Furniture in the Palazzo Pitti, table tops take the palm

The second of the four volume series on the furniture of the Pitti Palace makes its debut


The first volume of a projected four, which will comprise a catalogue of furniture in the Palazzo Pitti, appeared in 1992. Devoted to Il primo periodo lorenese 1737-1799 it was, like the present volume, edited by Kirsten Aschengreen Piacenti, whose retirement after a long and fruitful period as director of the Museo degli Argenti is saluted in a graceful foreword to Il periodo dei Medici by Alvar Gonzalez-Palacios.

lI primo periodo lorenese, prefaced by a fascinating essay on the Lorraine court’s patronage, is an essential document for Florentine furniture from Barocchetto to the edges of Empire, an essentially provincial period, enlivened by the inclusion of a few foreign imports, notably a superb pair of encoignures by Latz. The series of gilt console tables is particularly fine, notably the rococo examples by Giovan Battista Dolci. The tables by Odoardo Wyndham are intriguing. Could he have been the frame carver active in Rome in the early 1770s, recorded in the letters of Fr John Thorpe, S.J. (see Ingamells, Dictionary), and had he a connection with the seven sons (another was a barber) of John Wyndham, who settled in Rome after 1735 having been balked of an inheritance? Wyndham is not a common Italian name.

The new volume, Il periodo dei Medici, covers two earlier centuries—from 1537, when Cosimo I de’ Medici was elected to govern Florence, to 1737, when Gian Gastone, the last Medici grand-duke, died in the Palazzo Pitti, acquired by Eleanora di Toledo in 1550. Kirsten Aschengreen Piacenti’s introduction makes it clear that the hundred entries in the catalogue are not confined to Pitti “natives”, but range more widely over the former possessions of the Guardaroba, whose organisation, history and records are anatomised in an essay by Enrico Colle, the author of the catalogue.

Dr Colle also contributes an account of the furnishing of the Medici palaces, with tantalising references to what has perished or been dispersed. Furniture decorated in gold on black all’indiana must survive somewhere: could a “Spanish table” in the Victoria and Albert Museum be an example? And reference to a room with walls of floral scagliola must recall works by Wilhelm Fistulator in the Munich Residenz. The scale was extraordinary: the Palazzo Pitti alone contained 399 rooms, and the riches, for example in the Villa Poggio Imperiali, were equally so.

Alvar Gonzalez-Palacios demonstrates the status of the Pitti as a European cynosure in the eighteenth century and sketches the dispersal (of both furniture and skills) and fortuna critica, before supplying an illuminating overview of carvers and cabinet-makers, materials and the repertoire of forms from chairs (including caned walnut chairs in the English manner in 1713) to cabinets, taking in birdcages and fire-screens.

The principal piece of apparatus in Il periodo dei Medici is, as in Il primo periodo lorenese, a biographical dictionary of craftsmen who worked for the court, invaluable for reference. English interest attaches to Domenico Benotti, from whom in 1644 John Evelyn purchased the eleven pietre dure plaques which he later incorporated into the well known cabinet in the Victoria and Albert Museum, and to the clock-maker Ignazio Hugford. A list of inventories and other documents follows, and a bibliography.

Useful as appendix, apparatus and preliminaries certainly are, the catalogue is the essential. The hundred entries include few objects made outside Italy. The exceptions are a table top and a cabinet with pietre dure decoration made in Prague at the beginning of the seventeenth century and an overwhelming Augsburg ebony cabinet orchestrated by Philip Hainhofer, which was given by Leopold, Archduke of Tyrol, after its completion in 1626, to his nephew, the Grand Duke Ferdinando II.

Tables and cabinets are the dominant types in the catalogue, and pietre dure table tops inevitably take the palm—inevitably, because they include the greatest of all, the octagonal slab made for the Tribuna in the Uffizi, designed by Poccetti, Ligozzi and Baccio del Bianco, and only completed in 1649. The range of pietre dure slabs, Roman and Florentine (for the early period the dividing line is not clear) is unparalleled.

Nor are the table supports negligible. One with addorsed sphinxes, whose design is attributed by Piacenti to Vasari, is remarkable as an echo of Du Cerceau (J.A., not F.A.) and Vredeman de Vries (caption transposed from that for Cock) and as an anticipation of Kentian models, while a magnificent gilt table with lions, putto and festoons in the Sala di Marte, carved by Paolo Monnacorb in 1697, looks forward to Giardini.

The matchless series of cabinets includes, among many grand-ducal commissions, the extraordinary sculptural confection designed by Foggini for the Elector Palatine, which incorporated his figure in gilt bronze and pietre dure, and upstaged the dazzling little prie-dieu made for his wife three years earlier in 1706.

Il periodo dei Medici also contains two dashing museum showcases, by Anton Francesco Gonnelli, a whole range of plinths designed by, among others, Diacinto Maria Marmi, and a spectacular chandelier carved by Vincenzo Crosten.

Among the seat furniture entries it is fascinating to find an illustration for the stamped leather decoration of a chair back by Stefano della Bella.

In sum the entries record a furniture canon of European importance, which will henceforth, thanks to Enrico Colle’s careful work, be readily accessible. The appetite is whetted for the final two volumes of the series.

Enrico Colle, I mobili di Palazzo Pitti: il periodo dei Medici (Umberto Allemandi e C and Centro Di, Turin, 1997), 328 pp, 204 b/w ills, 36 col. ills, L150,000 (hb only) ISBN 8870382842

Originally appeared in the Art Newspaper as 'Table tops take the palm'