Angiolo Barbetti (d. 1873) is widely credited as being one of the leading contributors to the major mid-nineteenth century revival of wood-carving, not only in his native Tuscany, but throughout the whole of Italy. Born in Siena in 1805, Barbetti apprenticed with Giovacchino Guidi (d. 1842), considered another of the city's finest ebenisti. In 1826-7, he established a workshop on the piazza San Giovanni, Siena, employing as his apprentice Giovanni Dupré, later to become one of mid-nineteenth century Italy's most celebrated sculptors. The following year he took a further course in wood-carving and in 1830 exhibited his first works at the Istituto delle Belle Arti, Siena.
Barbetti's first significant commission dates from 1831-36, when he collaborated with Antonio Manetti (d. 1887) on an altarpiece for the Church of Tartuca, Siena. Although favourably received by the city's critics, this work did not lead to any further partnership of the two, Barbetti being highly independent and with a tendency to monopolize the larger number of the city's commissions. In November 1842, tired of the latter, Barbetti moved his workshop to Florence, establishing himself near the ponte alle Grazie, an area where new hydro-powered machinery for cutting woods was being introduced. The most important and numerous commissions from this period - most of them for ceiling cornices, doors and surrounds - came from Prince Anatole Demidoff, who at the time was having the Villa San Donato, Polverosa, remodelled and redecorated. Barbetti would return again to San Donato nearly twenty years later for work on Demidoff's orthodox chapel.
Perhaps the principal means for their participants of attracting a wealthy and enduring foreign clientele, the international exhibitions of the nineteenth century's third quarter played regular host to the work of Angiolo Barbetti. At the 1851 Great Exhibition at Crystal Palace his display included what the Official Catalogue describes as a "Grand set of ornamental furniture, in walnut, for a drawing room, consisting of a console and frame [...] a work of exquisite carving, the architecture in the style of Baldassare Peruzzi". The suite was awarded a prize medal and the piece described above was eventually purchased by the South Kensington Museum for the sum of £400 and today remains in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum. The 1861 exhibition held in Florence saw a number of English guests invited, one of whom, Lady Holford, commissioned an immense inlaid and heavily-carved display-cabinet, subsequently awarded a first prize when it was shown in London the following year. By this time joined, and later succeeded in business by his four sons, Barbetti continued with major commissions and went on to win medals in Paris in 1867 and in Vienna in 1873, the year of his death.
This fine centre-table incorporates the Arms of the Ballati Nerli, an old Sienese noble family descended from Francesco, first-born son of the Ballati family, who in the early seventeenth century married Leonora de Nerli, lady-in-waiting to Catherine de Medici, widowed duchess of Mantua and Governor of Siena. In his memoirs published in 1869, Pietrò Giusti, a contemporary and erstwhile collaborator with Barbetti, recalls how in 1837 the latter was commissioned to execute "uno specchio ed altri mobile pel marchese Nerli" (probably Girolamo Ballati Nerli), based on the drawings of the Sienese designer, Giovanni Bruni (d. 1863). In terms of stylistic details and the maturity of its execution, it is unlikely this table formed part of this commission, rather that it was supplied as part of a later order, made sometime before Nerli's death in 1859.
As Barbetti's label proudly states, his speciality was 'wood-carving'. Thus, the very different challenge of completing a pietre dure top of equal to this base would have been taken up by somebody else. From the point of view of quality and style, in this instance the most likely candidate is the Florentine mosaicista, Gaetano Bianchini. With a large and successful workshop, employing many Russian immigrants trained at the imperial factory at Peterhof, Bianchini (d. 1884) is known to have supplied profusely-inlaid tops, as here, for Barbetti's carved bases (see Christie's New York, 30 April 1992, lot 273, for a circular pietre dure top more recently attributed to Bianchini, supported on a carved base bearing Barbetti's label; and Sotheby's London, 4 November 1988, lot 181, for a rectangular top bearing Bianchini's label, on gilt-bronze mounted ebony base by Barbetti). Appropriately, the use here of rarely-seen alabastro marino, recalls inlaid table tops of the Italian Renaissance.