Paintings in Stone: The Art of Pietre Dure

June 21st, 2013 | posted by Liz Beirise
Circa 1860 Pietre Dure figural plaque.

Circa 1860 Pietre Dure figural plaque.

A jeweler’s precision and an artist’s eye make pietre dure one of the most fascinating techniques in decorative arts. Even more remarkable is that the process has remained mostly unchanged throughout the centuries. Artisans from the 16th century and those from 20th century have engaged in this lengthy and imaginative sequence, which results in intricate “paintings in stone” as pietre dure pieces are often known.

The task of creating a pietre dure piece begins like most artworks: sketching. A detailed sketch is made of the design, which is then rendered in watercolor to flesh out the color and shading. In the 16th century, the original sketch and painting might be commissioned by a separate artist, which would then be handed off to artisans to begin the painstaking process of selecting and cutting the stones. The process of selecting the best hardstones for a piece could take months, as the emphasis on perfect color and pattern was crucial to the success of the image.

Thin slices of stone were then cut to match the sketched sections. This allowed for the eventual inlay, which gives pietre dure the appearance of a painting from a distance. The cut pieces were quite fragile and only the most skilled of craftsman could achieve the perfect thin slice without shattering or cracking the stone. When assembled, the myriad sections would resemble puzzle pieces, each perfectly fitted to another.

We have three pietre dure pieces in the gallery right now that are stunning examples of the art form. This diminutive pietre dure figural plaque is an exceptional and rare work that quaintly captures the image of a

Important Pietre Dure casket.

Important Pietre Dure casket.

cavalier. Beautifully constructed in a variety of marbles and stones, this framed piece is fascinating both as an historical piece and a work of art.

This rare and extraordinary pietre dure casket exemplifies the very best of the best in both 17th-century and 19th-century workmanship. With original period Florentine pietre dure plaques, the 17th-century pastoral scenes and plaques of semi-precious stones are mounted into this exceptional 19th-century ebonized casket with intricately hand-engraved doré bronze mounts. Without question, the materials used in this casket are the greatest that money could buy. The plaques in particular were likely fashioned at the Grand Ducal Workshops of Florence.

Superb Russian Malachite and Pietre Dure plinths

Superb Russian Malachite and Pietre Dure plinths

True works of art of the Restauration period, these plinths each feature a matching pietre dure mosaic crafted of the finest stones, all chosen to create a sense of depth and dimensionality in the final work. Depicting an onyx vase with tulips, roses, daffodils, magnolia and other flowers, these panels are among the finest examples of this ancient art we have seen. The pietre dure is complemented by malachite panels of the highest quality, exhibiting exceptional depth through its extraordinary cellular structure. Malachite is one of Russia’s most prestigious stones, and its presence in these plinths indicates commission and ownership by an individual of considerable status. Mounted in an excellent stepped ormolu base, these plinths originally served as bases for vases or candelabra.

Beautiful and historically important, pietre dure pieces are true gems of the decorative arts. If you would like to see more images of M.S. Rau’s collection, click here to visit our website.

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