Origins of Decorative Hardstones
Fascination with hardstone dates to ancient Rome and represents an essential component in the journey of artistic explosion that was the Italian Renaissance. The material’s permanence, coupled with the technical mastery it required, appealed to patrons vying for immortality through impressive works such as the Chapel of Princes created by the de’ Medici family. As a result, an industry that created a steady stream of cultural treasures for the upper classes formed. In the 18th and 19th centuries, it supplied travelers on their European Grand Tour with exquisite objects, and these rare works are still coveted today.
The Chapel of Princes in the Basilica of San Lorenzo which was built by the de’ Medici family and is replete with hardstone decoration.
What is Hardstone?
Hardstones are semi-precious opaque stones used for decorative purposes rather than building material. Many are a form of quartz, and they generally rate 6-7 on the Mohs scale. For comparison, diamonds rate a 10. The list of hardstones reads like the inventory of an exotic treasure chest belonging to Alexander the Great. Stones like agate, carnelian, heliotrope, jasper, amethyst, onyx, sardonyx, chalcedony, porphyry and rock crystal were hoarded to such an extent that the supply built by the de’ Medici family was still being used four hundred years after the foundation of the Grand Ducal Workshop in 1588.
Quite a few materials used in hardstone applications are not technically hardstones. Lapis Lazuli, Malachite and Blue John, valued for their beauty, symbolism and rarity, require special treatment because of their relative softness. Marble is also used as hardstone if the colors and patterns serve the artisan’s purpose. Another rock often used is pietre paesina which is only found in the bed of the Arno River. Its patterning may form many of the mountain and rock imagery in pietre dure.
How is Hardstone Used?
Prized for their rarity, durability and brilliant range of color and pattern, hardstones are used to decorate elaborate furniture and to create vases, urns, clocks and other objets d’art. Exceptionally skilled artisans can coax sculpted forms from these difficult materials and semiprecious stones, as in this sculpture of a panther composed of Blue John. Tables like the pair below from the Grand Ducal Workshop were prized possessions that reflected the owner’s wealth and status. The breathtaking craftsmanship and artistry in this piece makes this sculpture a perfect example of hardstone application.
Specimen tables were highly coveted during the Renaissance due to the era’s preoccupation with the scientific chronicling of the natural world. Leonardo da Vinci’s prolific drawings of botany and anatomy directly correspond to this Renaissance reverence for collecting data. Collecting unusual stones was often a past-time for the educated gentleman. Specimen tables, which display large panels composed of different stones, demonstrated the owner’s sophistication, ability to travel, and interest in science - all of which represented a very high ranking in society.
Pietre DurePietre dure evolved from the mosaics of ancient Rome. At the cusp of the Renaissance, craftsmen in Rome began emulating ancient mosaics in a technique called commesso. This art form spread to Milan, where gifted lapidaries elevated the method. Lapidaries are trained in the glyptic arts, which means the carving of complex images. Francesco de Medici enticed the best Milanese lapidaries to Florence and formed what became the Grand Ducal Workshop. He was known to frequent the hardstone carving workshop and to consult with the artisans daily. This passion for the arts spurred the creation of an industry that lasted for centuries.
The great courts of Europe emulated but never surpassed the Florentine workshop. In Florence, artisans worked closely with recognized masters like Giorgio Vasari on complex designs. There, the method developed for cutting thin pieces into intricate shapes that fit like a jigsaw puzzle. Artisans selected precious stones with an eye for color and patterns to create an illusion of texture and depth. The lapidaries became so adept they could copy great master paintings or create landscapes and genre scenes completely formed from hardstone and marble. This art form was supported by the stream of tourists embarking on the Grand Tour who came to stroll through the romantic ruins of antiquity and return home with evidence of their excursions.
Pietre Dure Plaque by Alberto Menegatti, early 20th century
The Grand Ducal tabletop below is an outstanding example of the floral designs that became a hallmark of the Florentine workshop around the turn of the 17th century. The lustrous deep black stone sets up the jewel tones of pietre dure to stunning effect. The use of naturalistic floral motifs and birds offset by fields of paragone di Fiandra is unique to Florence and was the result of the Grand Duke’s enthusiasm for collecting and classifying plants and botanical illustrations. These beautiful designs were adapted to many purposes and embellished cabinets, tables and smaller objects.
Top Panel of the Grand Ducal Pietre Dure Console Tables
In earlier centuries, a box storing something of value was called a casket, and these were elaborately decorated to signal they housed precious objects. Pietre dure was often combined with marble specimens and ormolu to elevate caskets to vessels of great beauty.
Vases, Urns and Clocks
The prosperity of mid-18th century England fueled a spending spree among the upper classes, and portable art objects were popular purchases on the obligatory Grand Tour. Porphyry and agate were well suited to this application. Porphyry, a beautiful dark red or purple speckled with white inclusions, was revered by the Romans for its association with immortality and royalty. Ancient Roman law even made the use of porphyry illegal for the nonpatrician class. The English, who looked to Rome for cultural inspiration, avidly collected objects made from porphyry. Porphyry’s hardness lends itself best to columns, antique vases and clocks, while the translucent agate accommodates a variety of uses.
King George III collected Blue John urns and clocks by the famous designer Matthew Boulton that still reside in Queen Elizabeth’s private chamber. Catherine the Great and the Duchess of Devonshire also collected objects of Blue John and ormolu by Boulton. This keen interest by royalty created a high demand in English society, and Boulton’s Soho manufactory became a site of pilgrimage for lords and ladies of culture, with letters of introduction required to tour his facility.
Incense burners were necessary before widespread deodorant use, and this utilitarian function was disguised in elaborate vases and candelabra. A harder substance than porcelain was required to support the weight of the ormolu and metal. When a Derbyshire craftsmen discovered a unique heating process that enabled Blue John to be easily hollowed into vases and urns, the beautiful purple, blue, golden and white fluorite was quickly adopted as the material of choice. By the late 18th century businessmen like Matthew Boulton were buying large quantities to supply their factories. In less than a century, the two mines that sourced the rare fluorite were tapped out, and production was severely restricted, making Blue John objects extremely rare, sparking interest in collectors everywhere.
Connoisseurs of the arts continue to collect hardstone, for it represents an apex in breathtaking craftsmanship matched by the material’s beauty. If you enjoyed this article, please explore our website and browse M.S. Rau’s trove of rare collectibles and fine art.
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