and nature" could be the motto of this extraordinary museum dedicated to semi-precious stone inlays, where artistic talent competes only with the splendour of the materials employed.
It was the passion of the Medici for this precious form of art that led Grand Duke Ferdinando I de'Medici to establish in 1588 a court laboratory specialised in semi-precious mosaics and inlays. This grand ducal institution, which remained active for down three centuries, was the core of the Opificio delle Pietre Dure, established at the end of the 19th century, which still has its seat in the original location chosen in 1798 for the laboratories formerly housed in the Uffizi.
The Florentine production was lavish and very prestigious and is today represented by the fine examples preserved both in Florentine and foreign museums. Yet, this small museum is the only institution that focuses only on this theme and offers therefore the opportunity of fully understanding this suggestive chapter of Florentine history. The collection is arranged by themes in chronological order. The first section is dedicated to The first Grand dukes and semi-precious stone. This section displays porphyry sculptures dating back to the age of Cosimo I de'Medici, who had a special predilection for this ancient and precious material, enriched by sophisticated furniture pieces in semi-precious stones made for his sons Francesco I and Ferdinando 1. The so-called "Florentine brand" dates back to this period, that is to the late 16th century. The brand, that would continue to be for centuries the pride of the laboratory, consists in a very imaginative mosaic technique that used natural colours and precious stones, cut in sections and skilfully matched to form a larger image. "Stone painting" was the term chosen by its initiators to define Florentine mosaics, because this technique enables to represent a varying range of subjects, fully represented in the museum, ranging from portraits to abstract subjects, from landscapes to stories with figures, from architectural views to natural themes.
Stone flowers is the section dedicated to the very trendy theme of flowers, that flourished between the 17th and 18th centuries. Flowers were often matched with fruit and birds and were used in particular to decorate table tops or crown chests. From the early years of the 17th century, the laboratory also contributed to the monumental project of the Chapel of the Prince. The mausoleum of the Medici family erected in 1604 by Ferdinando 1, who had planned to entirely decorate it with semi-precious stones.
The incredible commitment of the laboratory is documented in the Museum with several works and projects, Connected with different phases of an activity that covered several centuries.
Cammeos, small inlays, small picture frames, chests and other furniture pieces, both religious and laic, where semi-precious stones are often sumptouosly matched with, ebony and gilded bronze typically indicate the Baroque taste of the last members of the Medici family.
The last member of the family died in 1737 and the dynasty was replaced by the Austrian Hapsburg-Lorraine family.
The Lorraine period, which runs up to 1859, continued to foster the success of the laboratory, which produced several pictures in semi-precious stones to the design and models drawn by the painter Giuseppe Zocchi and destined to the Court of Vienna. Its production also included neo-classic compositions of vasos and shells designed to integrate the tableware of the Pitti Palace. During the mid-19th century, the laboratory artisans seemed to prefer lighter and more delicate shades that were fashionable from the Rococo period to the Empire period, and again returned to the velvet fascination of black marble and to the famous compositions of flowers.
The Opificio delle Pietre Dure after the unification of Italy experienced a financial decline. although its artistic level continued to the very high.
Its products were sold to bourgeois customers and comprised table tops, small refined objects, small sculptures in semi-precious stones, all caracterised by an impeccable style and an extraodinary taste in the matching of colours.
Looking at these works of art and admiring their complex yet natural beauty, visitors often wonder how these works are created. These questions find an answer in the section dedicated to The Laboratory of Semi- Precious Stones guides visitors through the complex procedure that leads to the creation of florentine mosaics and inlays. The incredible marble table displayed by these artisans comprises hundreds of samples of precious stones. The table also represents models of drawings and graphs that have been specifically created to be reproduced with semi-precious stones. This section also offers a view of the 18th century working tables, rather ingenious yet functional, and of the tools used to carry out the different production stages.
The itinerary of the Museum ends with a section dedicated to Similar form of art:painting on stone and scagliola a kind of artistic production that was very fashionable between the 17th and 18th centuries.