A veritable tour de force of the art form, this micromosaic 'picture' is a highly rare and possibly unique copy of German-born painter Franz Werner von Tamm's Two guinea-pigs with cabbage and grapes. After starting his career in his native Hamburg and then Vienna, von Tamm (d. 1724) spent from 1685 to 1691 in Rome, where he gained access to, and commissions from, a number of important Roman patrician families. Whilst the exact pose of the two guinea-pigs seen here is replicated by von Tamm elsewhere (see Two doves and guinea-pigs, oil on canvas, sold Hugo Ruef Kunstauktionen, Munich, 9 November 2000, lot 1258), the origin and current whereabouts of the exact canvas that provided the inspiration for this magnificent micromosaic is as yet unknown. However, it is likely to have been a work either commissioned by, or for the purpose of accessibility to the early 19th century mosaicist, later in the collection of, one of the important dynasties for whom von Tamm worked during his sojourn in Rome.
The reverse of the marble slab backing to the present micromosaic bears the inscription and partially erased date 'Giacomo Raffaelli/1817'. One of the most celebrated artists in the fields of mosaics and hardstones and credited with the actual invention of micromosaics, Raffaelli (d. 1836) was extensively patronised by Pope Pius XV (d. 1799), and worked in both the Vatican workshops as well as from his own studio in the Piazza di Spagna. A concrete attribution to Raffaelli here, however, is problematic. Whilst showing a consummate handling of the medium, relative to later artists Raffaelli's micromosaics are characterised by a very stylised technique which is very formal and two-dimensional in its execution. His tesserae, mostly square or rectilinear and uniform in size, tend to be laid down in very linear patterns, even when depicting modelled forms such as the randomness of animal fur. On first examination, one sees that this is the case where much of this 'picture' is concerned. However, closer inspection of the stalk and leaves of the cabbage reveal that the masterful painterly effect has been created through the random positioning of equally randomly shaped and sized tesserae, a technique that achieves a sense of naturalism and perspective inconsistent with Raffaelli's typical work. Furthermore, although not a decisive factor in determining a definitive attribution or otherwise to Raffaelli, the 'signature' to the reverse of the marble slab backing is questionable and its style and content again inconsistent with known authentic examples of Raffaelli's own hand.
A strong alternative candidate as maker of this micromosaic is Antonio Aguatti (also known as Aquatti), an equally talented contemporary of Raffaelli. Located at 96 Piazza di Spagna in Rome, Aguatti's studio was responsible for the increase in geometric shapes and fused colours of tesserae, both of which allowed for a more painterly quality in the medium, and which are techniques that have been employed to such stunning effect here. Although also used by other mosaicisti, the thin micromosaic red-line border seen here appears to have been a motif particularly favoured by Aguatti, as shown by its inclusion in two table tops attributed to the artist and sold in these rooms, 11 June 1998, lot 60 and 21 March 2002, lot 465. The same line also appears in two other, virtually identical tops by Aguatti, one in the Gilbert Collection, London (see Hanisee Gabriel, op. cit, p. 77, cat. 26), the other in the Hermitage, St Petersburg (see E. M. Efimova, West European Mosaics of the 13-19th Centuries in the Collection of the Hermitage, Leningrad, 1968, no. 48). Each top is centred by Cupid in a tiger-drawn chariot, enclosed within a border of vine leaves whose treatment is reminiscent of those in this 'picture'.
We are most grateful to Jeanette Hanisee Gabriel for her kind contribution to the on-going research of this lot.