This magnificent pietra dura panel is part of a small group of four almost identical examples, two of which are at the Museo dell' Opificio delle Pietre Dure in Florence and a further example in the Victoria & Albert Museum in London the only other known pendant.
From the mid-16th Century the art of pietra dura was widespread in major Italian cities, however, Florence became the most important centre for this art and members of the Medici family, including Cosimo I (r. 1569-74), his son Francesco (r. 1574-87), and Cosimo's brother Ferdinand I (r. 1587-1609), who formally established the Grand Ducal workshop, the Galleria dei Lavori, in 1588 were the leading patrons. The artistic creations in stone were admired at all European courts and often offered as diplomatic gifts by the Medici. Louis XIV even consciously tried to emulate their success when creating the Gobelins workshops in 1667, and importing Italian craftsmen such as Domenico Cucci.
The motif of the flower-filled vase is one of the earliest and most favoured subjects of the Grand Ducal workshops and can also be found on related panels for the monumental altar of Santo Spirito, executed between 1599 and 1607 for the Michelozzi family. Between the craftsmen which Ferdinand I had provided from the grand ducal workshops for this project was Urbano Ferruci. A skilled master of inlay Ferruci had been active in the Florentine workshops since the late 16th Century and in the early 17th Century the records of his workshop list 'vasi a commesso in fondo di paragone' (vases made in inlay on a ground of black marble), possibly describing the panels surviving today.
The design for this complex ornamental and figurative panel can probably be attributed to the Florentine architect and sculptor Matteo Nigetti. Nigetti (1560/70 - 1648), a pupil and assistant of Bernardo Buontalenti, came to fame as the architect of the Cappella dei Principi, the funerary chapel of the Medici family in San Lorenzo, Florence. The Mannerist silhouette of the vases and their mounts is echoed in one of his drawings for some vases destined for the basilica of Santissima Annunziata and as Nigetti was at that time also working on the Medici chapel it has been suggested that the panels might have been destined for the chapel. Surviving drawings for the chapel - which were modified several times - do however not support support this link. In 1691 though another Medici building, the Villa del Poggio Imperiale just outside Florence, had its oratory decorated with panels showing flower-filled vases alternating with orange trees. When Poggio Imperiale was dismantled in the late 18th Century to be reconstructed in a neoclassical style the pietra dura panels were returned to the Opificio, and a pair decorated with orange trees was exhibited at the 1867 Universal Exhibition in Paris and sold to the South Kensington Museum (now Victoria & Albert Museum), London.
(see The Medici, Michelangelo & the Art of late Renaissance Florence, New Haven and London, 2002, pp. 262-64 and A. Giusti (ed.), Splendori di Pietre Dure, Florence, 1988, cat. 26.)
A pair of related panels decorated with orange trees on a black slate ground were sold at Sotheby's New York, 11 December 1987, lot 221 ($77,000); while another panel decorated with a fruiting pear tree on a pale background was sold at Sotheby's New York, 22 May 1997, lot 157 ($189,500).