Splendid both in richness and audacity of design, these superb ormolu-mounted vases reflect an intriguing episode in the history of the French decorative arts of the second half of the 18th century. Besides the present pair, two other 18th century pairs of this rare model are known to exist: a pair sold by the Marquess of Cholmondeley, 'Works of Art from Houghton', Christie's, London, 8 December 1994, lot 56, and a pair now in The J. Paul Getty Museum, Malibu, which are illustrated in G. Wilson, 'Acquisitions made by the Department of Decorative Arts in 1983', The J. Paul Getty Museum Journal, 1984, no 9, p. 201.
PETITOT AND PARMA
The vases consist of a central core of presumably antique porphyry re-cut to fit the exuberant mounts of lions, drapery and serpents. Close examination by Christie's specialists and an external expert of the casting, assembly, chasing and gilding of these mounts has established that they are unmistakeably of French manufacture and date from the second half of the 18th Century. However, the uncompromisingly bold, neo-classical design is based on a vase pattern included in the celebrated series of designs by Ennemond-Alexandre Petitot (1727-1801), which were published by Benigo Bossi (1727-1792) in Parma in 1764. These designs were probably soon available in Paris and it is interesting to note that Jean-Claude Duplessis' 1774 probate inventory lists engravings by Petitot (J. Whitehead, The French Interior in the Eighteenth Century, Rayleigh, 1992, p. 65) and that a series of Suite de Vases was already auctioned in Paris in 1775 (G. Cirillo, Ennemond-Alexandre Petitot, Parma, 2002, p. 124).
Petitot was trained in Lyon, Paris and Rome, and became Court Architect in Parma in 1753 through the intermediary of the celebrated amateur and author Anne-Claude-Philippe, comte de Caylus (1692-1765). Parma was one of the most francophile courts of Europe, where Louis XV's eldest daughter, Madame Louise-Elisabeth, Madame Infante, reigned from 1748 until her death in 1759 with her Spanish cousin Philip of Bourbon, whom she had married in 1739. Cultural exchange between Paris and Parma was on a grand and ambitious scale and numerous important purchases of furniture and bronzes d'ameublement were made for the court at Parma, largely through their agents in Paris, Claude Bonnet, Jean-Gaspard Testard and Francisco de Llovera (A. González-Palacios, Il Patrimonio artistico del Quirinale, Gli Arredi Francesi, Milan, 1995, p. 24). The collections at Parma were also enriched by gifts from the King, such as the two superb ormolu chandeliers executed by Jacques Caffiéri circa 1751, now in the Wallace Collection. These were probably given to the Duchess during the second visit back to France from September 1753, when she left with 'une grande quantité de chariots de toutes sortes de nippes que le roi lui donne'. (P.Hughes, The Wallace Collection, Catalogue of Furniture, London, 1996, vol.III, nos.265-266, pp.1310-1320).
Petitot's dedication to the Duke of Parma in the first pages of his 'Suite de Vases' mentions that the first three plates depict vases which were placed in the Duke's garden at Parma. This would suggest that the engravings, or at least some of them, were based on items actually in existence in the Duke's collection rather than preparatory designs. Bossi's dedication on the following page 'Monsieur, La Permission que vous m'aves donne de graver cette suite de Vases dont les Originaux vous appartiennent....' could again refer to 'original' or existing vases but arguably also to the original drawings.
Plate 10 of Petitot's Suite de Vases, the design of the present vases, was perhaps one of his most favoured as it was soon incorporated in a design for a surtout-de-table executed by the Turinese court goldsmith Giovan Battista Boucheron (1742-1815) in 1776. There is no trace of this highly ambitious surtout and it is uncertain as to whether it was actually carried out or what materials were intended to be used. The design demonstrates its grandeur and scale; it was clearly intended for domestic dining-room use in a palatial interior decoration scheme. It may have been an entirely new project or incorporating precious earlier works of art in the Royal collections. In other words, Boucheron may have seen the actual vases or alternatively based his design on Petitot's Plate 10 (M. Chapman, 'A diplomatic gift from Turin', Apollo, January 1998, p. 8 and G.Beretti, et al., Gli Splendori del Bronzo, Turin, 2003, nos. 26-27).
The enduring success of Petitot's series from 1764 into the early 19th Century is further demonstrated by a Florentine scagliola table top executed by Carlo Paoletto in 1808. James Methuen-Campbell has very kindly pointed out that this top, which is inset into a table at Corsham Court, Wiltshire, depicts numerous vases from the Suite de Vases, including a variant of Plate 10 but also more fantastical examples such as Plate 7, a slender vase with grasshopper handles, and Plate 11, a low tazza with cockerels seated on the rim. The vases are here depicted together with a sphinx, coral and shells, suitable items for a Kunstkammer or connoisseur's cabinet.
PORPHYRY IN FRANCE
Porphyry was the precious marble quarried by the Romans in Egypt until approximately the 5th Century AD (see further under 'The porphyry bowls'). It has since been prized for its hardness but particularly its noble or 'Imperial' purple colour favoured by Royalty as a symbol of regal or Imperial might. An intriguing and tantalisingly early example of Antique porphyry collected in France is the so-called Aigle de Suger, the slender Roman vase fitted with silver-gilt mounts before 1147, which reputedly held the ashes of Abbé Suger, abbot of St. Denis between 1122 and 1151. With its precious Medieval mounts this vase is the earliest known example of mounted porphyry in France and demonstrates that centuries prior to the greater influx of porphyry from Italy, it had already achieved its exalted status in France and was fitted with the most costly and beautifully-chased mounts (P. Malgouyres, Porphyre, Paris, 2003, no. 17, pp. 84-86).
Louis XIV's immense collection of porphyry at Versailles was largely acquired in Rome, where throughout the 17th Century most objects of re-shaped Ancient porphyry were produced, the majority created from recently excavated columns. Unrivalled both in richness and diversity, his collection consisted mainly of various pairs of monumental vases and busts of Emperors, some of which were acquired from the collections of the cardinals Richelieu and Mazarin (ibid., pp 106-112).
Towards the mid-18th Century, various large 17th Century porphyry vases were fitted with fashionable Louis XV ormolu mounts. One of the earliest examples of ormolu-mounted porphyry is the splendid gadrooned vase from the collection of the marquis de Marigny, which was subsequently acquired for the Crown in 1779. The berried foliate mounts of circa 1745-'60 were primarily placed to the rims, finial and handles, leaving the bold gadrooning to the lid and main body undisturbed (ibid., p. 158, no. 57). Applying such mounts on to a monumental and boldly-carved earlier vessel of porphyry was not only technically complicated but also a risky and highly costly undertaking and as a result very few of these are known to exist.
Soon after, from circa 1765 to the end of the 18th Century, smaller vessels were specifically cut into smooth unadorned classical forms with more emphasis on the intricacy of the mounts. The present vases are superb examples of this phase, whereby the precious porphyry core was used as background to show the sculptural and beautifully-chased ormolu mounts. Some of these porphyry vessels were now also being made of French porphyry quarried near Belfort in Lorraine, where in 1768 a vein of porphyry was discovered on land belonging to the duc d'Aumont's niece, the duchesse de Mazarin (ibid., p. 160).
THE DEMIDOFF PROVENANCE
When the owner of the present vases purchased them in Greece, a Demidoff provenance was provided but no documentary confirmation of this provenance has currently been located. The richness and quality of the vases do entirely fit within the collection tastes of the Demidoffs as testified by the splendid works of art in their collections. They were reputedly acquired from a member of the this family in Greece, possibly Elim Demidoff, 3rd Prince of San Donato (1868-1943), Russian Minister to Greece in 1912-17, but more probably his widow Sophia (1870-1953), who both died in Athens. Elim's great-grandfather Count Nicholas Demidoff (1773-1828) had amassed a superb collection of pictures, silver, furniture and works of art at the hôtel de Montholon and subsequently hôtel de Montesson in Paris and the Villa San Donato near Florence.
On the death of Nicholas Demidoff in 1828 his collection was inherited by his sons Paul (b.1798) and Anatole (b.1813). The latter inherited the Italian estates and was created Prince of San Donato, a title he received from Grand Duke Leopold II of Tuscany in 1837 and secured for his heirs. He extended the estate and made substantial additions to the collection. His sales in Paris in 1868, 1868 and 1870, and in Florence in 1880, are among the greatest landmark sales of the 19th Century. However, the present vases were possibly part of Paul's inheritance from his father, which then passed on to his son, also named Paul, 2nd Prince of San Donato (d.1885), and on his death was divided among his surviving children Elim, Aurore and Nikita.
Technical comparisons between the Houghton, Getty and present vases
The three pairs of vases of this model have an identical construction of a central porphyry bowl embellished with the following primary mounts cast from the same master models (chef modèle): square panelled rectangular bases; entwined serpents which form a stem; stiff-leaf cups used as a base for the porphyry bowl; drapery mounts wrapped around the bowl and lion handles which cover the drapery on two sides. However, examination of the three pairs has revealed small differences between the various parts, primarily evident in the density and the chasing, which reflect a marked development in the production of French bronzes in the second half of the 18th Century. This leads to a conclusion that the Houghton vases date to around 1765, whereas the present and Getty pair were executed shortly after each other in the two last decades of the 18th century: the present vases circa 1780 and the Getty pair probably shortly after.
THE CAST AND CHASING
One of the main characteristics of this evolution can be seen in the increased density of the casting towards the end of the 18th century, which is evident on the present vases. This allowed for increasingly secure assembly points between the parts and consequently more strength and stability. The nature of the chasing also changes in these years and evolves from naturalistic, soft and lively 'Louis XV' chasing to more precise, regular and small-scale 'Louis XVI' chasing on the present vases. One consistent factor is the mercury gilding, which remains unchanged throughout these years and is very similar on all pairs.
During the Empire period in the early 19th century new chasing styles were developed which differ fundamentally from the previous era. 'Empire' chasing is characterised by a completely mat, regular and even finish called mat sablé, which could be enhanced at gilding stage by the application of salts to the object and subsequent heating. The individual grains or punch marks of this extremely fine Empire chasing are virtually not distinguishable, only the overall effect being apparent. Tools for chasing were now being used very differently which achieved this finish so characteristic for the Empire period.
None of these early 19th Century chasing techniques are apparent on any parts of the three pairs of vases as they were all conceived before these new 'Empire' chasing techniques were developed.
The square bases with recessed panels to all sides are virtually identical on all pairs of vases. The only difference between them is the chasing which is open and granular on the Houghton and more small-scale and finished on the present vases, which is the result of two layers of superimposed chasing. On the Getty vases the chasing has a slightly more geometric pattern which was produced in one layer.
The bases of the present vases have slightly different positions of the fixing holes which correspond to the angles of the axis's drilled in the porphyry bowls. On one of the bases one can see a trace of a first attempt of a perforation next to the actual hole which was made when they came to fit everything together but realised that they did not line up. On one of the Houghton vases a similar modification to the base can be seen.
The bases are surmounted by entwined serpents consisting of two pieces. This is similar on all pairs of vases, although the serpents on the present vases have four assembly points to the stiff-leaf cup, as opposed to only two on the Houghton pair. The increase of assembly points, which was undoubtedly an intended improvement, has made these latter vases more solidly aligned. The chasing on the serpent mount is similar on all pairs; however, the bellies of the snakes on the present and the Getty vases are chased with lines while those on the Houghton vase are not chased in this manner.
THE STIFF-LEAF CUPS
The serpent mount is surmounted by a dished stiff-leaf cup which forms the base of the porphyry bowl. On the present vases one of the cups was made of four parts afterwards soldered together whereas the other was made in one piece. The cups are again identical but the present vases have small hairline cracks in the middle area around the hole which is covered by the serpent mount. This craquelure, visible when dismantled, is almost certainly the result of shaping the cup to fit the porphyry bowl, which was probably slightly smaller than the Houghton vases. As the stiff leaf cups were cast from the same master model and therefore of identical dimensions, those made for the present vases needed to be shaped slightly to fit the bowls. This shaping craquelure did not need correcting as it was going to be hidden beneath the serpent mount.
THE DRAPERY AND LIONS
The porphyry bowls are wrapped in drapery, which on all pairs of vases consists of two large and two small sections. These have the same chasing typical for this kind of mount which consists of small lines or scratches. This chasing of lines was only applied to the recessed areas in the shadowed folds of the drapery, creating more depth and expressivity. The drapery is flanked and secured by lions to either side, which function as handles. The lions were again cast from the same master model but the legs are notably denser on the present vases. This is particularly visible to the reverse of the lions, where one can look deep into the extremities of the lighter Houghton lions. On the present vases, by contrast, the legs are filled in. The assembly screws in the latter are in the solid legs whereas in the former small sections were added in the hollow crevices to allow them to be affixed. Differences in chasing between the three pairs are also apparent to the lions. On the Houghton lions the chasing contrasts with the ring which is brilliantly burnished. On the present and Getty vases the chasing of the lion skin is the same as on the ring, creating a more uniform effect throughout.
THE PORPHYRY BOWLS
The porphyry bowls themselves, which form the core of the vases, are similarly cut on all pairs. Earlier antique vessels may have been used and re-cut, possibly a column cut in several sections. These sections were subsequently core-drilled to create circular and hollow vessels. On the Houghton vases the bottoms of the bowls are filled with scagliola imitating porphyry, on the Getty vases with a veined reddish marble. This suggests that an earlier item with a flat base - or a sliced section of a tall column - was used, to which a rounded section was added at the bottom to fit the mounts. The bowls of the present vases are made of two pieces of porphyry joined together, and therefore most probably Antique (Egyptian) porphyry.
All the technical and artistic aspects of the present vases, including the cast, the chasing, the assembly and the gilding, which have been verified and discussed above, are typical for the production of ormolu-mounted objects made in Paris in the second half of the 18th Century.
We are grateful to Fernando Moreira for his help in preparing the technical aspects of this catalogue entry.