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Museo degli Argenti, Palazzo Pitti, Florence
Museo di Storia Naturale dell'Università di Firenze, "La Specola"
9 June – 11 October 2015
The 'Treasure Rooms' in the Museo degli Argenti host a splendid collection of engraved lapis lazuli vases in an astonishing variety of shapes inspired by the artists of the Florentine Mannerist school. This collection, the only one of its kind in the world, was begun by Cosimo I de' Medici in the mid-16th century but it owes its expansion, in particular, to Francesco I who established a workshop in the Casino di San Marco, and it was further enriched after Francesco's death by his brother, Cardinal Ferdinando de' Medici, who succeeded him on the grand ducal throne of Tuscany.
This rare and precious blue stone, which seemed to be veined with gold and which evoked both the foaming sea and the starry vault of the heavens at night, came from the Far East. It was mined in the mines of Sar–e–Sang in the mountains of Badakhshan (today's Afghanistan), which was its only known source at the time. The mines were visited by Marco Polo in the 13th century, but the stone was already considered a symbol of wealth, on a par with gold, silver and other precious metals, in Sumerian literature, where, in the poem of Enmerkar and the Lord of Aratta, it is involved in the earliest forms of trade, with the grain of Uruk being traded for the semi-precious stones of Aratta on the Iranian plateau.
The idea of devoting an exhibition to this stone, with its magical properties, was put to us by Gian Carlo Parodi, a mineralogist with the Mùseum National d'Histoire Naturelle in Paris. Thus the exhibition does not set out simply to display a series of exquisite artistic artefacts. It is also designed, in equal measure, to explore the more strictly mineralogical aspect of the stone. But the fact that the two themes dovetail so perfectly has also allowed us to develop an approach that is uncommon in the history of art. The Museo di Storia Naturale dell'Università di Firenze, directed by Giovanni Pratesi, has played a leading role in developing the project and one whole section of the exhibition, devoted to the stone and to the scientific research associated with it, has been curated and designed by the Museo della Specola.
The exhibition in the Museo degli Argenti is divided into four sections.
The first section, entitled From Nature to Artifice, presents a selection of lapis lazuli samples of varied formation and provenance, for direct comparison and contrast with some of the loftiest achievements in its use, in vases, cups, flasks and acquamaniles originally designed for the princely courts of the Renaissance and on loan here from some of Europe's most prestigious museums, including the Museo del Prado in Madrid, the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, the Grünes Gewölbe in Dresden and the Landesmuseum Württemberg in Stuttgart. A jealously guarded secret of engravers' workshops in Milan, the art of engraving this particular stone was introduced to Florence by Francesco I in 1572, when he brought the brothers Gian Ambrogio and Gian Stefano Caroni down from that north Italian city. He set up the grand ducal manufactories and court workshops in the Casino di San Marco, "where, like a small arsenal in different rooms, there are divers masters working on divers things, and here he keeps his alambics and all manner of artifice", as the Venetian Ambassador Andrea Gussoni wrote in 1576.
The second section, entitled Semi-Precious Stone Inlay and Painted Stones, explores the way in which the use of lapis lazuli evolved in the early 17th century in two particular areas, inlay and painting on lapis lazuli, both driven by the same desire to immortalise nature, fixing it for ever in the unchanging colours of stone. The exhibits on display in this section range from early examples of geometrical inlay work such as Francesco I's desk from the Museo degli Argenti or a Venetian chess board from the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, to the more complex figurative compositions which reached their peak in the table top with a View of the Port of Leghorn made to a design by Jacopo Ligozzi. As a Dominican monk named Agostino del Riccio mentions in his Istoria delle Pietre penned in the late 16th century, inlaid table tops were the boast of the Galleria dei Lavori, a manufactory set up by Ferdinando I in 1588, and were much sought-after by the ruling houses of Europe.
It was precisely in an effort to "immortalise" the magical colour of lapis lazuli that the idea of painting on stone first took hold in the course of the 16th century. Lapis lazuli, with its white nuances imparted by the calcite it contained, could evoke a sky peppered with scudding clouds, while in its darker tones, veined with gold thanks to the presence of pyrite and in which the lazurite is more compact, it could equally conjure up night skies studded with stars. In this area too, the Museo degli Argenti houses one of the greatest masterpieces in the art of cabinet-making, the so-called 'stipo di Alemagna', or German cabinet, a phantasmagorical piece of furniture rich in suprise effects heralding the Baroque taste for 'marvels'.
The third section, entitled The Blue Stone in Princely Splendour, illustrates how, at a time when lapis lazuli was becoming increasingly rare, it began to be used almost exclusively for secular and religious items of enormous artistic value commissioned only at the very highest level. We see this, for instance, with the Borghese family, who issued two commissions almost a century apart for two extremely sophisticated objects in which lapis lazuli plays a leading role. The items are a Bacchanal with Putti made by Giovanni Campi and still in the Galleria Borghese, and a set of Altar Cards made by Luigi Valadier in the mid-18th century for the family chapel in the papal basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, where the pure blue of lapis lazuli is paired with ormolu and silver.
The arrival on the market of lapis lazuli from Siberia made it possible to create such sizeable pieces as the unusually large Table Riser commissioned by Maria Louisa of Bourbon, the regent of Etruria, and inherited by Elisa Baciocchi, who considered it a suitable gift for her brother Napoleon and had the imperial initial "N" added to it in the centre of the garlands.
The fourth section, entitled From Ultramarine to Klein Blue, is devoted to the use of lapis lazuli as a pigment. Whenever one thinks of lapis lazuli in art, one cannot help but recall how "ultramarine" blue was praised in the treatise of Cennino Cennini, one of the last great exponents of Giotto's school, as "a noble, fine and most perfect colour above all other colours". Cennini describes in detail how the precious pigment was obtained by grinding down the stone. The deep blue of lapis lazuli was prized not only for its exorbitant cost but also for the significance implicit in its azure hue – it is the colour of the Virgin's cloak and of the starry sky in 14th and 15th century frescoes. It has left its "mark" on such capital works in the Vatican as Melozzo's frescoes originally in the basilica of Santi Apostoli in Rome and Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel, and we find it again in the painting of Sassoferrato and Artemisia Gentileschi.
The exhibition could not close without mentioning the experiments conducted towards the end of the Age of Enlightenment and throughout the 19th century in a search for materials capable of replacing the costly rock, of which new strains were discovered, and to create a pigment that could match the intensity of its ultramarine hue. So we felt it appropriate to wind up the exhibition with a work by Yves Klein, who devoted his artistic research throughout his (sadly short) life to the colour blue, and with a small section on 20th century and contemporary jewellery, which also happens to tie in with a recently created section in the museum in which pure lapis lazuli and synthetic pigments provide endless opportunities for innovation and revisitation.
The exhibition is curated by Maria Sframeli, Valentina Conticelli, Riccardo Gennaioli and Giancarlo Parodi, who also edited the catalogue published by Sillabe. It is promoted by the Ministero dei beni e delle attività culturali e del turismo with the Tuscan Regional Secretariat of the Ministero dei Beni e delle Attività culturali e del turismo, the former Soprintendenza Speciale per il Patrimonio Storico, Artistico ed Etnoantropologico e per il Polo Museale della città di Firenze, the Museo degli Argenti in Palazzo Pitti, the Museo di Storia Naturale dell'Università di Firenze La Specola, the Muséum National d'Histoire Naturelle in Paris, and Firenze Musei.
Ministero dei beni e delle attività culturali e del turismo
Segretariato Regionale del Ministero dei beni e delle attività culturali e del turismo della Toscana
Ex Soprintendenza Speciale per il Patrimonio Storico, Artistico ed Etnoantropologico e per il Polo Museale della città di Firenze
Museo degli Argenti di Palazzo Pitti, Firenze
Museo di Storia Naturale dell’Università di Firenze
Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle, Parigi