A.M. Giusti, Pietre Dure: Hardstone in Furniture and Decorations, London, 1992, pp. 1-33.
A. González-Palacios, Las Colecciones Reales Españolas de Mosaicos y Piedras Duras, Madrid, 2001, pp. 50, 56-58 and 65-66.
A. González-Palacios, Il Gusto dei Principi, vol. II, Milan, p. 348, fig. 683.
The composition of this remarkable table-top with its exquisite choice of coloured marbles and hard stones set around a striking oval of alabastro a tartaruga, so-called because of its lustrous tortoiseshell-like effect, makes this a prime example of late 16th and early 17th century Roman commesso work.
The art of commesso was a mosaic technique of inlaying various irregular sections of rare coloured marbles and semi-precious stones to form a design. Its origins lie with the mosaic-work of ancient Rome known as opus sectile, a tradition which survived throughout the Middle Ages and was revived in the 16th century, when Roman commesso work was particularly associated with architects and designers such as Jacopo Vignola (1507 - 73), who is now thought to have provided the designs for the celebrated table supplied to Alessandro Farnese circa 1565, now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and Giovanni Antonio Dosio (1533 - 1609). Their work attracted the interest of wealthy, sophisticated patrons such as Cardinal Giovanni Ricci of Montepulciano and in particular Cosimo I Medici, whose fascination for the art of inlaying marbles led to the foundation of the celebrated Medici workshop by his son Ferdinando. In 1565 the Bishop of Viterbo, Sebastiano Gualterio, owned three inlaid marble tables, with 'centres of alabaster, surround of brocatello, white and black, greens, and other rare stones', which, although earlier, must have been broadly similar to the table top offered here (A.M. Giusti, Pietre Dure: Hardstone in Furniture and Decorations, London, 1992, p. 12).
The earliest versions of these table tops, produced in Rome in the middle of the 16th Century, would usually consist of a plain rectangular panel of a rare ancient stone, usually a form of alabaster, within relatively plain geometric borders. Interestingly, a 1568 inventory of the Palazzo Farnese refers to table tops solely by recording them as panels of rare marbles, implying that the display of the central panel of a single stone was their primary purpose. Certain design features of the borders of the Farnese table can clearly be seen in the top offered here, notably the peltae-shields and the distinctive cartouches enclosing oval panels, which are virtually identical (Giusti, op. cit., p. 10).
Later in the century, while retaining the basic scheme of a larger central panel and geometric borders, the designs of Roman table tops became more elaborate, with more naturalistic elements such as flowers and trailing foliage being introduced.
The table top offered here, with its distinctive beaded foliate arabesque framing the central oval, belongs to a distinct group of table tops, all produced at the end of the 16th century and the beginning of the 17th century and conceivably from the same Roman workshop, that include:
- one in the J. Paul Getty Museum, Malibu, previously in the collection of Alfred de Rothschild, Halton, Buckinghamshire, and by descent to Edmond de Rothschild, Exbury, Hampshire (C. Bremer-David, Decorative Arts: An Illustrated Summary Catalogue of the Collections, Malibu, 1993, p. 189, cat. 320)
- one in the Villa Borghese, Rome (Giusti, op. cit., p. 30)
- one in the Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, first inventoried in the Royal Spanish collection in 1636 (A. González-Palacios, Las Colecciones Reales Españolas de Mosaicos y Piedras Duras, Madrid, 2001, p. 65, cat. 3)
- one in the Hermitage Museum (E. Efimova, West European Mosaic in the collection of the Hermitage, St. Petersburg, 1968, figs. 6 and 7)
While a related table top was sold at Christie's, New York, 21 October 2004, lot 1224 ($455,500 with premium) and another at Sotheby's, London, 7 December 2005, lot 123 (£254,400 with premium).
Slightly later variants of this group employ even richer design schemes, adding devices such as military trophies (as with an example in the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga, Lisbon, illustrated in González-Palacios, op. cit., p. 53), or through employing three main panels in the centre and placing the arabesque foliage in the borders rather than in the main field, as with examples in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; the Palazzo Ducale, Mantua (Giusti, op. cit., p. 19, pl. 10 and p. 30, fig. 15) and at Charlecote Park, Warwickshire (formerly in the Palazzo Borghese and subsequently in the collection of the celebrated English antiquarian William Beckford, illustrated in González-Palacios, Op. cit., p. 73).