Superb Russian Malachite and Pietra Dura Plinths


The exquisite art of pietra dura is at its absolute finest in this spectacular pair of Russian ormolu and malachite plinths. True works of art of the Restauration period, these plinths each feature a matching pietra dura 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 pietra dura panels are among the finest examples of this ancient art we have seen.

A similar plinth is in the Gilbert collection, illustrated in The Art of Mosaics, Selections from the Gilbert Collection by A. González-Palacios et al. A related pair of malachite plinths supporting candelabra is illustrated in Malachite by V.B. Seyonor.

Collection of the Cholmondeley Family and Sir Philip Sassoon, Bt., at Houghton
Christie’s, London

The overall execution and appearance of these plinths is very characteristic of the taste associated with the great collector and immensely wealthy Nicolas Demidoff. As early as 1806, Demidoff had commissioned the Parisian goldsmith Henri August to supply a guéridon; in 1819, he ordered famed French bronzierPierre-Philippe Thomire to supply mounts for a massive malachite vase (now in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), as well as a console table with legs in the form of Nike. Other commissions included a table given as a gift to Grand Duke Leopoldo II of Florence, now in the Pitti Palace. Demidoff eventually settled in Florence in 1822 and became Russian minister to the Tuscan Court. Elevated to the rank of Count of San Donato by the Grand Duke, he built a magnificent villa at San Donato on the site of lands formerly owned by the Medici. The villa was later inherited by Anatole, his son, Prince of San Donato, and there are records which confirm transactions he had with the Opificio delle Pietre Dure.

The 19th century proved to be the golden age of Russian malachite. The stone became a sign of prestige and a token of wealth -- so much so that Russian papers of the time wrote: "To afford having a big piece wrought in malachite is synonymous to owning diamonds." Due to malachite's relatively close proximity, Russian tsars could easily obtain the malachite they needed to decorate their lavish palaces, such as the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg, paneling walls and commissioning beautiful inlaid works of art. Year after year the Russian (Romanov) treasury paid increasingly unreasonable prices to hoard the best malachite, much of which went into Romanov palaces and extravagant objects d'art. The Hermitage Museum possesses a collection of over two hundred examples of this “palatial” malachite.
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