A PAIR OF MOSAIC TOP TABLES FROM PALAZZO BORGHESE
BY ALVAR GONZLEZ-PALACIOS
In celebration of his marriage in 1768 to the Duchess Anna Maria Salviati, extremely wealthy heiress, Prince Don Marcantonio Borghese (1730 - 1800), the most important Roman patron and art collector of the late 18th Century, embarked on an embellishment and redecoration of all the palaces, villas and other monuments of his family. For these embellishments, he nearly always commissioned the architect Antonio Asprucci to direct not only the design of the interiors and their redecoration, but also the supervision of the many artists and craftsmen that were employed on the projects (painters, sculptors, restorers, designers, bronze-castors, gilders, carpenters, carvers, turners, cabinet-makers, mosaic-workers, marble-workers, goldsmiths and glass-workers). The results of these works rivalled the best collections in Europe as Grand Tour travellers remarked: Count Stolberg, just to mention one example, wrote at the time that Prince Borghese's collections were much superior to those of many of the European rulers. In Rome, furthermore, not even Pope Pius VI could rival Don Marcantonio's rich collections. Various recently rediscovered documents suggest that Asprucci was occasionally also involved in the design of furniture and ornaments, as he was almost certainly with these tables.
This pair of tables is from the Palazzo Borghese but is not recorded in the catalogues of 1892 and 1893, when the Borghese family was forced by financial problems to sell a large part of their collections. King Umberto I of Italy and the State purchased the famous gallery of paintings and sculptures and housed it in the Villa Borghese on the Pincio, which had almost always contained mainly sculptures. The Palazzo Borghese in the Campo Marzio, on the other hand, was divided among various heirs and partially sold.
It was decided that any furniture and works of art in spite of having been designed specifically for the palace and the villa, that was not deemed to have any particular artistic value, was to be dispersed in the two auctions or was to be sold privately. It was during these sales that this pair of tables left the collection and ended up in Sweden. This fate is in common with many masterpieces by Luigi Valadier and some of the most lavish furniture manufactured in Rome in the late 18th Century: one hundred years after their creation they were simply considered utilitarian goods without any artistic merits.
While a lot of documentary material from after 1780 has been discovered regarding the Villa on the Pincio, not much relevant information has been found yet on the furniture and works of art of the Palazzo in town, despite the enormous quantity of related invoices which are all kept in the Borghese Archives in the 'Archivio Segreto Vaticano'.
The carving of the frames
One of those records of 1773 is a lengthy description by the Prince's main carver Antonio Landucci. Landucci worked until his death around 1782 at the Palazzo and the Villa. Within the 1773 document, he lists a series of sumptuous tables made for the ground floor rooms of the Palazzo, including a pair of tables with porphyry inlay to the legs, another with carved swans, another with supports in the shape of eagles and dragons (today in the Quirinale), a further pair of consoles with female figures and a small centre table carved with lion's heads. None of these descriptions refer exactly to this pair of mosaic-topped tables, but the identified side tables now in the Quirinale (which were acquired directly at the Borghese sale of 1892) are so closely related to this lot, that they can confidently be attributed to the Prince's chief carver. Antonio Asprucci would probably also have contributed to their overall design. It is perhaps surprising that these tables incorporate only dragons as supports, while both the dragon and eagle, the family's main armorial devices, are featured on the pair of side tables at the Quirinale. However, the most important and expensive piece of furniture commissioned by the Borghese family, an ormolu and patinated bronze table designed by Alessandro Algardi which was later adapted by Luigi Valadier in 1773 - 1774, does only incorporates eagles.
The bronze mouldings to the tops
Between 1773 and 1775 Prince Borghese ordered a number of bronze borders for the edges of the valuable marble and mosaic table tops. In 1774, for example, Luigi Valadier supplied such frames decorated with fusarole (egg-and-dart), for two mosaic tables. It is, however, almost certain that it was the bronze-castor Antonio de Rossi who chased and gilt the borders for these mosaic tops. A document dated 12 February 1775 lists that de Rossi supplied "32 palmi di cornice di rame dorato fatte a foglia e sottofoglia cisellate e dorate, assestate e poste in opera sopra due tavole di pietra dell'appartamento di Sua Eccellenza nel Palazzo di Roma" (Borghese Archives, 5304). Although various payments of this kind are recorded, it is likely that the document refers to this pair of tables because the bronze borders are decorated with foliage (foglia e sottofoglia) and not, as in nearly all the other cases, with fusarole. Antonio de Rossi is also known to have worked on the magnificent ormolu fittings of the Gallery and the chimney-pieces of the Villa Borghese as well as on the mounts of a number of important furniture pieces.
The gilding to the frames
Another document which was recently discovered, and which could also refer to these tables, lists the gilder Alessio Rossi who gilt most of the important furniture of the Villa and the Palazzo. He was paid in 1774 for having carved two tables in the antique style "per aver ingessato e raschiato due tavolini nobili con sue sculture e fregio intagliati sullo stile antico, e sua crociata", the whole being gilt "a guisa di metallo", simulating metalwork (Borghese Archives, 5297). Rossi worked frequently for the Prince thereafter, being responsible, for example, for the gilding of many pieces of furniture made for the Villa in 1778. He was further recorded when gilding the embellishments of the Egyptian Room of the Villa with his son Domenico.
The mosaic tops
While the giltwood bases of these Borghese tables have an extraordinary compositional impact, the tables are outstanding mainly for their magnificient mosaic tops with white background and bordered by alabastro fiorito. Although it has so far been impossible to trace the final payment for these mosaics in the extensive Borghese Archives, a note from the marble-worker Benedetto Maciucchi (often employed by the Prince for important commissions) of 19 April 1775 refers to the borders of antique alabastro fiorito that were being used to frame mosaics tops "delle fasce in alabastro fiorito antico che servono per bordare dei mosaici" (Borghese Archives, 5308). He is almost certainly referring to these particular tops which are framed with that type of alabaster.
The mosaic tops of the tables are so closely related to the mosaics of the Galleria in the Villa Borghese that it is probable that the same craftsmen carried out both commissions. Although the composition of the mosaic tops is distinctly 18th Century in style, there are parts that possibly reuse excavated mosaics, such as the birds surrounding the central cartouches of a leopard and a lion. These birds seem to be inserted into the composition because the white background of their panels appears to be different to that of the other parts of the tops. It is interesting to note that the stone-cutter and mosaicist Carlo Lecchini restored numerous antique mosaics for the Borghese such as those found in the "cave della terra di Marco Simone di Sua Eccellenza" with which he made five little tables destined for the Palazzo in July 1775 (Borghese Archives, 5302). The leopard and the lion on the central cartouches also appear to be made with ancient fragments as well as some insects on the background. (This explains why the two central animals do not face each other as they would have done should they have been specifically designed at the time). However, it is almost certain that these table tops were made by some of the same mosaic workers as the four pilasters in the central gallery in the Villa in 1779, namely Lorenzo Roccheggiani, Andrea Volpini, Paolo Tozzi and the famous Cesare Aguatti (including the ancient fragments restored by Lecchini). The intrincate design of those decorative compositions, reminiscent of antique grotesques as well as of those by Raphael, are extremely similar to these mosaic tops. This type of work had particularly attracted the attention of one of the major archeologists of the period, Ennio Quirino Visconti, author of "Le sculture del Palazzo della Villa Borghese detta Pinciana", published in 1796. The Roman mosaic craftsmanship was at its peak during this period and Cardinal Albani had already used such embellishments for his villa on the via Salaria. The pilaster decorations and these mosaic table tops are stylistically also very closely related to altar frontals executed for the Basilica of San Pietro and for the Basilica of Loreto under Pius VI.
In summary, the overall design of the tables can be attributed to Antonio Asprucci, the carving to Antonio Landucci and the original gilding to Alessio Rossi. The gilt bronze mouldings of the tops can be attributed to Antonio de Rossi and can be dated to 1775, while Benedetto Maciucchi supplied the alabastro fiorito border in the same year. The mosaic tops can be attributed to one or more of the same mosaic-workers who worked on the Galleria of the Villa assisted by Carlo Lecchini.
Interestingly a pair of tables with mosaic tops, which are probably these tables, are recorded in an inventory of 1812, when the Palazzo Borghese was let to the exiled Carlos IV, King of Spain (Borghese Archives, 309).