This magnificent marquetry table top, sumptuously inlaid in richly
figured kingwood with ivory and mother-of-pearl, is a masterpiece of the picturesque Turin style developed by Pietro Piffetti under the
direction of the court architect, Filippo Juvarra, executed principally for the royal houses of Savoia.
PIETRO PIFFETTI (1700-1777)
Piffetti was perhaps the greatest Italian cabinet-maker of the 18th century and certainly one of the most extraordinary virtuosi of the rococo period. His work is characterized by an exhilarating fluidity of line in combination with an unparalleled technical brilliance and lavish use of exotic materials such as mother-of-pearl, tortoiseshell and ivory. No other cabinet-maker of the period combines these lustrous materials with the confidence and sheer bravado of Piffetti, incorporated within rococo forms of quite dizzying movement.
Much of his work was executed for the royal court of Turin, for whom he worked as ebanista reale from 1731 until the end of his life, often in collaboration with the royal architects Filippo Juvarra (1678-1736) and Benedetto Alfieri (1699-1767). Carlo Emmanuele's father Vittorio Amedeo II (1666-1732) had acquired through clever diplomacy the kingdom of Sicily when Duke of Savoia at the treaty of Utrecht in 1713, which he subsequently exchanged for the kingdom of Sardinia in 1720. He made Turin a grand showcase for his newly acquired realm and commissioned Filippo Juvarra to build a magnificent series of churches and palaces including the Palazzo Madama and the Palazzina di Stupinigi. Many of these were subsequently furnished by Piffetti in a dazzling series of works executed for king Carlo Emmanuele III and his eldest son the duke of Savoia, later Vittorio Amedeo III, and other members of the royal family. Although little is known of Piffetti's early training, it is likely that he came from a family of cabinet-makers, as his grandfather was recorded in 1691 as a maestro di bosco. His first recorded work is a pair of tables supplied in 1731 to the Marchese d'Ormea, Prime Minister to Carlo Emmanuele III, King of Savoia, who had ascended to the throne in 1730. It was through the recommendation of the Marchese that Piffetti was appointed ebanista reale shortly thereafter on 13 July 1731 for an annual salary of 500 livres. His first recorded commission was for a spectacular pair of cabinets embellished with gilt-bronze mounts by Francesco Ladatte, supplied 1731-1733 for the nuovo appartamento of Queen Polissena in the Palazzo Reale (Ferraris op. cit., cat.1). Their superb quality and confident design demonstrates that Piffetti was already a supremely accomplished craftsman by this date.
The scalloped and cupid-bow top of rose-red 'legno violetto' inlaid with pearl-enriched ivory displays a flower-wreathed vignette and commemorates 'love's triumph'. Within a cartouched medallion beribboned with Roman foliate and glory-rayed in parquetry, the sporting boys of antiquity are depicted celebrating the rites of love at the Feast of the Nature deity Venus. One plays the Pan pipes, while his companions dance and play with a see-saw. Oyster-shell parquetry, colourful pearl-shell flowers and a marbled 'turtle-shell' medallion all serve to recall the Element of Water and the triumphal 'shell' chariot of the sea-borne deity, whose history is recounted in Ovid's 'Metamorphoses' or 'Loves of the Gods'. Within a pearled and jewelled moulded border, the top is wreathed by a golden ribbon and inlaid with Venus's sacred roses amongst the arabesque garlands tied at the centres and spandrels.
RELATED EXAMPLES IN PIFFETTI'S OEUVRE
Piffetti frequently employed pictorial engravings in ivory as a central focus within the profusion of more organic floral and rocaille ornament, for instance on a pair of commodes in the Palazzo Quirinale, Rome (Ferraris op. cit., cat. 35) and on two of his celebrated tours de force, a bureau cabinet now in the Fondazione Accorsi, Turin and another in the Palazzo Quirinale, Rome (Ferraris op. cit., cats. 33 and 34). The engraved medallion on the Thyssen table derives from a drawing by the French painter Jacques Stella, subsequently engraved by his niece Claudine Bouzonnet Stella in her 'Les Jeux et Plaisirs de l'Enfance inventez par Jacques Stella', published in 1657. Other Stella engravings feature on a pair of dressing-tables attributed to Piffetti's workshops in the James A. de Rothschild Collection, Waddesdon Manor (Ferraris op. cit., cat. 117 and cat. 118). A related table-top features on a chest-of-drawers in the Palazzina di Stupinigi, Turin while its inlay relates closely to that of a centre-table now in the Fondazione Accorsi (Ferraris op cit., cat. 10 and cat. 51).
The possibility that Piffetti also retailed his table tops to wealthy private clients is indicated by a pair of table-tops of this shape, but with simpler inlay, now in the possession of the Marquess of Zetland, which were likely to have accompanied Thomas Dundas, later 1st Baron Dundas, on his return from Turin in 1763 (see T. Rodrigues et al., Treasures of the North, Christie's Exhibition, London, 2000, cat. 104).
The Piedmontese base is richly carved with shell trophies and with flowered, antique-fretted and acanthus-wrapped ribbons. These are festooned from the Ionic wave-scrolled and scalloped volutes of its richly moulded legs, whose taper-hermed trusses display turbaned Moor heads emblematic of the Continent of Africa.
The carver of the base certainly had a keen appreciation of the Turin master's work as it echoes certain elements of his work. The lambrequined shells of the frieze and stretcher recur throughout his career, for instance on an altar in the Palazzo Reale, Turin, and a prie dieu in the Palazzina di Stupinigi (Ferraris op. cit., cat. 18 and cat. 20). The use of figural masks as a heading for legs is also a recurrent motif, either in gilt-bronze, seen on a side table closely related to the Thyssen example, previously with Pietro Accorsi, Turin (Ferraris op. cit., cat. 50), or more rarely in carved wood, for instance on a pair of consoles originally supplied for the Gabinetto della libreria in the Villa della regina near Turin, now in the Palazzo Quirinale, Rome (Ferraris op. cit., cat. 30).