Soprintendenza Speciale per il Patrimonio Storico, Artistico ed Etnoantropologico e per il Polo Museale della città di Firenze

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Diaphanous passions

Baroque ivories from the courts of Europe

07-16-2013 | 11-03-2013

For almost two centuries, from the mid-16th century on, the courts of Europe considered ivory sculpture to be one of the loftiest and most sophisticated forms of artistic expression.  The most important sculptors of the Baroque era both in Italy and across the Alps, and even as far afield as the Portuguese and Spanish colonies, tried their hand at this highly complex and difficult technique in which the artist's skill was matched only by the preciousness and rarity of the raw material.  Throughout Europe emperors and grand dukes, popes and princes, ranking prelates and wealthy bankers vied for the ivory sculptors' work, often putting together collections of masterpieces in this sophisticated artistic genre, ranging from traditional figurative work to fully-fledged tours de force in turned ivory – which merged the pleasure of visual capriccio with the scientific stringency of mathematical calculation.
Ferdinando I de' Medici (1549-1609) started one of the most spectacular collections of carved ivory in Europe, and the collection went from strength to strength over the years, eventually comprising several hundred items before the dynasty became extinct.
In terms of its size, quality and importance, the Medici collection was paralleled only by that of the imperial court in Vienna and that of the princes in Dresden.
Cups and reliefs, mythological compositions and genre scenes, saints and portraits of princesses, turned towers and trinkets:  every aspect of figurative and abstract art is reflected in the ivories in the Florentine collection.
The Medici ivories are now in the Museo degli Argenti in Palazzo Pitti, where they form one of the leading attractions in the rooms on the ground floor, allowing the visitor to enter a magic world of graceful diaphanous objects which appear to have leapt straight out of a fairy tale.
Yet despite their international importance, no specific exhibition either in Italy or abroad has ever been devoted to Baroque ivories.
This exhibition is designed to make good that lacuna and to do so here in Florence, home to the work of the greatest sculptors in this sophisticated genre.
The exhibition, comprising over one hundred and fifty pieces both from the Florentine collection and from leading foreign museums, along with other ivories from private collections never before shown in public, will write a new and spectacular chapter in art history, a chapter never yet studied in any depth, especially not in its "international" aspect which was such a unique feature of the Medici collections.

The exhibition is broken down into several sections tracing the art of ivory carving from the 15th century, when it caught Lorenzo the Magnificent's eye, through the High Renaissance and later, right up to the explosion of the Baroque with works by the Flemish artists, and by Leonhard Kern, François Duquesnoy and Georg Petel, who practiced their art in Italy for many years and who took the technique of ivory carving to the highest level.
There is also a section devoted to ivory production in Goa, a region of western India, and in other Portuguese and Spanish colonies in the east, which were to spread the fad for collecting in Europe.  The section entitled Virtuous Geometry hosts turned ivory items, spectacular examples of a contest which pitted the most important German sculptors against one another as they vied to create increasingly complex figures in ivory, minor miracles of technical virtuosity merging symbology and numerology, geometry and philosophy.
The man who invented this kind of item (typically found in Wunderkammern) in the late 16th century was an Italian, Giovanni Ambrogio Maggiore, in service in the courts of German


Ministero per i Beni e le Attività Culturali
Direzione Regionale per i Beni Culturali e Paesaggistici della Toscana
Soprintendenza Speciale per il Patrimonio Storico, Artistico ed Etnoantropologico e per il Polo Museale della città di Firenze
Museo degli Argenti
Firenze Musei

Ente Cassa di Risparmio di Firenze


Eike D. Schmidt

Curated by

Eike D. Schmidt and Maria Sframeli

Exhibition Management

Maria Sframeli




Riccardo Gennaioli

Ticket prices

Full Price: € 10,00
Reduced: € 5,00


8.15 – 18.50 (July and August)
8.15 – 18.30 (September and October)
8.15 – 17.30 (in the month of October when Daylight Saving Time ends)
8.15 – 16.30 (November)

Entry is permitted up to half an hour before closing time.

Closed on the 1st and the last Monday