July 27, 2003


'Torre d'avorio', by, or in the style of, Manfredo Settala (1600-1680). Of the many fine and interesting things illustrated in Patrick Mauriès’ book Cabinets of Curiosities, some of the most eye-catching, to me, were the remarkable, hyper-elaborate 16th and 17th-Century ivory carvings, such as the one pictured left, a miniature corkscrewing tower by, or after the style of the Milanese collector and instrument-maker Manfredo Settala (1600-1680). There is a portrait of Settala in which he is depicted wearing a rather melancholy expression, and delicately holding just such a carving between his fingers, ‘the visual equivalent of a rhetorical flourish, as impressive as it is ultimately futile.’ as Mauriès puts it. One of the largest collections of these virtuoso carvings was held in Dresden, and included over two hundred such pieces, including the four pictured below. One common characteristic of these marvels was the attempt to carve one shape inside another, as many times as was possible, an endeavour which seems scarcely less arbitrary and difficult than assembling a ship-in-a-bottle within the bottle itself… No less a figure than the Habsburg emperor Rudolf II is supposed to have practiced this art. ‘Ivory-carving was nourished by the contemporary obsession with perspective and solid geometry’ writes Mauriès. It is startling to think, when presented with artefacts like these, that designs such as Wentzel Jamnitzer’s were not, as one might otherwise suppose, abstract and conceptual, but rather stood perhaps, as idealised templates toward which the master-carver might hope to aspire.

Group of four ivories from the Dresden collection.


Posted by misteraitch at July 27, 2003 03:59 AM | TrackBack

Wow, these carvings must be quite a sight to behold up close. Thanks for posting about them. They are now "midwives" or muses to a poem....

Posted by: maria on July 28, 2003 01:24 AM

Beautiful. I've been meaning to pick up that book since you brought my attention to it.

No less amazing than those ivories are the Met's boxwood rosaries, produced in the Low Countries about a century earlier. Perfectly beautiful even on the outside, they open to reveal the most astonishing, minutely detailed carvings I've ever laid eyes on. You'll find some background here.

Posted by: Carlos on July 28, 2003 01:34 AM

It's a fantastic book, this, isn't it? You might find this article about ivory-turning interesting, too.
PS. Have you ever noticed, whenever you really, really want a page to load, it just won't? What this URL should link to is a fascinating article about 17th century ivory-turning, or ars tornandi, and its relations to Baroque architecture, published in the Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes in 1990. Anyhow, it's good stuff. I posted a couple of chunks of it on my blog a while back, which you can read here, if you'd care to, just to get a taste of it, if the original link persists in not working.

Posted by: Dave on July 30, 2003 01:29 AM
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