CANVASES, CARATS AND CURIOSITIES

Pictures Set in Stone: Micromosaics and Pietre Dure

A jeweler’s precision and an artist’s eye make micromosaic and pietre dure two of the most fascinating techniques in the decorative arts. It requires incredible skill to thoughtfully combine hundreds of pieces of stone or glass to create a work of art greater than the sum of all its parts. Read on to learn about the techniques and the history of this fascinating artform.

 

Micromosaics and Pietre DureIt is difficult to believe from afar that this is a mosaic rather than a painting due to its intricacy and precision, but detail shots reveal the painstaking artistry that goes into a micromosaic.
Micromosaics and Pietre Dure

 

Micromosaics

Mosaics bring to mind the floors of ancient Roman villas and churches of the Byzantine Empire, but they became hugely popular again in the modern era thanks to those who embarked on the Grand Tour of the 19th century. This ancient art was revived in the form of micromosaic decorative objects that depicted famous European sites that were made for those Grand Tourists who wanted souvenirs of their travels. Micromosaics appeared on tabletops, jewelry, snuffboxes and more.

 

Micromosaics and Pietre Dure Micromosaics and Pietre Dure

 

This Italian micromosaic table displays a total of nine small, yet intricate scenes of Roman landmarks including the Colosseum, the Pantheon and a central image of St. Peter’s Square, making it a veritable scrapbook of a traveler’s time in Rome.

 

These micromosaics were created using a painstaking technique involving tesserae, tiny pieces of glass, enamel or stone. The final image was carefully planned and drafted before work began in order to choose the appropriate tesserae. A successful micromosaic required tesserae matched perfectly for size, color and placement. 


By the second half of the 19th century, workshops specializing in this artform began popping up throughout Italy to create micromosaic and pietre dure keepsakes that catered to an influx of affluent travelers on their Grand Tour. Micromosaics subsequently became status symbols that indicated wealth, sophistication and a worldly nature.

The most amazing micromosaics, however, surpassed the concept of the Grand Tour souvenir and were created as large-scale commissions for furniture or plaques. They were also popular works for artisans to submit to the great International Exhibitions, where artists could display their mastery in the hopes of attracting new clients. Micromosaics of this large scale came at an immense cost due to the high price of materials, as well as the time and skill involved in their creation.

This extraordinary micromosaic of the Colosseum by Luigi A. Gallandt is one such example of this monumental micromosaic creations. It was once a part of the prestigious Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert Collection in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and is one of the best examples of the genre ever made. It measures nearly 6 feet wide and would have been a special commission for a client of particular wealth and importance. It is a particularly beautiful and grand example, with a highly developed sense of color, space and perspective, all lending to the illusion that it could be a painting and demonstrating the heights the most talented micromosaics artists could achieve.

 

Pietre Dure

Pietre dure is the precise and remarkable art of creating images through the strategic selection and cutting of fine hardstones. Even more remarkable is that the process has remained mostly unchanged throughout the centuries. Artisans from the 16th century and those from the 20th century have engaged in the same lengthy and imaginative sequence, which results in intricate “paintings in stone,” as pietre dure pieces are often known.

The task of creating a pietre dure piece begins like most artworks: sketching. A detailed sketch is made of the design, which is then rendered in watercolor to flesh out the color and shading. In the 16th century, the original sketch and painting might be commissioned by a separate artist, which would then be handed off to artisans to begin the painstaking process of selecting and cutting the stones. The process of selecting the best hardstones for a piece could take months, as the need to find the perfect color and pattern was crucial to the success of the image.

Thin slices of stone were then cut to match the sketched sections. This allowed for the eventual inlay, which gives pietre dure the appearance of a painting from a distance. The cut pieces were quite fragile, and only the most skilled of craftsman could achieve the ideal, thin slice without shattering or cracking the stone. When assembled, the sections would resemble puzzle pieces, each perfectly fitted to another.

 

Micromosaics and Pietre Dure Micromosaics and Pietre Dure

 

This rare and extraordinary pietre dure casket exemplifies the very best in both 17th-century and 19th-century workmanship. With an original 17th-century Florentine plaque set in its lid, this 19th-century ebonized casket is further adorned by intricately hand-engraved doré bronze mounts. Without question, the materials used in this casket were the greatest that money could buy. The central plaque itself was likely fashioned at the Grand Ducal Workshops of Florence, which were populated with the most talented craftsmen from across Europe who specialized in pietre dure.

 

Micromosaics and Pietre Dure

The best pietre dure artisans were so skilled and so ambitious that they were even able to recreate Old Master paintings. For example, this plaque created circa 1860 by the Florentine artisan Enrico Bosi is based on a lost painting by Leonardo da Vinci from 1505, which was later copied by Peter Paul Rubens. It depicts the 1440 Battle of Anghiari between the Italian League and Duchy of Milan. Bosi’s technical precision is on full display, and he manages to achieve a highly effective trompe l’oeil effect though his use of meticulous cuts and a vibrant selection of hardstones — a skill that undoubtedly took the artist years to master.

Beautiful and historically important, pietre dure and micromosaic pieces are true gems of the decorative arts. If you would like to see more images of M.S. Rau’s collection of these masterpieces, click here.

 

 

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