented by more than a dozen works, including the monumental and sumptuous Farnese Table, after a design by Jacopo Barozzi da Vignola for one of the state rooms at the Farnese Palace. Crafted from various marbles, alabaster, and polychrome hardstones, this tour-de-force incorporating sculpture and decorative arts will be shown in the Museum's Italian Renaissance Gallery.
The exhibition will be arranged both geographically according to the center of production and chronologically. Historical antecedents from the ancient and the medieval world will be shown in an introductory gallery. Some of the objects in the exhibition will be displayed next to their corresponding design drawing. An actual 18th-century workbench and tools will also be on view.
Already highly developed in ancient Rome, the demanding practice of pietre dure enjoyed a spectacular revival in the Renaissance and throughout the Baroque period. Patronized principally by several princely courts in Italy mainly those in Florence, Milan, and Papal Rome pietre dure reached its first pinnacle in the 16th century due to the interest of Grand Duke Ferdinando I de' Medici of Tuscany in decorating architecture with precious and semi-precious stones. His esteem for these materials led to the foundation of the Grand Ducal workshop, the Galleria dei Lavori, founded in 1588 in Florence and still in operation today as the Opificio delle Pietre Dure. The elaborate pietre dure panels on the Metropolitan Museum's Barberini cabinet illustrating Apollo and animals from Aesop's fables were crafted in the Florentine court workshop in the early 17th century. The cabinet was made for Maffeo Barberini, who became Pope Urban VIII.
The ambition of other princely dynasties to emulate the stylish appearance of Florentine pietre dure is a testament to the great prestige and widespread fame of the stunning works produced by the legendary court workshop. Indeed, the fashion for hardstone objects and decorative panels led to the establishment of similar workshops in Prague, Augsburg, Paris, Madrid, St. Petersburg, and other artistic centers. While Italian hardstone artifacts continued to enjoy broad appeal during the 17th and 18th centuries, the remarkable inventions of the northern European workshops earned their own reputation.
On display in the exhibition will be four of the most important pietre dure landscape panels in existence, once part of the Habsburg imperial collections (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna). They were made by members of the Castrussi family, who migrated from Italy to Prague to work at the court of Emperor Rudolf II.
In some instances, stones were selected for their color or rarity, but occasionally the choice was due to the healing, mystical, or religious connotations ascribed to them. Lapis lazuli available during the Renaissance only from quarries in present- day Afghanistan was treasured both for its scarcity and for its resemblance to the sky. (The pyrite inclusions were thought of as twinkling stars.) Thus, a lapis flask such as an example made in 1583 for the Medicis after a design by Bernardo Buontalenti and embellished with gold, gilded copper and enamel mounts would have ranked as a luxury item of the highest degree (Museo degli Argenti, Florence). Chrysoprase (a light green variety of chalcedony) was believed to be effective against gout, and this certainly influenced the design of the ca. 1765 diamond-studded chrysoprase snuffbox, once owned by Frederick the Great, King of Prussia a sufferer from gout (The Gilbert Collection at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London).
Among the latest pieces in the exhibition will be a monumental malachite bowl that rests on the wings of three fantastic gilded bronze female figures. This bravura design is by Andrei Voronikhin, one of Russia's foremost architect-designers, in the years around 1800. Now in the collection of the State Hermitage Museum, it was once the crowning treasure of the collection of Count Alexander Stroganoff.