A Tuscan landscape panel made out of cut inlaid stone in the pietre dure (meaning “hard stone”) technique sold at Bonhams’ Fine European Furniture, Sculpture & Works of Art auction in London for £157,250 ($234,302) including buyer’s premium, five times the pre-sale estimate and more than 10 times the Antiques Roadshow estimate. Granted, its appearance on the original British Antiques Roadshow was several years ago and it seems the expert didn’t recognize how early a piece it is and the important artist who is thought to have created it.
Bonhams’ appraisers got a look at it when the seller brought it to a public valuation event at the Saffron Walden Golf Club in East Anglia. They recognized its excellent quality and likely Florentine origin. Further research by the auction house’s European Furniture specialists found the panel was probably made in the late 17th century or very early 18th century by Baccio Cappelli, one of the greatest lapidaries at the Galleria de’ Lavori in Pietre Dure, the Grand Ducal hardstone workshop in Florence which still exists today as the state-funded Opificio delle Pietre Dure.
The Galleria de’ Lavori was founded by Grand Duke Ferdinando I in 1588 to train local carvers to restore the many ancient stone objects the Medici dug up or bought and to create new hardstone works. The Galleria craftsmen pioneered the pietre dure technique. It started with a drawing from which paper cut-outs were traced. Various marbles and hardstones of different colors and textures were selected for each jigsaw-like piece. The cut-outs were then glued to stones so its outlines could be cut into the stone with a bow saw. Once every piece was cut, they were glued to a single piece of slate so the entire work could be turned over. The face was then polished to gleaming with abrasives.
In the 17th century, the Galleria craftsmen focused on decorating the San Lorenzo Medici Chapel, but within a hundred years the art form had become widely popular, with elaborate pieces commissioned by the aristocracy and nobility of Europe to adorn furniture like tabletops and cabinet facades. The wealthy would collect the panels, often purchasing them on the Grand Tour of Europe, and then have a custom piece of furniture made to display the stonework. Baccio Cappelli was the superstar of the fashion for pietre dure. His precision cuts, careful selection of stones and enchanting subjects put his panels in the great palaces of the continent and Britain.
This particular panel is not signed, but it is very similar in key details to signed Cappelli panels like the ones in the Kimbolton Cabinet, now in the Victoria & Albert museum. The overall compositions — a seaside landscape with little houses in the distance and people in the foreground — are the same. The clouds are made out of a similar translucent amber, the sea out of a similar olive drab stone, the clothes out of similar pieces of pink, blue and white marble, the tree trunks from similar black marble.
The Kimbolton panels are dated 1709. Bonhams’ experts believe the panel that just sold is older. Since the pietre dure artisans reused styles and designs, this panel may be a precursor to the ones on the cabinet.