Although not visibly signed to either front or back, this magnificent and monumental pietre dure 'picture' is almost certainly the work of the celebrated Florentine artist Giovanni Montelatici (d. 1930). The unrivalled and consummate skill with which the latter rendered painterly effects in hardstone is clearly evident in this charming domestic scene of an infant being taught to read by various family members. Furthermore, intricate details such as the stray straws of a rush-upholstered chair, a tobacco-filled scrap of paper or the floral-patterned print of a head-scarf, among others, demonstrate a heightened sense of realism rarely seen in the work of any other artists of the genre.
Montelatici is often credited with revitalising the skill of 'painting' in pietre dure, an art which had fallen into a steady decline since the mid-19th century. In 1898, he went into business with Galileo Chini (d. 1957), an artist from Mugello, near Florence, and the two men exhibited jointly at the 1900 Paris Exposition universelle, winning a gold medal for their large table inlaid with a scene of the Annunciation. Following the success in Paris, Montelatici established a large workshop, known as La Musiva, on the Via Arnolfo, appointing Chini as its artistic director. The business flourished during the early decades of the 20th century, when Montelatici was joined by his two sons, Mario and Alfonso, and when foreign buyers were plenty. Inspired by the paintings and subject-matter of the Tuscan Macchiaiolo School and Southern Italian artists, production encompassed a wide variety of themes, with particular emphasis on scenes of domesticity and rural life.
Research has not yet been able to identify the exact source for the present composition, however, it seems plausible that its inspiration could be a work by the Tuscan artist Gaetano Chierici (d. 1920). A pupil of the Accademia di Firenze, Chierici's art embraced genre scenes characterised by a pictorial realism. Resulting from his faithful observance of scenes of domestic life, he became known for his depictions of peasants, children and animals, characters that promoted pure and simple family values. Important to Chierici was not just the attention to detail in the display of the symbols of daily life such as the furnishings, objects, costumes, children's toys, but the interaction between his characters and the resulting mood that is conveyed.
The present 'picture' was formerly in the collection of Count Antonio Devoto and was likely either purchased by him at exhibition, or given its unusually large size, possibly commissioned directly from the artist's studio, which may explain the lack of any signature. Italian by birth, Devoto (d. 1916) is remembered as one of the most prominent members of the Italian community in Argentina during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. His immense wealth - he was one of the richest men in South America - was amassed through active participation in agricultural and financial markets, as well as his establishment and presidency of two banks, the Italian Bank and Bank of Rio de Janeiro. Devoto's philanthropic activities towards the Italian community earned him praise and the title of count from the King of Italy. As befitted such wealth, Devoto commissioned the building of 'Palácio Devoto' in Buenos Aires from the architect Juan Buschiazzo, and filled its sumptuous interior with furnishings and panelling by François Linke, whose work features prominently in this sale. It is known from the group photograph on the preceding page that Devoto and Linke met in Rome in 1911. It is quite likely that this pietre dure picture was bought or commissioned by the former on the same trip to Italy.
Pietre dure pictures combining the size, undisputed quality and excellent condition of the present example are extremely rare. An even larger 'picture', by Mario Montelatici, depicting a scene of resting peasants, was sold in these rooms 15 May 1997, lot 189 (£287,500), whilst another composition by Giovanni Montelatici, almost exactly half of the size of this picture and depicting four boys with a salamander, was also sold Christie's London, 29 September 2005, lot 69 (£84,000).