PIETRA DURA TABLE TOP
Attributed to Giacomo Raffaelli, Rome, circa 1800.
Probably designed by Giuseppe Valadier.
70 ½ in. (179 cm.) wide; 35 ¼ in. (89.5 cm.) deep.
The statuary white marble ground inlaid with an exceptional variety of hardstones including: agates, jaspers and cornelians of various types, the central panel inlaid with three oystered agate panels and two large discs within rectangular borders composed of variously-shaped specimens, the sides of the table top inlaid to simulate fluting.
– Almost certainly acquired by Charles William Vane, 3rd Marquess of Londonderry (1778-1854), whilst serving as British Ambassador to the Viennese Court (1814-1822), and by descent.
– Late 9th Marquess of Londonderry.
– Probably: Holdernesse House inventory, 1834, ‘no. 26 large drawing room’, ‘a mosaic centre table on gilt stand’ (DRO/Lo/E 991).
– Holderness House inventory, 1857, p 94, ‘Gallery’, ‘…with statuary top beautifully inlaid with specimens of fancy marbles, agates and other stones. Size of top 5 ft 10 by 2 ft 11’ (DRO/Lo/E/781).
– Londonderry House inventory, 1939, p. 64, ‘Yellow Drawing Room’, ‘… with a thick white marble slab top elaborately inlaid in numerous panels, medallions and borders, with a unique collection of coloured marbles and semi-precious stones …(70’’ x 35’’).’ ‘Acquired by Charles, third Marquess of Londonderry during his residence in Vienna between 1814 and 1822 as Ambassador to the Court of Emperor Francis I of Austria’ (NAL:MSL/1960/1862).
– A.Oswald, ‘Great London Mansions, Londonderry House Park Lane…’, Country Life, 10 July 1937, p. 39, fig 3 (illustrated in the yellow drawing room).
– H. Montgomery Hyde, Londonderry House and its Pictures, London, 1937, pl. XIV (illustrated in the yellow drawing room).
This impressive table top once formed part of the furnishings of the magnificent interiors created for Charles Vane, 3rd Marquess of Londonderry at Holdernesse House (later Londonderry House), Park Lane. Londonderry served as British ambassador to the Viennese court from 1815 until his inheritance of the Londonderry Marquessate from his half-brother, the 2nd Marquess and famed Foreign Secretary, Lord Castlereagh, in 1822. Londonderry had a great deal of money at his disposal following is marriage in 1819 to the immensely wealthy heiress Lady Frances Anne Vane Tempest; a union which would finance not only his insatiable appetite for the purchase of great works of art, but the construction of palatial houses in which to display them, such as Londonderry House, and Wynyard Park, County Durham. The scale and importance of Londonderry’s collecting is hinted at by the colossal £40,000 of insurance he took to cover the shipment of his chattels from Trieste to London following his departure from Vienna in 1822 (DRO/Lo/F 433). This shipment would likely have contained a great many precious works of art, such as the Londonderry ambassadorial plate, sculptures by Canova, important old master paintings by artists such as Titian and Correggio (purchased from Napoleon’s sister, Caroline Murat, deposed Queen of Naples), and almost certainly this table top.
Giacomo Raffaelli between Rome and Milan
There are several works by Giacomo Raffaelli (1753-1836) in the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg. Amongst these are three table tops which are particularly close both in style and technique to the Londonderry table top (1) (figg. 1-2). The objects in the Hermitage are documented works by Raffaelli who was held in high esteem by the Imperial Russian court and was appointed as artistic advisor to the Tsar.
Raffaelli was Roman by birth achieved notable success early in his career and by about 1775 was already well known as a skilled micromosaicist, creating complex compositions using tiny tesserae made from spun enamel of exceptional finesse (a technical innovation made possible through the work of the chemist Alessio Mattioli). Raffaelli was also a successful dealer in high quality works of art – not all made by him. He employed specialist craftsmen to work both in mosaic and stone cutting as well as craftsmen skilled in other areas. At the beginning of 1804 he moved to Milan at the invitation of Francesco Melzi d’Eril, the principal figure in the government of Eugène de Beauharnais, to found an Italian mosaic school. In anticipation of his arrival the painter Giuseppe Bossi had prepared a copy of the Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci in the Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan to be produced in mosaic. This long and extremely difficult piece of work was not finished until 1817, after the fall of Napoleon, and is now in the collection of The Minoritenkirche in Vienna and is considered one of the masterpieces of western mosaic.
Soon after Raffaelli returned to Rome and in 1823 he had his neighbour, the famous architect, Giuseppe Valadier (who was, also descended from a family of craftsmen and designers) redesign his palazzo at 92 Via del Babbuino.
Early on during his time in Milan Raffaelli had completed an elaborate table centrepiece (sûrtout de table in French, deser in Italian) that had been partly assembled in Rome: in 1803 he had in fact obtained permission to export a number of pieces of this extensive miniature form, a precious vision of antiquity made to adorn the table at state banquets. It is a composition of little temples, exedrae, columns and obelisks all made in rare stones and alabasters, with urns and tazzas in classical shapes, and a multitude of statuettes and candle holders in gilded and patinated bronze. The centrepiece is now in the Palazzo Reale in Milan (2).
It is notable that a very similar technique and design as employed for both the table tops from the collection of King Carlos IV of Spain and the Marquess of Londonderry (which will be discussed later) was also used for some elements of the centrepiece (particularly the external border of the base, the candle holder supports and the bases for the statuettes). In fact this type of inlay using coloured stones inset on a white ground of statuary marble is one of Raffaelli’s specialities and he is trying to emulate, albeit in a different style, the work that was produced in the Grand-Ducal Galleria dei Lavori in Florence during the neoclassical period. Raffaelli’s reputation for this sort of work (the inlay of colour stones on a white marble ground) grew further after Pope Pius VII sent a fireplace and a clock made by Raffaelli using this technique as a gift to Napoleon in 1801.(3) They had been chosen by Antonio Canova, who was not only the most famous artist in Europe at the time but also the Pope’s artistic adviser. Raffaelli’s reputation had been well established accross Europe since the late eighteenth century; in fact in 1787 the King of Poland Stanislaw August Poniatowski had ennobled him and appointed him as his artistic advisor (and it was for this reason that Raffaelli was buried in a distinguished tomb in the Church of St. Stanislaus of the Poles, Rome). With such distinguished patrons, it is perhaps understandable that the Lombard government should have been so anxious not only for Raffaelli to come to Milan, but also for him to do so with the full approval of his protector.
The tables of the King of Spain and of the Marquess of Londonderry
It is perhaps not purely by chance, that in 1803 the King of Spain, Carlos IV acquired a table top inlaid with hard stones on a white marble ground from the widow of François-Louis Godon, the French clockmaker who had supplied him with various objets de luxe (fig. 3). In a letter to the King, Godon’s widow writes that the table top had been purchased in Italy by her husband prior to his death in 1800. Although Raffaelli is not mentioned in this correspondence, I have attributed the table, which is now in the Palacio Real, Madrid, to him on the basis of the unarguable stylistic relationship between it and Raffaelli’s known work and above all the use of hard stones laid out in this manner on a ground of statuary marble in geometric shapes of exemplary elegance which is characteristic of his work. Additionally one of the Raffaelli table tops in the Hermitage (number 60 in the Efimova catalogue -measuring 60 x 90 cm.) (fig. 2) although smaller, is composed of a similarly harmonious juxtaposition of ovals, octagons, triangles, squares, rectangles and circles in a wide variety of hard stones including quartzite, many types of jasper, agate and lapis lazuli (4).
We should also note that the dimensions of the Carlos IV table top and the Londonderry table top are identical, leading one to think that they may have been made at the same time. The obvious stylistic similarities between these two objects and that in the Hermitage needs no further explanation. The central rectangle of the Carlos IV table top, for example, follows the same design principles as the Londonderry table top. The former features coloured marbles as well as hardstones whereas the other two are laid out exclusively with hardstones of astonishing magnificence and rarity. It should also be pointed out that in the central panel of the Londonderry table top the ovals have a naturalistic character that is not only rare but is apparently unique. They look simultaneously like perfectly polished pieces of wood and opened oysters making for a surprising trompe l’oeil effect. The borders around the three table tops in the Hermitage, that around the central rectangle of the Carlos IV table top and that on the outer edge of the Londonderry table top are made up of alternating coloured geometric shapes that have great clarity of definition and appear to have been conceived in the same ornamental vein. It is my opinion that Giuseppe Valadier (1762 – 1839) could have been involved in the design of some works by Raffaelli (5).
It is worth noting that as a very young man Giuseppe Valadier designed bases (plateaux) and other architectual elements for works of this type by his father, Luigi Valadier whilst employed in the family workshop. One should also bear in mind that Valadier fils was also directly involved in the design of works of art executed by other contemporary artisans. He collaborated for example on the table centre piece (deser in Italian) for the Queen of Naples, Maria Carolina of Austria, which was executed in Rome in about 1805 in the workshop of Carlo Albacini (6).
The career of Giacomo Raffaelli continued for several years after his return to Rome in around 1820; it is also interesting to note here the two tables at Burton Constable Hall, Yorkshire, which are documented works by Raffaelli and were in England by around 1825. There is a further table top which I believe to be by Raffaelli now in The Prado Museum, Madrid which appears in the 1834 Testamentaría (Will) of Ferdinand VII, King of Spain (7). These later works by Raffaelli are less delicate in their design and the colours of the stones more sombre than those of the Milan centrepiece or the Londonderry table top.
The 3rd Marquess of Londonderry (1778 – 1854)
In 1857 the table top here offered was listed in an inventory of the grand London of the 3rd Marquess of Londonderry – Holdernesse House (later Londonderry House), Park Lane. The table top which then had a giltwood base was in the Gallery and was described as, ‘statuary top beautifully inlaid with specimens of fancy marbles, agates and other stones. Size of top 5 ft 10 by 2 ft 11’.
Almost a century later, in 1939, the table, by then in the yellow drawing room of the house appears described as ‘A gilt wood oblong table…fitted with a thick white marble slab top elaborately inlaid in numerous panels, medallions and borders, with a unique collection of coloured marbles and semi-precious stones. Viennese. The pietra dura top the work of Italian craftsmen (70” x 35”)’ (8).
Added to this description is a note which recalls that the 3rd Marquess of Londonderry had acquired the table top during his time as ambassador in Vienna (‘Acquired by Charles, third Marquess of Londonderry during his residence in Vienna between 1814 and 1822 as Ambassador to the Court of the Emperor Francis I of Austria’) (9).
The 3rd Marquess of Londonderry, Charles William Vane (formerly Lord Stewart) was the second son of the first Marquess of Londonderry, Robert Stewart (1739-1821) and half-brother of Lord Castlereagh, who as British Foreign Secretary was one of the main protagonists of European politics at the time and was instrumental in the formation of the alliances which led to the defeat of Napoleon. Castlereagh became for a brief time the second Marquess of Londonderry before dying by his own hand in 1822 when the title passed to Lord Stewart. He had been ambassador in Vienna since 1815 following a successful military career, where he had served under the Duke of Wellington in the Peninsula War. As a diplomat he served as Envoy in Berlin in 1813 and was involved in the negotiations with Britain’s allies, Russia and Prussia, against Napoleon and he also took part in the victorious entry of the allies into Paris on 31 March 1814. He assisted his half-brother Castlereagh and Wellington, the Iron Duke, at the Congress of Vienna and was awarded many honours, both British and European, in recognition of his military and diplomatic services. He was an ostentatious figure, perhaps even arrogant and vain (he was sometimes referred to as the golden peacock) but was respected nonetheless for his political finesse and artistic intuition. It is not by chance that he was able to acquire two of Correggio’s masterpieces, now in the National Gallery, London from Caroline Murat, Napoleon’s sister and ex-Queen of Naples, (10).
By Alvar Gonzàlez-Palacios