Pietre Dure Decoration

stones close up

This frame is characteristic of the richly decorated portable altars of the Baroque period, which were commissioned by wealthy individuals for their private chapels, and that was most likely its original function. It was only in the late 1960s that the collector Count Antoine Seilern acquired it to serve as a frame for a double-sided painting by Pieter Aertsen in his collection. The frame is elaborately inlaid with an arrangement of coloured and patterned stones, using an Italian technique known as pietre dure. Translated as ‘hard rock’ in English, this technique originated in the 16th century in the Florentine workshops of the Medici and refers to the inlaying of fitted, polished stones to create decorative compositions.

A video of the recreation of a pietre dure panel from a 17th century cabinet can be seen here:

[Video courtesy of the Victoria & Albert Museum. View on YouTube]

Pietre dure demonstrates the beautiful results of the interplay of man and nature. Through cutting, polishing and delicate arrangement, the true beauty of nature’s wonders are revealed. Sometimes even coloured materials were placed behind translucent stones in order to enhance their sheen. This is probably the case for the lower wine-coloured band, where amethyst, a translucent mineral, seems to have been backed with a red material, producing a reddish-orange glow when illuminated:

Backed amethyst inlay – illuminated and viewed through a microscope

At first, we thought this backing could be a red metallic foil but it is in fact more likely to be a red resin, based on the very recent discovery of resin behind some of the amethyst pieces in the Getty Museum’s extraordinary Borghese-Windsor cabinet, as shown below:

The Borghese-Windsor Cabinet

The Borghese-Windsor Cabinet goes on view today at the Getty Center. Anne-Lise Desmas, curator and department head sculpture and decorative arts, invites you to take a closer look at this magnificent work of furniture, sculpture and stone inlay (pietre dure) made in Rome about 1620 for Pope Paul V and later acquired by King George IV of England. The cabinet is now on view in the East pavilion at the Getty Center. Learn more about this important acquisition and plan your visit: http://bit.ly/2s4LLgV

Posted by Getty Museum on Tuesday, 13 June 2017

[Video courtesy of the Getty Museum]

Of striking resemblance to the Courtauld’s frame, in both their design and arrangement of the stones, are two portable altars of similar sizes in the collections of the Palazzo Pallavicini in Rome and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. All of these frames are made in Rome and dated to the first half of the 17th century. Despite differences in their details, and the more elaborate decoration and richer appearance of the Pallavicini example, the pietre dure inlays are very similar, with prominent use of lapis lazuli, amethyst, agate and some of the same varieties of Sicilian jaspers.  It is intriguing to note that both the V&A and the Courtauld frames seem to exhibit the same amethyst inlay probably backed with a red substance (resin?), as mentioned above.