The Borghese Service
Tradition has held that the Borghese service was a gift from Napoleon to his sister Pauline Bonaparte on the occasion of her marriage to Prince Camillo Borghese on 6 November 1803. However the assumption that the service was a gift for this wedding is open to question as many of the most significant pieces, including the following three lots, are signed by Biennais 'Oréfevre de S. Mtes l'Imperiales et Royales a Paris' which means that they must post-date 1805 when Napoleon was styled King of Italy. In addition, many of the pieces are marked with Paris hallmarks in use between 1809 and 1819. The service, comprising roughly 500 silver-gilt objects, was supplied by Martin-Guillaume Biennais, with other specialist makers contributing almost 1,000 pieces of table silver. According to the auction catalogue of the service when it was sold in 1934, some pieces were made by Jean-Baptiste-Claude Odiot. In the 1820s various Florentine and Roman silversmiths contributed further additions made after the original designs.
The designs of Charles Percier (1764-1838) and Pierre-François-Léonard Fontaine (1762-1853) are evidently the stylisic source of the Borghese service. Percier and Fontaine probably met in 1779 when studying architecture in Paris. It was however their stay in Rome for several years after 1786 that was the basis of their future success. Their French brand of neo-classicism has been described as 'a combination of severity and pomp' involving a more strictly archaeological approach than had previously been the case, drawing on a mixture of ancient styles: Greek, Imperial Roman, and, following Napoleon's campaigns of 1798-1799, Egyptian motifs as well.
Winning the patronage of Empress Josephine in 1799, Percier and Fontaine became the official Imperial architects, but their enormous influence was above all the result of the publication after 1799 of numerous design books, culminating in the Recueil de décorations intérieures. In total the books comprised seventy-two plates which were issued in sets of six from 1801, and were published in full in 1812, including designs for silver and furniture, individual decorative elements, and of course views of interiors. As the authors say in their preface, '... furnishings are too closely linked to interior decoration for the architect to remain indifferent tot hem.'
The work of Percier and Fontaine was perhaps best interpreted in the world of silver by the firm of Martin-Guillaume Biennais. All the pieces in the Borghese service were certainly influenced by their style, and some pieces, such as the following two lots, show direct use of their designs. Biennais (1764-1843) started his career in Paris around the time of the revolution as a marchand-ébéniste specialising in nécessaires-de-voyage, intricately fitted boxes to hold travelling services. With the outbreak of war, such services were in demand by persons of the highest rank, and the large Bonaparte family soon became his patrons. Sometime around 1800, Biennais seems to have decided to broaden his output by supplying both furniture and silver, and by 1805 had been appointed silversmith to their Imperial Majesties. Clare le Corbeiller observes 'Basically an entrepeneur employing, it is said, over six hundred workmen, Biennias supplied Napoleon not only with table services but with coronation regalia, swords and sword mounts, shoe buckles, snuff boxes, tables cabinets, and, of course, nécessaires'. In view of his background and this heterogeneous activity, the consistant refinement and elegance of his work in silver is remarkable.
Pauline Bonaparte was born in 1780 in Ajaccio, Corsica, the second of Napoleon's sisters and considered the most beautiful. In 1797 she married one of her brother's staff officers, General C-V-E Leclerc, and went with him to Santo Domingo. Following his early death from yellow fever, she returned to Paris, met and married Prince Borghese and moved with him to Rome. In 1804, Borghese received the title of a French Prince, and in the following years accompanied the Emperor in the Austrian and Prussian campaigns. Nonetheless, his marriage with Pauline was an unhappy one and they separated fairly quickly. Following the Treaty of Tilsit he was made Governor of Piedmont. He was paid the huge sum of one million francs which, added to his own fortune, allowed him to live in the grandest style. In the meantime his wife spent most of her time in Paris and with the fall of Napoleon in 1815 she tried to gain permission to join him in exile in Saint Helena. When this was denied she returned to Rome and took up residence in the Borghese Palace. She did however join her husband in Florence shortly before her death in 1825.
It has been suggested that Pauline Borghese was responsible for many of the later additions to the service, but is is at least as likely that Prince Borghese himself ordered the pieces. It is certainly possible that that service was split up between the Roman and Florentine residences and that both the Prince and Pauline added to it. The service remained at the Borghese Palace in Rome until it was sold in the auction of the Palace contents in 1892. The service was listed in its entirety in the auction catalogue entitled 'Catalogue des objets d'art et d'ameublement. Le grand appartement au premier étage du palais du Prince Borghese à Rome.' and was offered as a single lot.
The service appears to have subsequently changed hands at least three times before becoming part of the collection of the American, Edith Rockefeller McCormick, who exhibited the entire service from 1924-1932 at the Chicago Art Institute. On her death in 1934, the service was sold by the American Art Association/Anderson Galleries in New York where it was split into nearly 150 lots. Pieces from the service are now widely scattered, with objects in many private collections and museums.
A. Phillips and J. Sloane, Antiquity Revisited English and French Silver-Gilt from the Collection, London, 1997.