These jewel-like micro-mosaics epitomise the 'antique' style promoted by Giacomo Rafaelli (1753-1836). Extensively patronized by Pope Pius VI (1775-1799), Rafaelli worked in both the Vatican workshops as well as from his own atelier in the Piazza di Spagna, where numerous mosaic workshops clustered to take advantage of travellers on the Grand Tour. Credited by Moroni as the 'caposcuola del mosaico in piccolo' in his Dizionario di erudidizione storiecclesiastica (Venice, 1847-60), Rafaelli's micro-mosaics are characterised by their sophistication of tonal modulation and smalti filati, as well as by the sense of motion and naturalism that are instilled in the compositions.
Following the French occupation of Rome in 1797, with its consequent decentralization of the Vatican's control over artists and the subsequent decline of the mosaic market in Rome, Raffaelli transferred his workshop to the Milanese Court of Eugene Bonaparte, Napoleon's brother, in 1804. The following year, Napoleon himself commissioned Rafaelli to execute a scale copy of Leonardo da Vinci's Last Supper. Arguably Raffaelli's masterpiece, the Last Supper mosaic was not completed until after Napoleon's fall, and was subsequently installed in the Minorite Church of the Madonna, Vienna, in 1818, on the express order of Emperor Franz I of Austria. With the collapse of the Court in Milan, Raffaelli returned to Rome between 1815-20, and his workshop in the via del Babuino continued to flourish, increasingly under the direction of his son Vincenzo, up toand beyond Rafaelli's death in 1836.
These mosaics, of exceptional scale and emblematic of Love's willingness for self-sacrifice, are of identical subject and composition to two further examples, possibly originally a pair, of which one is now in the Hermitage, Leningrad. Similarly enclosed in a rosso antico marble frame, they are illustrated, respectively, in A. Gonzalez-Palacios, Il Tempio del Gusto, Milan, 1986, p.221, fig.426, and in A. Gonzalez-Palacios, 'Fasto Romano', Exhibtion Catalogue, 1991, p.230, fig.204. This subject and composition, with subtle variations, was first conceived as early as 1798, as it featured on a further pair of small roundels in the Hermitage, which are signed and dated Giacomo Rafaellino, Roma 1798 (illustrated in D. Petochi, I Mosaici Minuti Romani dei secoli XVIII e XIX, Rome, 1981, p.221, fig. 9 and p.181, fig.9). These latter roundels may well be those listed in the Inventory taken following Rafaelli's death in 1836: 'due quadrucci di circa un Palmo rappresentanti uno un Cardello con serpe ed altro una fringuella con sorci'.
In view of their label in French, the address of the atelier in the Piazza di Spagna, and their compositional relationship to the dated panels in the Hermitage, these micro-mosaic pictures date between 1797, when Napoleon's army first occupied Rome, and 1804, when Raffaelli moved to Milan.
Interestingly, a chimneypiece incorporating an oval micro-mosaic plaque by Rafaelli depicting the same goldfinch and snake composition in its central breakfront tablet was supplied for the anticamera dell Regina at the Pitti Palace, Florence (A. Gonzalez-Palacios, ibid., p.221, fig.425). Although the year it was supplied is not known, it can be dated with some confidence on the basis of the closely related chimneypiece acquired by Frederick Augustus Hervey, 4th Earl of Bristol and Bishop of Derry (1730-1803) for Ickworth, Suffolk, which was seized in Rome by the French in 1798.
This pair of micro-mosaic pictures was almost certainly acquired in Rome by Alexander Douglas-Hamilton, 10th Duke of Hamilton (d.1852). Like his contemporary, the Earl-Bishop of Derry, Hamilton went on an extensive and acquisitive Grand Tour and recently discovered documentation reveals that he was buying in Rome as early as 1802. Like his father-in-law William Beckford, Hamilton's eclectic taste included a particular passion for pietra dura, mosaics, both antique and modern, and rare hardstones - a taste equally well illustrated by the pietra dura cabinet by Robert Hume now in the Gerstenfeld Collection, Washington (previously sold at Christie's New York, 26 April 1990, lot 170), as by the antique porphyry tops for which he commissioned Denire in Paris to provide the bases (R. Freyberger, 'The Duke of Hamilton's Porphyry Tables', The Magazine Antiques, September 1993, pp.348-355).
As the Scottish artist David Wilkie wrote, Hamilton - who was also Duke of Chatelerhault, a French Dukedom granted to his ancestor James Hamilton, Regent of Arran, through whom Hamilton could also lay claim to the Scottish throne- 'in his own person, represents the noblesse of three great kingdoms - the generous chivalry of France, the Baronial aristocracy of England, and the chieftains and thanes of our ancient kingdom'. An open admirer of Napoleon - indeed, he owned the celebrated portrait of the latter painted by Jacques-Louis David in 1811 and now in the National Gallery, Washington - through whose intervention he perhaps hoped to rule as Regent in the event of a French invasion, Hamilton's taste was Croesian in its munificence, and indeed it was to the Emperor's architect, Charles Percier, that he turned to for possible improvements to Hamilton Palace in the 1820's.
Christie's dispersal of the Hamilton Palace Collection - amongst the greatest auctions of furniture and works of art ever carried out - reveals this Princely taste. Held in London between 17 June and 20 July 1882, the sale comprised 2,213 lots, including Old Master paintings, Japanese lacquer, tapestries, coins, medals, Greek vases, Renaissance bronzes and Medieval works of art, Islamic glass, Limoges enamels, arms and armour, as well as European and Oriental ceramics and the finest French furniture and hardstones. Listed under lote 1423, the present pictures were descibed as:- 'a pair of Roman mosaics, with birds, a mouse and serpent in gilt frame', selling to W. Grindley for #54.12s.