Arthur and Rosalinde Gilbert decided to form a collection of post-Renaissance
mosaics they were following in the footsteps of the Medicis, the
Popes, the Russian Tzars and aristocrats on the Grand Tour. They
soon discovered that such mosaics were a forgotten art form with
virtually no publications or organised market. Their perseverance
in seeking out these miracles of craftsmanship made it possible
to form the only comprehensive collection of its type in the world.
There are two distinct elements to the Gilbert Collection: Florentine
pietre dure, or hardstone mosaics, and Roman micromosaics, ranging
in date from the 17th to 20th centuries.
Florentine mosaics are made of marbles and semi-precious hardstones,
carefully selected for their colour and form, which are then cut
with great precision into varied sizes and shapes and set like marquetry
to form decorative pictures or patterns. These difficult techniques
were developed in the Opificio delle Pietre Dure or Grand Ducal
workshops set up in Florence in 1580 under Francesco I de'Medici.
During the 17th century the workshops produced some of the most
magnificent luxury objects made for the great private and ecclesiastical
patrons of the day.
of the first collectors of pietre dure outside Florence was the
Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II, whose court in Prague was one of the
most fascinating cultural centres. He founded his own pietre dure
workshop at the end of the 16th century and arguably the most significant
piece in the Gilbert Collection is a collector's cabinet made for
Rudolph in his workshop by the Castrucci family, circa 1610. The
seven panels perfectly create the illusion of mountainous landscapes
and clouded skies by the skilful selection and combination of local
polished stones which are more muted in palette than Florentine
magnificent pietre dure, ebony and gilt-bronze clock cabinet is
a superb technical achievement made in Florence in 1704 by Giovanni
Battista Foggini for Anna Maria Luisa de'Medici, Electress Palatine
and daughter of Duke Cosimo III of Tuscany. The black marble face
of the clock is decorated with relief carvings of floral designs
in lapis lazuli, agate, jade and other semiprecious stones and embellished
with superbly cast and chiselled ormolu mounts. The face panel is
set into an ebony case flanked by two agate columns with gilt-bronze
capitals and there is further ormolu and hardstone decoration on
of the Florentine production was devoted to cabinets and table tops
which provided the best vehicles to display the virtuosity of the
craftsmen. An ebony cabinet set with 19 pietre dure panels of birds
and flowers on a support with floral marquetry of exotic woods is
a typical example of the Grand Ducal workshops' production of the
last quarter of the 17th century. However, the Workshops also produced
exquisite smaller pieces including snuffboxes, bonbonnières and
jewellery such as a charming gold-mounted snuffbox made around 1800
and set with six panels depicting shells and coral. Similar shell
decoration can be found on a matched set of pietre dure jewellery
set in gold comprising a necklace, diadem, earrings and a comb.
The set originally belonged to Caroline Murat, sister of Napoleon
and Queen of Naples.
panels of flowers were produced in the workshops from the 17th century
onwards and a gold-mounted lapis lazuli bonbonnière, circa 1800,
is inlaid with a vase of flowers on the lid and a ribbon-tied bouquet
on the base. The depiction of ribbons and broken ledges began in
the middle of the 18th century and continued into the next, as demonstrated
on a late 19th-century table with an illusionistic still life in
richly-coloured hard stones set into a deep black background. A
vase of flowers and various other objects are displayed on a broken
of the last mosaic workshops in the Florentine tradition, and one
that is still active, is that of the Montelatici family who specialised
in genre subjects. The Gilbert Collection has a large group of hardstone
pictures from the workshop including 'Return from the Market' by
Mario Montelatici (1894-1974), formerly in the collection of Marjorie
is a term coined by Arthur Gilbert to describe the technique that
evolved in Rome during the late 18th century. The ancient art of
mosaics flourished during the Roman Empire and the post-Constantinian
period when churches in Ravenna and Byzantium were decorated with
some of the most intensely spiritual images in mosaic of early Christian
art. There was a revival of the art form in the 16th century as
part of the plans for the decoration of the basilica of St. Peter's
in Rome. Venetian mosaicists were among those who worked there and
the earliest mosaic in the Gilbert Collection is a late 16th-century
Venetian picture of St. Jerome.
next great period of the art of mosaics was in 18th- and 19th-century
Rome when a flourishing market for views of Rome, images of ancient
history and copies of well-known paintings developed in response
to the Grand Tour. These mosaics differed from their ancient prototypes
in being painstakingly worked with infinitely smaller tesserae of
coloured glass. While earlier mosaics were made of square tesserae
of stone, marble, terracotta and glass, a method of creating threads
or strips of glass known as smalti filati in an increasing number
of colours and shapes was invented in the Vatican Mosaic workshop
during the second half of the 18th century. This microscopic technique
became a new art form and the best workshops competed to produce
ever more finely executed images composed of ever smaller tesserae
- some containing as many as 1,400 tesserae per square inch. As
a result a wide range of objects from jewellery and snuffboxes to
pictures and tabletops were created, all of which are comprehensively
represented in the Gilbert Collection.
invention of smalti filati is attributed to Giovanni Raffaelli,
probably the most talented mosaicist in 18th-century Rome, and among
the pieces by him in the collection is a clock, signed and dated
1804, which was presented by Pope Pius VII to Napoleon at the time
of his coronation and kept by Empress Josephine at Malmaison. This
masterpiece of neoclassical design and workmanship exemplifies not
only great virtuosity in the carving of precious stones and in the
design and fabrication of mosaics, but also in bronze casting. The
timepiece itself is signed by Bréguet, the best clockmaker in Europe
of the time.
earliest known micromosaic objects made on a curved surface are
a pair of late 18th-century white marble and pietre dure vases,
which were also in the collection of Empress Josephine. Attributed
to Nicola de Vecchis, they are extraordinary in their refinement
of shape and decoration, with a central frieze of micromosaics depicting
two griffins with classical vases, between which are candelabra
and swags of flowers carried by birds.
particularly fine table by Michelangelo Barberi is decorated with
micromosaic scenes of 'The Most Beautiful Skies of Italy', 1846-51.
Closely related to a table in the Hermitage made for Tzar Nicholas
I, this example was probably made for Lord Kilmoran and exhibited
at the Great Exhibition at Crystal Palace of 1851. Around the circumference
are eight sections with characteristic scenes of important Italian
cities including Rome, Florence, Milan, Naples and Venice and the
centre has a group of four genii floating in the open sky.
of the grandest of all the micromosaic views of Italy is a very
large panoramic view of Rome which is said to have taken twenty
years to complete. It is a faithful copy of a 1765 engraving by
Giuseppe Vasi of the city and although its dimensions and quality
make it one of the most striking examples of early 19th-century
Roman mosaics it is unsigned.
scenes and copies of well-known paintings were popular subjects.
Examples in the collection include Caravaggio's Entombment of Christ,
signed and dated Aguatti, 1843, and George Stubbs' Tiger lying below
Rocks by the Venetian mosaicist Decio Podio. Aguatti, one of the
greatest of the early 19th-century mosaicists, was probably the
maker of a necklace comprising nine oval plaques with landscapes
of exceptional quality. Other micromosaic jewellery in the Collection
includes a set with exquisite views of Rome, circa 1825, and another
with plaques of flowers, fruit, birds and butterflies set in lapis
lazuli frames, 1830-40.
popularity of micromosaics spread outside Italy and the Russian
craftsman Georgii Wekler (1800-1861), who trained in St. Petersburg
and Rome, was named 'master mosaicist' by Tzar Alexander I in 1822.
Wekler developed refined and sophisticated techniques using an enormous
variety of smalti filati to achieve striking effects in imitation
of brushstrokes, well illustrated in the colourful feathers of a
strutting cockerel in his picture after a painting by Hondecoeter.
richness of the Gilbert Collection of hardstones and micromosaics
is unparalleled and the only comparable collections of pietre dure
can be found in Florence while the micromosaics can only be compared
with those in the Vatican and the Hermitage in St. Petersburg. The
opening of the museum in Somerset House therefore made it possible
to study the development of these two fascinating and neglected
art forms for the first time anywhere in the world.
collection is now housed at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.
information was kindly supplied by:
Sue Bond Public Relations,
Hollow Lane Farmhouse, Hollow Lane,
Thurston, Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk, IP31 3RQ
Tel. 01359 271085
Fax 01359 271934
are very grateful for Sue Bond's help in putting together this article
about these amazing treasures.
We understand that much of the information about the mosaics came
from Jeanette Hanisee Gabriel's book "Micromosaics: The Gilbert
Collection", a work which required over ten years of research.
And the information on hardstone Florentine mosaics came from the
volume she co-authored on that subject.
Jeanette Gilbert's involvement with Sir Arthur Gilbert started
at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1986. She became Curator
of Mosaics in 1988, and Sir Arthur's personal curator of the entire
collection, in 1994. In 2002, a year after Sir Arthur died, she
was made honorary curator of the Gilbert Collection, now housed
at the V & A and various country houses in the U.K. Nobody knows
more about this collection, or has contributed more to it than her.