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.
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.
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.
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.
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).