Spend a little time in Florence, Italy, and you will soon discover that the work of fine arts restoration is very much alive and well in this magnificent city. It just makes sense.
What you may not realize, is that one of the famous artistic workshops of the Italian Renaissance, the Opificio delle Pietre Dure, established in 1588 at the behest of Ferdinando I de’ Medici, is still functioning today. Ferdinando sponsored the formation of this workshop to provide the elaborate, inlaid precious and semi-precious stoneworks that he so admired. And you can visit the premises.
And, what is this art of inlay? If you’ve been to Florence, chances are good that you’ve visited the Chapel of Medici Princes in San Lorenzo. That magnificent, opulent chapel is an example of the art of stone inlay at its most excessive.
The overall decoration of the Cappella dei Principi (Chapel of Princes) in the Basilica di San Lorenzo di Firenze takes the art form to a whole new level. The technique, which originated from Byzantine inlay work, was perfected by the Opificio masters under the Medici patronage and the artworks they produced became known as opera di commessi medicei (commesso is the old name of the technique, akin to the ancient craft of inlay) and later as commesso in pietre dure (semi-precious stones inlay).
The artisans performed the exceptionally skilled and delicate task of inlaying thin veneers of semi-precious stones, especially selected for their color, opacity, brilliance and grain, to create elaborate decorative and pictorial effects. Items of extraordinary refinement were created in this way, from furnishings to all manner of artworks. Today, artisans trained at the Opificio assist many of the world’s museums in their restoration programs.
I recently was introduced to a fantastic workshop in Florence, the Lastrucci. It was there that my interest in this typically Florentine art form originated.
The Opificio workshops were originally located in the Casino Mediceo, then in the Uffizi and were finally moved to their present location in Via Alfani in 1796, or you know, slightly after the formation of the United States of America. At the end of the 19th century, the institute’s activities moved away from the production of works of art and towards the art of restoration. At first specialising in hardstone carving, in which the workshops were and are a world authority, and then later expanding into other related fields (stone and marble sculptures, bronzes, ceramics).
The Opificio delle pietre dure, which literally means “Workshop of semi-precious stones,” is a public institute of the Italian Ministry for Cultural Heritage based in Florence. It is a global leader in the field of art restoration and provides teaching as one of two Italian state conservation schools (the other being the Istituto Superiore per la Conservazione ed il Restauro). The institute maintains also a specialist library and archive of conservation, as well as a very fine, small museum displaying historic examples of pietre dure inlaid art and artifacts. A scientific laboratory conducts research and diagnostics and provides a preventive conservation service.
The frescoed halls within the museum are lovely in their own right:
But one comes here, after all, to see the stone work:
The museum displays extraordinary examples of pietre dure works, including cabinets, table tops and plates, showing an immense repertoire of decoration, usually either flowers, fruits and animals, but also sometimes other picturesque scenes, including a famous view of the Piazza della Signoria.
There is also a large baroque fireplace entirely covered in malachite, a dazzling and brilliant green stone as well as copies of painting executed in inlaid stone. Some of the exhibition space is dedicated to particular types of stone, such as the paesina, extracted near Florence, the grain and color of which can be used to create vivid landscapes.
There are vases and furnishings decorated with Art Nouveau designs of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, including a tabletop with a harp and garland by Emilio Zocchi (1849) and another decorated with flowers and birds by Niccolò Betti (1855).
While one is not able to visit the restoration workshops, a visit to the small museum is a must for understanding the fine art of semi precious stone inlay, which is itself a very Florentine tradition.
Here are some examples of pietre dure that caught my eye in the museum.
Climbing to the museum’s 2nd floor, you know you are in a place that values stone when you see the back of each step: each step got its own stone type. Extraordinary.
An exhibition of the technical processes of pietre dure works through history is found on the upper floor.
For me, the upper floor was the most interesting. While I admire the workmanship and skill that goes into these incredible inlaid pieces, usually the artwork itself doesn’t move me. But the upper floor has amazing didactic information, original casework furniture specifically designed for the artisans, and tools. There is also a very informative film that tells the story very well.
Below, a few of the dental type tools used in the craft. Dazzling.