This incredibly rare survival of Empire style Italian silver is inspired by the finest example of French silver by the court silversmith to the Emperor Napoleon and Empress Josephine. It displays the finest workmanship as well as an understanding of classical form and decoration which was at the height of fashion when the piece was commissioned.
The magnificent Borghese Service, comprising 500 silver-gilt objects primarily by Martin-Guillaume Biennais (1764-1843) and with over 1,000 other pieces by various makers, is traditionally thought to have been a gift from Napoleon to his second sister Pauline Bonaparte (1780-1825) on the occasion of her marriage to Prince Camillo Borghese (1775-1832) on 6 November, 1803. It is now believed that most of the service postdates 1805, when Napoleon was styled King of Italy. In addition many articles have Paris hallmarks for 1809-1819, and in the 1820's Florentine and Roman silversmiths contributed pieces such as the present coffee-pot to the service after original Biennais designs.
The marriage, which was Pauline Borghese's second, appears to have been an unhappy one, and they lived separately, with Pauline making her home in Paris while her husband accompanied the Emperor in the Austrian and Prussian campaigns and was made Governor of Piedmont, finally settling in Florence. Pauline was a renowned beauty, and was sculpted by Antonio Canova as Venus. Refused permission to join Napoleon in exile at St Helena in 1814, she moved to Rome where she lived at the Borghese Palace. She joined her husband in Florence shortly before her death. Both Pauline and Prince Borghese continued to commission additions to the Borghese Service. The coffee-pot is such an item, probably ordered by Pauline Borghese when living in Rome.
The service, which may have been split between Rome and Florence during their lifetimes, remained at the Borghese Palace until 1892, when it was sold as one lot at auction together with the rest of the contents of the Palace. A pair of wine-coolers and many other articles by Biennais from the Borghese Service are discussed, together with the history of the service, in A. Phillips and J. Sloane, Antiquity Revisited, English and French Silver-Gilt from the Collection of Audrey Love, London, 1997, pp. 98-112.
The inspiration for the designs of the service may be traced to Percier and Fontaine, the firm of neo-classical architects and designers who received the patronage of the Empress Josephine in 1799. The stylised Greek, Roman and especially Egyptian motifs influenced the style of Biennais and he began to supply nècessaires-de-voyage and other articles to the Bonaparte family in 1800, as well as objects as diverse as furniture and coronation regalia, becoming silversmith to Their Imperial Majesties in 1805.
Pietro Spagna (1793-1861) came from a long line of Roman silversmiths and was the son of Giuseppi III. His first mark was entered in 1817 and soon afterwards he purchased the shop of Giuseppi Valadier at no. 90 Babuino. The present coffee-pot in the Empire style was made by Spagna after one by Biennais, now in the Metropolitan Museum, New York.