This sumptuous inlaid marble top is an outstanding example of Roman commesso work from the end of the 16th or beginning of the 17th century. It displays a central oval of richly figured alabastro fiorito within a boldly scrolling mannerist cartouche of broccatello di Spagna enclosing beaded foliate arabesques on a ground of paragone. The border employs a pattern of striking geometric motifs, with roundels of breccia Quintilana and an unusual alabaster a tartaruga, so-called because of its lustrous, tortoiseshell-like effect, flanking ovals of alabastro fiorito, interspersed with pelta-shields of bianco e nero antico.
The art of commesso was a mosaic technique of inlaying various irregular sections of rare coloured marbles and semi-precious stones to form a design. Its origins lie with the mosaic-work of ancient Rome known as opus sectile, a tradition which survived in Rome throughout the Middle Ages and was revived in the 16th century when the Renaissance led to a reawakening of interest in the arts of ancient Rome, reusing the rare coloured marbles of antiquity of which Rome itself was such a rich source.
In Rome, commesso work was particularly associated with architects and designers such as Jacopo Vignola (1507-73), who is now thought to have provided the designs for the celebrated table supplied to Alessandro Farnese circa 1565, now in the Metropolitan Museum, New York, and Giovanni Antonio Dosio (1533-1609). Their work attracted the interest of wealthy, sophisticated patrons such as Cardinal Giovanni Ricci of Montepulciano and Cosimo I Medici, whose fascination for the art of inlaying marbles led to the foundation of the celebrated Medici workshop by his son Ferdinando. In 1565 the Bishop of Viterbo, Sebastiano Gualterio, owned three inlaid marble tables, with centres of alabaster 'surrounding, of brocatello white and black, greens, and other rare stones', which, although earlier, must have been broadly similar to the table top offered here (see Giusti op. cit., p. 12).
The earliest versions of these table tops, produced in Rome in the middle of the 16th Century, would usually consist of a plain rectangular panel of a rare ancient stone, usually a form of alabaster, within relatively plain geometric borders. Interestingly, a 1568 inventory of the Palazzo Farnese refers to table tops solely by recording them as panels of rare marbles, implying that the display of the central panel of a single stone was their primary purpose. Certain design features of the borders of the Farnese table can clearly be seen in the top offered here, notably the pelta-shields and the distinctive cartouches enclosing oval panels, which are virtually identical (see Giusti, op. cit.,p. 10).
Later in the century, while retaining the basic scheme of a larger central panel and geometric borders, the designs of Roman table tops became more elaborate, with more naturalistic elements such as flowers and trailing foliage being introduced.
The table top offered here, with its distinctive beaded foliate arabesques framing the central panel, belongs to a distinct group of table tops, all produced at the end of the 16th century and the beginning of the 17th century and conceivably from the same Roman workshop, as follows:
-one in the J. Paul Getty Museum Los Angeles, previously in the collection of Alfred de Rothschild, Halton, Buckinghamshire, and by descent to Edmund de Rothschild, Exbury, Hampshire (illustrated in C. Bremer-David, Decorative Arts An Illustrated Summary Catalogue of the Collections, Malibu, 1993, p. 189, cat. 320)
-one in the Villa Borghese, Rome (illustrated in Giusti, op. cit., p. 30)
-one in the Prado Museum, Madrid, first inventoried in the Royal Spanish collection in 1636 (illustrated in González-Palacios, op. cit., p. 65, cat. 3
-one in the Hermitage Museum (illustrated in E. Efimova, West European Mosaic in the Collection of the Hermitage, St. Petersburg, 1968, figs. 6 and 7)
Interestingly, the example in the Prado has a very similar selection of marbles, particularly in the border, with geometric cartouches of alabastro a tartaruga, breccia Quintilana, lumachella and alabastro fiorito on a ground of brocatello.
Slightly later variants of this group employ even richer design schemes, adding devices such as military trophies (as with an example in the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga, Lisbon, illustrated in González-Palacios, op. cit., p. 53), or through employing three main panels in the centre and placing the arabesque foliage in the borders rather than in the main field, as with examples in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, the Palazzo Ducale, Mantua (illustrated in Giusti, op. cit., p. 19, pl. 10 and p. 30, fig. 15) and Charlecote, Park, Warwickshire (formerly in the Palazzo Borghese and subsequently in the collection of the celebrated English antiquarian William Beckford, illustrated in González-Palacios, op. cit., p. 73). The latter two tops feature boldly scrolling cartouches framing the central panel closely related in design to that in brocatello and alabastro fiorito on the table offered here.