The Fitzwilliam Acquires Pair of Pietre Dure Roman Cabinets

Posted in museums by Editor on August 14, 2016


Pair of ebony and rosewood cabinets, inlaid with pietre dure, and mounted with gilt-bronze; made in Rome, ca. 1625, likely for a member of the powerful Borghese family. The gilt-wood stands were made in England, ca. 1800, probably to the designs of the influential Regency designer, Charles Heathcote Tatham, in order to display the cabinets in the spectacular Long Gallery at Castle Howard, Yorkshire (Cambridge: The Fitzwilliam Museum).

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Press release from The Fitzwilliam:

The Fitzwilliam Museum announced today (Monday, 8 August 2016) its successful bid to raise the £1.2 million needed to save an important pair of pietre dure Roman cabinets for the nation. No other pair of Roman hardstone cabinets exist in a public collection in Britain.

The Fitzwilliam is grateful for the support of The National Heritage Memorial Fund (NHMF) for their generous grant of £700,000 and to the Art Fund for their early adoption of this project with a £200,000 grant. The Fitzwilliam also received generous support from numerous other benefactors, including the Pilgrim Trust, to prevent these treasures from leaving the UK.

These unique and highly prized cabinets have been part of the private collection at Castle Howard, Yorkshire, since their purchase by Henry Howard, the 4th Earl of Carlisle, most likely in Rome during his second ‘Grand Tour’ of Italy (1738–39). They were offered for auction at Sotheby’s London, last summer by the Trustees of Castle Howard and sold to a foreign buyer for £1.2 million.

A member of the Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art, (RCEWA), Christopher Rowell, stated that the cabinets, represent “the high watermark of the British taste for Italian princely furniture” and that “with the exception of the National Trust’s cabinet at Stourhead, made in Rome around 1585 for Pope Sixtus V, these are the most significant cabinets of this type in Britain.”

Their historic and cultural value was such that the then Culture Minister Ed Vaizey placed a temporary export bar on the 400-year-old Italian cabinets to provide an opportunity to save them for the nation.


One of the cabinets as installed at Castle Howard.

The cabinets were made in Rome in the first quarter of the 17th century almost certainly for a member of the papal Borghese dynasty, one of the most powerful and wealthy families of their day, and represent the highest quality of furniture-making in 17th century Italy. Veneered with ebony and rosewood, they have been further embellished with inlays of expensive, exotic and vividly coloured semi-precious hardstones (such as lapis lazuli and jasper) and with gilt-bronze statuettes and escutcheons. They are among the most significant cabinets of this type left in Britain, dating back to 1625.

Each cabinet sits on a Neo-classical stand, probably made ca. 1800 to the designs of the influential Regency designer, Charles Heathcote Tatham, for display in the just-completed spectacular Long Gallery at Castle Howard, Yorkshire. Fashioned from mahogany, they boast gilded caryatid supports and other classical ornaments. Showpiece cabinets, like these, were the most prestigious display furniture in 17th-century Europe and were lavishly decorated to reflect the status and taste of their owners and have been eagerly collected ever since.

Tim Knox, Director of the Fitzwilliam Museum, remarked “Splendid hardstone mounted cabinets such as these were the ultimate trophy of British Grand Tour collectors in the 18th century. With their lavish inlay of electric blue lapis lazuli, and glowing jaspers, and later English stands with gilded caryatids (supports in the form of antique maidens), they are a perfect combination of Italian pomp and English splendour. Nowhere in the UK is it possible to see a pair of Roman cabinets of quite this swagger and splendour. I am thrilled that we have saved these remarkable objects from export and that they can take their place amidst the Fitzwilliam’s world-class collections. They are a fitting acquisition to celebrate the 200th birthday of our founder, Lord Fitzwilliam.”

Sir Peter Luff, Chair of NHMF, said: “Exquisitely beautiful and exceptionally rare, it is when you consider these cabinets in their original context at Castle Howard, one of our finest country house interiors, that they become very important to the UK’s heritage.”

Stephen Deuchar, Art Fund Director, said: “We are very happy to support the Fitzwilliam in acquiring this captivating pair of cabinets, a fantastic addition to the permanent collection in its bicentenary year.”

Sir Mark Jones, Chair, The Pilgrim Trust said “It is great news that these spectacular cabinets, so important for understanding the history of taste in Britain, are to stay in the country.”

The pair of cabinets will go on display at the Museum on Wednesday 10th August, when they will be unveiled as part of the celebrations in honour of the Founder’s Birthday.



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