Feature

Art of the Royal Court: Treasures in Pietre Dure From the Palaces of Europe

The tables, cabinets, clocks, snuffboxes, and other decorative objects in the Metropolitan Museum's exhibit are a magnificent introduction to the little-known art of pietre dure.

Art of the Royal Court: Treasures in Pietre Dure From the Palaces of EuropeMetropolitan Museum of Art, New YorkThrough Sept. 21

“In titling a museum exhibition, it is always risky to include words whose meaning and even pronunciation will consternate half of the visitors,” said James Gardner in The New York Sun. “Pietre dure” in fact refers to the Renaissance practice of arraying hard, colored stone—such as marble, onyx, chalcedony, or lapis lazuli—somewhat in the manner of wood marquetry. But you needn’t know that to enjoy the “riotous polychrome feast” of tables, cabinets, clocks, and other decorative objects in the Metropolitan Museum’s “oddly charming” exhibition. Perhaps the most eye-catching objects are the two-dimensional artifacts “that behave like paintings, even though they are fashioned from cut stone.” View of the Pantheon (1797) is a realistic Roman scene based on a painting by Ferdinando Partini. Lines and shadows in both versions are identical, but in the pietre dure rendition they “have been translated into a brittle and bracing visual staccato.”

Remarkable patience was needed to create these works, said Dan Bischoff in the Newark, N.J., Star-Ledger. Stones of proper color and quality had to be scrupulously selected, then carefully carved, polished, and placed. Pietre dure “is in fact a form of sophisticated sculpture, in many ways more difficult than direct carving in marble.” That level of difficulty, as well as the stones’ innate worth, made these works highly valuable even in their own time. Many of the “most impressive” ones here were commissioned by European royalty, including the chrysoprase snuffbox for Frederick the Great and an enormous cabinet featuring an image of Johann Wilhelm, Elector Palatine. Treasures of the Royal Court is not only an excellent introduction to a little-known art but “the summer’s most magnificent” exhibition of decorative wonders.

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