A COMMODE BY PIETRO PIFFETTI
By Giancarlo Ferrarris, April 2002
The appearance on the market of this commode is an important addition to the oeuvre of Pietro Piffetti, the most important Italian cabinet-maker of the eighteenth century. Richly inlaid in ivory, boxwood, olivewood and walnut, with a profusion of ribbon scrolls bordered with a double fillet of ivory and rosewood, it can be firmly attributed to the Turinese master, as I outline below.
In 1990 I researched a games-table attributed to Piffetti whose marquetry designs I discovered derived from a series of drawings by Jacques Stella which were subsequently engraved by his niece Claudine Bouzonnet Stella in her Les Jeux et Plaisirs de l'Enfance inventez par Jacques Stella, published in 1657. To date I know of four other pieces by Piffetti for which Stella's prints also provided the design source:
- a pair of bureaux mazarin at Waddesdon Manor (illustrated and fully discussed in G. de Bellaigue, The James A. de Rothschild Collection at Waddesdon Manor: Furniture and Gilt-Bronzes, Fribourg, 1974, vol. II, cat. nos. 117-8)
- a table top formerly in the Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection, sold in these Rooms, 14 December 2000, lot 325
-a commode formerly in a private collection, Turin (subsequently destroyed in World War II, illustrated in A. Midana, L'Arte del legno in Piemonte nel Sei e Settecento, Turin, 1924, figs. 153-5)
The commode illustrated by Midana, which is now fully accepted as being the work of Piffetti, makes a particularly interesting comparison with the Longleat commode. It features closely related strapwork motifs combined with ivory foliage, and has a similar gently serpentine profile, although it shows a greater profusion of pictorial engraving.
A further commode attributed to Piffetti, as yet unpublished, in a private Italian collection, also features related strapwork with a similarly shaped top, framing a central pictorial engraving after Nicolas Berchem's Rest at the Tavern. This engraved panel also appears on one of a pair of commodes by Piffetti in the Palazzo Quirinale in Rome, the other of which is also signed 'P.P.' (illustrated in G. Ferraris and A. González-Palacios, Pietro Piffetti e gli Ebanisti a Torino, 1670-1838, Turin, 1992, cat. 35).
I therefore have no doubt that all three of these commodes emanate from the workshop of Pietro Piffetti. The Longleat commode is an exciting addition to his body of work.
Giancarlo Ferraris, April 2002.
This spectacular commode was almost certainly acquired by John Alexander, 4th Marquess of Bath, possibly during an intensive Grand Tour when he spent two years in Venice. He was later made Ambassador Extraordinary, eventually dying in Venice in 1896. The extraordinary richness of Piffetti's marquetry would have naturally appealed to him following the creation of the sumptuous Italianate rooms at Longleat by John Crace. It is also fascinating to note that three of the small number of pieces by Piffetti recorded in English collections were owned by his uncle, the 3rd Lord Asburton (1800-1868), and it is possible that these and the Longleat commode all had a common source. The Ashburton Piffetti bureau-cabinet was sold by the Executors of the 6th Lord Ashburton, in these Rooms, 11 June 1992, lot 166.
The elegantly bowed and mosaiced commode has a reed-wrapped top, ray-parquetried from an ivory vignette on a ground of marble-figured olivewood, celebrating lyric poetry and love's power. The vignette, inspired by Homer's epic 'The Iliad' and his history of the Trojan hero Hector, celebrates marital fidelity with the cloud-borne deities Jupiter and Juno attending the handing of Hector's urn to Andromache, who is posed in the manner of the celebrated antique sculpture entitled 'mourning Dacia'.
PIETRO PIFFETTI (1700-1777)
Piffetti is acknowledged to be the greatest Italian cabinet-maker of the eighteenth 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. These attributes are certainly amply demonstrated in the Longleat commode. No other cabinet-maker of the rococo period combined these lustrous materials with the 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).
Vittorio Amedeo II of Savoia (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 Vittoro Amedeo III, and other members of the family.
Although little is known of Piffetti's earliest 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, who had ascended to the throne in 1730. It was through the recommendation of the Marchese that Piffetti was appointed ebanista reale shortly thereafter for an annual salary of 500 livres. His first recorded commission was for a spectacular series of cabinets embellished with gilt-bronze mounts by Francesco Ladatte, supplied 1731-1733 for the nuovo appartamento of Queen Polissena in the Palazzo Reale, Turin (see Ferraris and González-Palacios, op. cit., cat. 1). Their superb quality and confident design demonstrate that Piffetti was already a supremely accomplished craftsman by this date.