May 01, 2006

Pictorial Stones

The second of the four fascinating essays in the Lithuanian-born art-historian Jurgis Baltrušaitis’ book Aberrations is entitled Pictorial Stones and is concerned with the varieties of natural imagery found in marbles, agates, alabasters, and the like; and with the kinds of artificial imagery painted upon such stones. The plates in the book include some fine examples of the former: including ‘ruiniform marbles,’ ‘landscape stones,’ and slabs of jasper bearing weirdly organic patterns. Stones such as these were highly prized in early modern Europe, and many found their way into the collections and cabinets of that era’s connoisseurs.

Detail of a photo of a piece of 'ruiniform marble' from Jurgis Baltrušaitis' 'Aberrations.'


Detail of a photo of a piece of Spanish sandstone jasper, from Jurgis Baltrušaitis' 'Aberrations.

Sometimes, patterned stones were further embellished with painted decoration. The Augsburg merchant Philipp Hainhofer was a specialist in works like these, and included fine examples of decorated stones in the cabinets he supplied to Philip II, the duke of Pomerania, and to Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden. In the latter cabinet were a maritime battle scene painted on marble, after a design by Jacques Callot: and a pair of remarkable paintings on agate by one Johann König (1586-1635). A detail from one of these ‘The Last Judgement’ is shown below. Click on it to see a larger detail, or click here to see a black-and-white image of the piece almost in full. The Augsburg cabinet sent to Gustavus Adolphus, is, remarkably, still largely complete, and its contents are on display at the Museum Gustavianum in Uppsala.

Detail of a partial view of Johann König's 'Last Judgement, painted on agate.

Hainhofer sourced his pictorial stones from Italy, and often referred to them as ‘Florentine stones.’ In one letter he wrote about ‘those Florentine stones in which Nature herself has depicted cities, towers and roofs.’ Another famous owner of such a stone was the Jesuit polymath Athanasius Kircher. His petrified Urbs Turrita (as shown in the detail below) was the subject one of the hundreds of illustrations in his three-volume geological treatise Mundus Subterraneus. Other illustrations showed examples of texts seemingly spontaneously etched into stones, and of unexplained images of beasts, birds, and human figures likewise cast in stone.

Detail of an engraved illustration of a pictorial stone from Kircher's 'Mundus Subterraneus.'

Another type of images in stone (one not mentioned in Baltrušaitis’ essay) which were in great demand in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, were commessi di pietre dure, mosaic-like compositions carefully formed from judiciously selected and expertly cut pieces of semi-precious stone. One of the earliest masters of this art was a Florentine named Cosimo Castrucci. His work was avidly collected by the emperor Rudolf II., whose patronage persuaded Castrucci’s son Giovanni to move to Prague, where he established a workshop to produce pietre dure pieces for the Rudolfine court. The pair of details below are from two pieces produced by this workshop.

Detail of 'Landscape with Obelisk and the Imperial Coat of Arms,' Pietre Dure work from the workshop of Giovanni Castrucci.


Detail of 'Landscape,' Pietre Dure work from the workshop of Giovanni Castrucci.

The art of pietre dure stone-cutting flourished in Florence well into the 18th Century (and is still practised there today). It found its most extravagant expression in the Altar of the Capella dei Principi at the church of San Lorenzo—sadly I’ve not been able to find any good pictures of this on-line. The pages of the Opificio delle Pietre Dure offer some more information about this lapidary art. I have variously scanned the present images from Aberrations (the first two above), from Pautrick Mauries’ Cabinets of Curiosities (the third above, and the one below), from Athanasius Kircher: Itinerario del Éxtasis o Las Imágenes de un Saber Universal ed. Ignacio Gómez de Liaño, (the fourth one above), and from Rudolf II and Prague: The Court and the City ed. Eliška Fučiková, et al. (the two immediately above).

A Florentine Pietre Dure Sunflower.


Posted by misteraitch at May 1, 2006 01:20 PM

That sunflower is gorgeous. Cheers.

Posted by: peacay on May 1, 2006 05:36 PM

This is a lovely item, in Bristol we have a rock, Cotham Marble, in which fantactica; landscapes have been formed fossiled algal growths:

is a very fine example of this (there a lots of other lovely rocks on this website, but it is a little slow)

Posted by: paulm on May 1, 2006 07:12 PM

"ruiniform marbles" ... brilliant!

Posted by: paradise on May 1, 2006 07:44 PM

Thanks for that link, paulm: beautiful stuff. I lived in Cotham for a while back in ’94/’95…

Posted by: misteraitch on May 2, 2006 08:29 AM

What is the stone in the first image? There was - & probably still is - a market stall in the square in the village of Ramatuelle, near where my parents used to live in the Var in South-East France, from which were sold slabs of this extraordinary rock.

Posted by: Dick Jones on May 2, 2006 09:32 AM

Wonderful post, misteraitch. I think this could be interesting:

Posted by: C. Rancio on May 2, 2006 11:19 AM

Muchas Gracias, Señor Rancio: several of the stones (including the first two above) pictured in Baltrušaitis’ book were taken the collection of Claude Boullé, as mentioned in that link.

Dick—I believe the stone above is Tuscan marble: I’d meant to check the book to be sure, but the link above has pictures of the same kind of stone from the same collection described as ‘mármol toscano.’

Posted by: misteraitch on May 2, 2006 11:39 AM

The stone in the first example is known in Italian as paesina, from paese, country or landscape. Sometimes it includes metal dendrites (tree-like crystals), appropriately set against the stone horizon.
The engraving of the ‘Urbs Turrita’ is priceless, almost an unintentional cubist landscape. It also looks like upturned organ pipes, don’t you think?

Posted by: Michelangelo on May 2, 2006 04:50 PM

A fascinating corner in your own little cabinet of curiosities...

Posted by: marlyat2 on May 5, 2006 05:59 AM

Okay, I'm back to pilfer the ruiniform marbles... That's just too good to leave altogether behind.

(I'm just the kind of pickpocket who says 'thanks.')

Posted by: marlyat2 on May 6, 2006 08:43 PM

In China there is a long tradition of collecting pictorial stones. Especially the region around Nanjing is famous for it's rocks. They are called "Rain Flower Pebbles" and the history of collecting them can be traced back to nearly a thousand years.

For more information:
"Album of Rain Flower Pebbles Treasure"
Jiangsu Ancient Book Publishing House (HK)

An amazing book!!

Posted by: ruud pols on May 7, 2006 10:18 AM

And rain flower pebbles I must have also... I'm going to have to hunt for that book (one that will definitely not be found in my tiny village.)

Posted by: marlyat2 on May 8, 2006 06:50 PM

Nice images and nice piece of information.
Want to share this beautiful natural images

Posted by: Mahavir on October 27, 2007 10:52 AM
Comments are now closed