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Beyond the Surface: The History and Evolution of Pietre dure

For lovers of fine art and decorative arts alike, pietre dure represents a fascinating chapter in the story of human creativity and ingenuity. Read on to learn about the history, technique and evolution of this fascinating art form.

History of Pietre Dure

Pietre Dure Console Tables. Late 18th / Early 19th century. M.S. Rau.
Pietre Dure Console Tables. Late 18th / Early 19th century. M.S. Rau.
Pietre dure, a decorative art form, is a fascinating blend of a jeweler's precision and an artist's eye. What makes it even more remarkable is that the process has remained largely unchanged for centuries. Today, artisans still use the same techniques and tools that were first developed in the 16th century.
Creating a pietre dure artwork is a lengthy and imaginative process involving inlay techniquesresulting in what can only be described as "paintings in stone." This technique involves using small, precisely cut pieces of semi-precious stones to create intricate designs and scenes. Next, these semi precious stones are carefully arranged and glued onto a surface, and then polished to create a smooth and seamless finish. The end result is a stunning work of art that showcases the natural beauty and vibrant colors of the stones.

The Grand Ducal Workshop

The Grand Ducal workshop in Florence was established by Grand Duke Ferdinando I de Medici in 1588. The workshop refined the ancient art of opus sectile, and produced some of the most luxurious and detailed historic examples of hardstone inlay artistry ever created. Only the nobility and clergy of Europe could afford the exceptional quality and beauty of the objects produced by the Grand Ducal workshop. The workshop's reputation was unsurpassed, and its craftsmen were among the most skilled in their trade, producing exquisite works of art.

Today, the legacy of the Grand Ducal workshops lives on and their creations continue to be admired for their intricate beauty. Due to the high level of workmanship the art form requires, pietre dure plaques were typically crafted in small sizes. The technique was both expensive and time-consuming, requiring not only precious materials but also highly skilled craftsmen.

Pietre Dure Plaque of Ancient Artisan by Alberto Menegatti.Early 20th Century. M.S. Rau.
Pietre Dure Plaque of Ancient Artisan by Alberto Menegatti. Early 20th Century. M.S. Rau.

Characteristics of Pietre Dure

Saint Mary Magdalene on Alabaster with Pietre Dure Frame. 17th Century. M.S. Rau.
Saint Mary Magdalene on Alabaster with Pietre Dure Frame. 17th Century. M.S. Rau.
Creating a pietre dure piece is a complex and delicate process that begins with a detailed sketch, much like any other artwork. In the 16th century, the original sketch and painting were often commissioned by a separate artist, who would then pass it on to skilled artisans to begin the meticulous process of selecting and cutting the stones.
Selecting the best hardstones for a piece is a painstaking process that can take months. Artisans have to be highly discerning in their selection, as finding stones with the perfect color and pattern is crucial to the success of the final image. Thin slices of stone are then carefully cut to match the sketched sections, allowing for the eventual inlay that gives pietre dure the appearance of a painting. Cutting the stones into thin slices is a delicate task that requires immense skill and precision. The slices are quite fragile, and only the most skilled craftspeople can achieve the perfect thin slice without shattering or cracking the stone. Once the stones are cut, they are fitted together like puzzle pieces with each section perfectly matched to another.
Even in the 21st century, the process of creating a pietre dure piece remains largely unchanged, with artisans continuing to rely on the same techniques and tools that were first developed centuries ago.
Russian Malachite and Pietre Dure Plinths.Circa Circa 1825. M.S. Rau.
Russian Malachite and Pietre Dure Plinths. Circa 1825. M.S. Rau.
In order to achieve the perfect pietre dure image, the perfect hardstones, a type of semi-precious opaque stones valued for their decorative qualities, must be found. Many of these stones are a form of quartz and typically rate 6-7 on the Mohs scale, which measures a stone's hardness. By comparison, diamonds rate a 10. Stones such as agate, carnelian, heliotrope, jasper, amethyst, onyx, sardonyx, chalcedony, porphyry and rock crystal are commonly found in high-quality pietre dure pieces.
Interestingly, some materials used in hardstone applications are not technically considered hardstones. Lapis lazuli, malachite and blue john, for example, are highly valued for their beauty, symbolism and rarity despite their relative softness. To ensure timeless functionality, these stones require special treatment during the cutting and inlay process to ensure their durability. Marble, another popular material used in hardstone art, is often used if the colors and patterns serve the artisan's purpose.

One unique rock often used in pietre dure is pietre paesina, which is found exclusively in the bed of the Arno River in Italy. Its distinct patterning resembles mountain and rock imagery, making it a popular choice for landscapes and nature scenes. Despite the wide range of stones and materials available, the demand for hardstones in decorative arts has remained consistent throughout the centuries.

Pietre Dure Plaque with Lion by Tito Francolini.Dated 1900. M.S. Rau.
Pietre Dure Plaque with Lion by Tito Francolini. Dated 1900. M.S. Rau.

How Pietre Dure is Made:

1. Colorful stones are collected. In Florence, the famous pietre dure stones are hand-selected from the banks of the Arno River. To most craftsmen, this is the most difficult step. In order to make the image come alive, the hue, texture and line of the stones need to be perfectly precise.
2. The stones are cut. A traditional bow saw is used to cut stones into 3-4 mm slices. This meticulous process, done completely by hand, is often arduous as the skill of using the bow saw requires years of refined muscle memory.
3. The stones are strengthened. The stones are glued to pieces of backing slate to strengthen them.
4. The design is planned. The design is traced onto paper and the most difficult-to-craft flower motifs are made first. Each shape is then cut out of paper and glued to the stone.
5. The stones are cut again. Because the bow saw cuts the stones at a 30-degree angle, the individual pieces are put together and only the edge of the finished surface needs to be filled. The pieces are then placed face down and the space at the back is filled first with a mixture of glue and chalk, and then with glue.
7. The image is reinforced. The background stone is made using the same tracing and sawing techniques as the colorful stone pieces. Using paper shapes, the outline of the design is marked out on the background stone. The edges are then filled and the mosaic pieces are glued into the background stone to create a beautiful inlay design.
8. The plaque is cleaned. The glue is removed from the back and substituted with gesso and the back is polished to level it and it is glued to a sheet of slate. The mosaic front is polished by hand first using agate, a hard stone, and then successively finer grades of emery. Finally, optimal shine is achieved through wax application and subsequent buffing.

Uses of Pietre Dure


Pietre Dure Casket.Circa 1840. M.S. Rau.
Pietre Dure Casket. Circa 1840. M.S. Rau.

This exceptional pietre dure casket represents the pinnacle of 17th-century and 19th-century artistry. The lid features an original 17th-century Florentine plaque, expertly set into an ebonized casket adorned with exquisitely hand-engraved doré bronze mounts. The quality of the materials used in this casket is unparalleled, reflecting the great expense involved in its creation. The central plaque, in particular, was likely crafted at the Grand Ducal Workshops.

Grand Ducal Pietre Dure Console Tables. Table tops circa 1625-1650. M.S. Rau.
Grand Ducal Pietre Dure Console Tables. Table tops circa 1625-1650. M.S. Rau.
Grand Ducal Pietre Dure Console Tables. Table tops circa 1625-1650. M.S. Rau.

The fact that these grand tables are larger than most known pietre dure examples highlights the importance of these tabletops and the wealth of the collector who commissioned them. Using rare and expensive decorative hardstones such as lapis lazuli and pietra paesina, the panels feature naturalistic depictions of flowers and birds that demonstrate the unparalleled quality of the Grand Ducal Workshop's craftsmanship.



Pietre Dure Plaque by Giovanni Montelatici.Dated 1912. M.S. Rau.
Pietre Dure Plaque by Giovanni Montelatici. Dated 1912. M.S. Rau.

Pietre dure also played a role in modern Italian art and culture. Giovanni Montelatici, a prominent artist of the early 20th century, is renowned for his contribution to the revival of the art of painting in pietre dure. Although the technique was immensely popular in Italian workshops during the Italian Renaissance and Baroque periods, it had largely fallen out of favor by the 19th century. In 1898, Montelatici and fellow Mugello-based artist Galileo Chini opened a workshop that quickly gained acclaim for its exceptional skill in the art form. Their masterpiece, a monumental table inlaid with a stunning depiction of the biblical Annunciation, won the gold medal at the 1900 Paris Exposition Universelle.


Over the following decades, the Montelatici workshop thrived, with Giovanni's sons Mario and Alfonso joining the business. Giovanni continued to receive recognition from Italian and foreign collectors alike for his virtuosic ability to render scenes of rural and domestic life and simple cultural heritage, such as Boys Playing with a Lizard, with exceptional detail and artistry. Much like the famous micromosaics of the Vatican workshops, inlay works of art are coveted pieces of art history.


Interested in more? Browse our exquisite collections of inlay antiques.


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