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Painting In A Stone

Long ago Margaret Drabble fell for the colours of Florence. Now it’s the semi-precious stones that especially delight her ...

I first saw Florence aged 17, and it changed the colours of the visible world for ever. I came from a country of green and grey, from a sober Quaker schooling in York, where the incomprehensibly Gothic Minster rose in flights of serious masonry into a sombre English sky. Florence was bright and luminous and light of heart and its churches were polychrome. This astonished me, as we had never studied architecture. I had never seen anything like those façades, their delicate pinks and whites and greens and greys, their stripes and bands and barley-sugar twists of marble, their cloisters of cypresses and orange trees. I had crossed the Alps, alone in a second-class sleeper, and come out of a dark tunnel into a paradise of sunlit colour. I had stumbled, like a time traveller, into the Renaissance.

I have since found that Florence too has its sombre aspect, and some of its streets are dark steep-sided ravines. The Via degli Alfani, which houses one of its most interesting and little-known museums, is austere, with tall, barred and shuttered buildings, rubbish bins, scaffolding and graffiti, and little shops selling electrical parts and polychrome ice creams. If you walk up the Via dei Servi from the Duomo towards the Piazza S.S. Annunziata, where the bronze Giam bologna statue of Ferdinand I de Medici stares at you from his horse, you cross the narrow Via Alfani and see to your left the limp flags of Italy and the European Union, dangling darkly from an upper storey. They mark the dour façade of the Museo dell’Opificio delle Pietre Dure, the Museum of Semi-Precious Stones, now home to the Medici workshop founded by Duke Ferdinand in 1588. You may also see long queues snaking along the pavement to see Michelangelo’s “David” in the nearby Accademia, but you need not stand in line for the treasure house of the Opificio. You can wander through it with a sense of private privilege rare in this overcrowded city.

Many a sightseer is bewitched by the enchanting gold and silverwork of the Ponte Vecchio and the shockingly desirable handbags in the boutiques and the markets. An impulse towards pattern and decoration and inlay is embedded in the Florentine spirit, flourishing in tiny miniatures and vast marble floors, in paintings and textiles and altar pieces. The art of “stone painting” is a curious form of this impulse, and its history is well displayed and documented in the museum. A stroll round the ground floor dazzles you with magnificent purple and black marble table tops from the 18th and 19th centuries, decorated with semi-precious flowers and butterflies, with musical instruments, with birds of exotic plumage, with shells and fishes, with strings of pearls so realistic that it is hard to believe you cannot hang them around your throat. The colours have great subtlety and purity—the blue of a ribbon or a blossom, the intense and living red of a coral or a pomegranate, the soft grey-purple bloom of a plum, the speckled yellow-brown of a ripe pear so tender that you want to sink your teeth  into it—and yet fashioned, miraculously, of flat smooth polished stone.

It is easy to see why the first Grand Dukes of Tuscany favoured the opulence of artefacts that signified wealth, status and endurance. Lorenzo de Medici (1449-92), known as Lorenzo the Magnificent, loved the red Egyptian porphyry, with its claims of royal grandeur and imperial power. His learned and eccentric descendant Francesco, brother of Ferdinand the workshop’s founder, preferred the brightness and intricate cut of semi-precious stones. Renaissance science endowed these gems with alchemical and semi-magical properties, but the workshop also looked back to antique models, newly rediscovered. The workshop specialised in a Florentine development of the old Roman technique known as opus sectile, a form of mosaic composed not of thousands of individual identical small tesserae, but of pieces of marble, tile or stone pre-cut into shapes and then assembled into geometric or figural patterns like a giant jigsaw. These elaborate hard-stone designs were used for many decorative purposes, to adorn cabinets, to create table tops, chess boards, jewel boxes, caskets, and to serve as wall paintings. They embodied a love of the antique wedded to a desire for rich pattern, realistic representation and a perfect mimicry of nature.

The craftsmanship is superb. In the finest pieces it is impossible to see the joins, and in the restoration workshop behind the museum students are still learning to create a perfect illusion. Trompe l’oeil is delightful, yet also perplexing. The mystery deepens the more one gazes into the heart of the stone. Why should this transformation be so compelling? Why do we stare in such wonder at a slice of agate that looks just like a cloudy sky or a flowing river or a girl’s cheek? And which do we find more pleasing, the illusory softness of the peach or pear, or the geometry of the pomegranate? Hard-stone designers love pomegranates—nature’s own mosaics, with those glinting red seeds begging to be turned to stone.

Clarice Innocenti, the director of the museum, said that to display their skill artists would set themselves the hardest tasks—she used the word sfida, or “challenge”. In the 18th century the vogue for picturesque landscapes produced some delicate pietre dure paintings, such as the museum’s small and finely toned view of the Pantheon in Rome, rendered in chalcedony and petrified stone. The museum also has a version of the famous view of the tomb of Cecilia Metella on the Appian Way, beloved by Goethe (another version is in the Gilbert Collection at the V&A). This was a subject proposed by the master goldsmith Louis Siries to Ferdinand III of Lorraine to adorn the vastnesses of the Palazzo Pitti: architecture, he argued, “is the subject that can be represented most perfectly” in hard stone. Add some peasants, two cows and a goat, and you have a pleasingly rustic image of antiquity overlaid by layers of time and a picturesque sensibility.

Painting in stone embodies what W.B. Yeats described as “the fascination of what’s difficult”. The Opicifio has its own school, the Scuola di Alta Formazione, and in the workshop I met two of its star graduates, a dedicated young mosaicist called Sara Guarducci and an eager goldsmith, Paolo Belluzzo. They showed me what the technique of cutting and assembling the stone sections involved. They are artists, keeping ancient crafts alive, and Sara proudly displayed the pieces she was restoring or creating. You can’t afford to make mistakes with expensive materials like lapis lazuli, agate, chalcedony and jasper. (Marble is softer and easier to work.) Sara, dark-haired and white-coated, used a fretsaw made of a wooden chestnut bow strung with a thin wire, and cut into a thin slice of stone mounted on a vice. Using an abrasive paste, she sawed round the edges of a small stencilled shape (a petal? a foot? a cloud?) to create a stone shape that would in the fullness of time become part of an assembled image, a finished jigsaw. This is exactly how the earliest wooden jigsaw pieces were cut, from thin slices of mahogany, in the 18th century.

The workshop also restores Roman mosaics and Renaissance statues in an atmosphere of scholarly expertise. Shattered and scattered antiquities find their way there to be painstakingly reassembled. The work in hand included a statue by Michelangelo belonging to the Duke of Seville, blown to pieces in the Spanish civil war, and a mosaic Roman fountain with nereids. In the courtyard lie unpromising chunks of rock in cages, dull, knobbly hidden gems, waiting their turn to be sawn. The machine that polishes them is not unlike a salami slicer. It grips a lump of mineral and slowly reveals a beauty never before seen by a human eye.

Returning to the museum, I explored the upper gallery where you can see venerable wooden machines like the ones Sara Guarducci still operates. There were showcases and cabinets full of mineral specimens in an astonishing range of hues, with formations that suggest mountain ranges, oceans, foliage, towers and palaces, even skyscrapers. Jasper, chalcedony, fire-marble with fossil shells, mother-of-pearl, travertine, cipollino—the very names are poetry. There are agates from Volterra and Goa and Sardinia, granites from Egypt and England, lapis lazuli from Persia and Siberia. From Florence’s river, the Arno, comes a strangely suggestive marbled river-stone, pietra paesina, especially useful in landscapes such as the one showing Dante and Virgil in the Inferno.

The selection of the stone is the all-important moment in the translation of a design, and it explains why the final products are so much livelier and more life-like than the painted originals. Dr Innocenti, kindly taking me on a somewhat breathless tour as she was expecting a television crew, was eloquent about this difference, and the new official guidebook (an improvement on the quaint version I bought years ago) puts it well: “Colours which seemed carefully controlled with a brush were actually the fruit of nature’s fantasy; supple drawing and soft shapes were actually obtained by the makers’ arduous care with the hard material…”

It is this act of transformatory magic that brings me back here. The stones, when fashioned by the Medici craftsmen, become something other than themselves and give us a glimpse into the early days of our universe when the inorganic thrust itself towards the organic, bursting into a glorious diversity of fiery forms.

The museum tells a story of decline in the 19th century, when the market for expensive items faltered under the pressures of a strife-torn Italy. Elaborate pieces from the workshop remained unsold, to find their final resting place here. There is a poignancy about the abandoned works on show amid the artificial flowers of the final room. They capture the end of an era, symbolised by a black marble table on which an absent-minded lady returning from a party appears to have dropped a white camellia, a necklace and a ring, a frozen moment which now has a casual permanence.

Out in Florence’s older gift shops, you can still find little wall-plaque reproductions of hard-stone paintings, which may even have been hand-crafted, as they claim, in Italy. They are not cheap. A copy of the finely dressed woman in orange and yellow who adorns the Opificio guide book is on sale for €900. The postcards are a much better bargain, and I stocked up with scenes from Ariosto, childlike 17th-century peasant landscapes, shells and periwinkles and parrots. The images reproduce beautifully. A yellow hard-stone rose on a postcard is treasure enough for me.


Source: The Economist
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