Monday, May 11, 2015

Painting In Stone

The Italian Ministry for Cultural Heritage has set up a small museum documenting the history of stone mosaic and inlay from the time of the Medicis until about the mid-19th century in Florence. It's about four blocks away from the much larger Galleria dell'Accademia, where you can see - though we did not - Michelangelo's famous sculpture of David. The original anyway; there are copies scattered about the city, and other places to see sculptures by Michelangelo without waiting in long lines. We did not tour the Uffizi Gallery either, the other famous large museum in Florence. Both are full of beautiful art to be sure, but in the few days we were in the city, even the three or four small museums we visited were enough to overwhelm us. We didn't want to do a museum-on-the-run tour like we did at the Louvre two years ago. The best way to go through the exhibits in these places is to make frequent small visits, but as that would require staying in Florence and/or Paris for a few weeks to months, this more thoughtful and relaxed way of taking in the history of art in Europe was not on the agenda then or now. It's nice to think about being able to do it that way, however.

Even though this is a small museum - just one large room divided into little mini-galleries on the bottom floor, topped by a long room with tools and rock samples and explanations of how these intricate creations are made - we spent at least two hours there, I think. The delicacy and shading of the inlay work is incredible, truly painting in stone.

Museo dell'Opificio delle Pietre Dure, Via degli Alfani, 78, Firenze

In the space above the exhibits on the ground floor, there are old tools and foot-powered saws for cutting stone into the thinnest of slabs. On the wall are hundreds of samples of the different types of stones the artists used to make the mosaics, the agates and breccia and marbles whose natural shading and veins they skillfully chose and placed to mimic feathers, fur, petals, water, clouds. According to the guide at the museum, "Collecting highly prized stones to be used by the workshop was promoted by the first [Medici] Grand Dukes and continued by their successors on such a scale that, despite their use for centuries, the Opificio still possesses enormous reserves of stone materials."

The workshop was established in 1588 by Ferdinando I de' Medici, whose micro-mosaic portrait is below. There is no inlay work going on here any more, though the workshops have been located on Via Alfani since the end of the 18th century. The artists are trained to do the cutting and carving and shaping of the stone, but their focus is on restoration instead of the creation of original works.

Gli scarparelli la pietra la gli sciupa, la pietra la gli asciuga.
- Tuscan proverb

I think we spent the most time staring at the floral stone paintings, because they were so amazingly lifelike. The shading of the petals in a rosebud just opening. The spiral blush of a full bloom of peony. The turn of a leaf from dark to light green. The sparkle across the top curve of each grape in a new-picked bunch, still coated with dew. It was malachite and agate and amethyst and mother-of-pearl and actual pearls cut in half, and who knows what other stones and gems from the far corners of the Italian trade empire, but transformed into organic beauty. I'd go back just to marvel at the mosaics again.

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