This magnificent cabinet, with its incredible profusion of pietra dura and pietra paesina panels, with their remarkably life-like depictions of birds, flowers and Florentine landscapes, spectacularly demonstrates the particular fascination German and Central European princely rulers of the 17th century had for pietre dure.
Enlightened connoisseurs regarded stonecutting as one of the greatest manifestations of ancient Roman art, and its revival was a key tenet of the Renaissance. In 1588 Ferdinando de’ Medici founded the Grand Ducal Workshops in Florence, and the fame of their exquisite creations soon spread throughout Europe.
The taste for pietre dure in Germany was promoted by innovative merchants such as Philipp Hainhofer of Augsburg (1578-1647), who developed a special type of cabinet which contained a precious collection of both naturalia (a variety of natural curiosities such as corals, shells and gemstones) and arteficia (including works of art and mechanical instruments), which is discussed in M. Riccardi-Cubitt, The Art of the Cabinet, London, 1992, pp. 51-53. Besides the display of wealth and luxury, these cabinets had a deeper symbolic significance. In the form of a miniature Kunstkammer, they were also intended to represent the microcosm and reflect on its relationship with the universe, to stimulate intellectual curiosity and broaden scientific knowledge (R. Baarsen, 17th Century Cabinets, Zwolle, 2000, p. 12). The art of illusionistic inlay in hardstones, perfected by the craftsmen of the Grand Ducal workshops of Florence, whereby natural materials are used to create a trompe l’oeil depiction of the natural world, perfectly encapsulates this combination of naturalia and arteficia which so delighted the princely rulers of Europe.
RELATED GERMAN CABINETS INCORPORATING PIETRE DURE
Three celebrated Kunstkammern commissioned by Hainhofer were executed in the renowned workshop of Ulrich Baumgartner (1580-1652) and his son Melchior (1621-1696). These are the Pommerische Kunstschrank, delivered in 1617 to Duke Philip of Pomerania (now destroyed), the Stipo d'Alemagna, presented in 1628 by Archduke Leopold of Austria to Grand Duke Ferdinand II of Tuscany, now in the Pitti Palace, and a cabinet given to King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden by the City of Augsburg in 1632, now in Uppsala University (D. Alfter, Die Geschichte des Augsburger Kabinettschranks, Augsburg, 1985, pp. 42-57, figs. 33-42).
Pietra dura panels were acquired either directly from Florence by agents such as Hainhofer, or were traded at luxury fairs in centers such as Frankfurt or Leipzig, and would often then be incorporated into tables or cabinets made by German craftsmen. Augsburg, with its famous tradition of skilled craftsmen in precious metals and sculpture, became a particular center for this production, and the princely rulers of Bavaria were notably enamored by pietre dure; see for instance a pair of cabinets and a table of circa 1680-85 by Johann Georg Esser in the Residenz, Munich, which incorporate pictorial Florentine pietra dura plaques (see B. Langer, Die Möbel der Residenz München: Die Deutschen Möbel, Munich, 1996, vol. II, pp. 82-94).
A group of Augsburg ivory cabinets attributed to Melchior Baumgartner, incorporating pietra dura panels of birds and flowers closely related to those on the cabinet offered here, include one in Rosenborg Palace, Copenhagen, one in the Louvre Museum (formerly in the collection of the Stadtholder William V of Orange), and one sold Christie’s, London, 14 December 2000, lot 30 (£597,750); see A.M. Giusti, Pietre Dure: Hardstone in Furniture and Decorations, London, 1992, pp. 177-8, figs. 60-1.
THE PIETRA DURA PANELS
The spectacular array of pietra dura panels on this cabinet comprise three distinct types:
The panels depicting birds, flowers and fruit
These depict in a remarkably life-like manner birds such as goldfinches and kingfishers (on the upper drawer of the base), along with more exotic parrots such as on the superb panel at the top of the upper section. Such panels vividly reflect the thirst for knowledge of the natural world at the Medici court, and are inspired above all by the designs of Jacopo Ligozzi (1547-1627), who was made Director of the Grand Ducal Galleria dei Lavori. A related design of birds of paradise perched in a fruit tree, part of a series of ornithological and botanical studies by Ligozzi in the Gabinetto dei Disegni e Stampe n the Uffizi, Florence, is illustrated in Giusti, op. cit., p. 49, pl. 26.
The pietra paesina panels
These are the distinctive panels to the side drawers of the upper section and on each side. Pietra paesina is a stone mined in Tuscany whose naturally occurring patterns uncannily resemble rocky landscapes, so much so that it was sometimes used as a landscape background by painters. Its trompe l’oeil effects were particularly prized in Northern Europe. Augsburg cabinets almost exclusively incorporating pietra paesina panels, in the Germanische Nationalmuseum, Nuremberg and Rosenborg Palace, Copenhagen, are illustrated in Giusti, op. cit., pp. 178-9, figs 62-3.
The landscape panels
These panels, situated to the right and left of the lowest register of the upper section, are perhaps the rarest on this cabinet. They depict on the left hand side the Pizza della Signoria, Florence, and on the right the Villa Petraia, the charming country retreat of the Medici outside Florence, acquired by the family in 1530 and enlarged by Ferdinando, founder of the Galleria dei Lavori. Among the rare examples of panels depicting the Villa la Petraia is one at the center of a cabinet of circa 1610-20 in the Quartieri Monumentali in the Palazzo Vecchio, Florence, which also incorporates panels of goldfinches remarkably similar to those on this cabinet (see Giusti op. cit., p. 61, pl. 37).