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An Exquisite French Inlaid Casket

Casket-val-de-loire-example

This exquisite rectangular wooden casket – leaning on four flattened ball feet, a moulded lower border and and a protruding lid with moulded border as well – is characterized by lavish decorations on the lid and on the four sides, all fully adorned with refined and partially polychromed mother-of-pearl inlays and very thin brass wires.

Val-de-loire-Casket-top

Its state of conservation is also remarkable, given the substantial integrity of the decorative apparatus as well as of all the original partially gilded iron mountings: the handle on the lid, the escutcheon on the front, the flattened ball feet, the lock, the key and the hinges.
The entire external and visible surface of the box is covered by very fine spirals with tiny brass wire leaves intertwining with mother-of-pearl decorations, consisting of round and oval medallions, small buds, berries, flowers, birds and other animals.
On the front – under an elegant gilt iron escutcheon – stands out a mermaid with a cornucopia, a symbol of abundance, flanked by two imaginary creatures within oval medallions; round medallions with a flower appear centrally on the short sides; on the back we find the same oval medallions with fantastic creatures decorating the front and a lily motif in the middle; finally on the lid -under a small double baluster iron handle with two embossed rosettes- there is a female figure picking fruit and smelling flowers in a rural landscape -an allegory of the Spring alluding to fertility- flanked by two small roundels with panoplies with weapons, armors and musical instruments.

val-de-loire-casket-lid

Most probably, the present box belongs to the well-known category of marriage caskets, made in different European regions from the Middle Ages onwards, as shown both by the decorative motifs, alluding to fertility and abundance, and by the female figures alternating with martial triumphs, typically referring to the two members of a couple.

For another Marriage Casket from our collection click here.

Val-de-loire-Casket-detail-side-view

Due to its geometric rigor of Renaissance taste, softened by the naiveté of the subtle, luxuriant and lively ornaments, the realization of this box must certainly be sought in the French context and is undoubtedly the work of an excellent craftsman, able of blending zoomorphic motifs and allegorical references with the arabesques, a motif arrived to France through the Italian artists called to the court by Francis I (1494-1547).

Val-de-loire-Casket-comparison-bookbinding

On the left: French Book Binding (from Thomas Mahieu’s library) of F. Nausea, Libri mirabilium septem, 1532. Princeton University Library (detail).

The arabesque, derived from Islamic prototypes, was in fact particularly loved and used in the various artistic fields of the so-called ‘Fontainebleau style’ and it is also interesting to note how the motif of the braided double-buttonhole ribbon surrounding the oval medaillons in our box, frequently recurs in the French bindings of the second half of the 16th century, as well as in some drawings by the great Parisian ornemaniste and architect Androuet du Cerceau (Paris, 1510 – Annecy, 1585).

Val-de-loire-Casket-comparison-cupboards

On the left: Cabinet, Val De Loire, c. 1560. Paris, Private collection. | On the right: A. du Cerceau, Drawing of a cupboard, c. 1560. Ecouen, Musée National de la Renaissance.

Moreover, the French origin of our wonderful casket is based on a precise material and decorative analogy with a specific and rare type of furniture produced between the 16th and 17th centuries: the blond walnut, the iconographic repertoire and the luxury of the materials are in fact the same in certain cupboards inlaid, during the reigns of Henry IV (1594 – 1610) and Louis XIII (1610 – 1643), in the Loire Valley. Here, first Tours and then Orléans and Blois become famous – over a century – for a refined cabinetry, intended exclusively for the most prestigious customers.

Among the rare inlaid furniture of this type we can mention two wardrobes: one once belonging to the famous fashion designer Coco Chanel and another one documented half a century ago in an important Parisian collection.
Furthermore, the regional and chronological attribution of the piece is also confirmed by the rich iron accessories, showing a distinctly late-Renaissance French taste.

On the other hand, it should be remembered that the decorative technique of inlaying a light wood with mother-of-pearl (or ivory) and brass, was not exclusively French but appeared also in other parts of the continent at that time, such as in Venice and especially in Germany; more generally, it was very frequent in weapon decoration.
In this regard, in a late 1500s French powder flask kept at the Philadelphia Museum of Art we find the same graphic style in the engravings and even a fantastic animal, that is identical to the one on our box.

Val-de-loire-Casket-comparison-powder-flask

On the left: Powder Flask, France, c. 1600. Philadelphia Museum of Art (detail)

In conclusion, apart from some important boxes similar but not identical on a stylistic level such as the one signed by the Alsatian gunsmith Jean Conrad Tornier, kept at the Wallace Collection in London, we can affirm that at the present state of our knowledge the casket illustrated here has no equal and it is therefore configured as a valuable and unprecedented testimony of late Renaissance French cabinet-making.

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CASKET
Wood inlaid with brass and engraved mother of pearl
France, Loire Valley
Late 16th century
Cm 32 x 20 x 18h
References: T. Lenk, Flintlåset, dess uppkomst och utveckling, 1939, pl. 106; J. Boccador, Le Mobilier français du Moyen Age à la Renaissance, Ed. Monelle Hayot, 1988, p 264 ; P. Kjellberg, Le mobilier français du Moyen Âge à Louis XV, 1978; D. Alcouffe, Il mobile francese dal Rinascimento a Luigi XIV, Milano 1981.

A nice pair of Emilian Bronze Doorknockers

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The quality of this nice pair of bronze doorknockers with dark patina is mainly due to their formal richness: a lyre-shaped body with arms adorned by foliages and vegetal scrolls among which – in the centre and in correspondence of the knocking element – appears the mask of a satyr with goat horns.

Bronze-doorknockers-detail

Leonine and grotesque mascarons are typical and recurrent elements in doorknockers and other small Renaissance bronzes: on one hand they recall the ancient world and on the other they certainly have an apotropaic function.
Among the best witnesses of the fortune of this kind of image we can remember an early work by Michelangelo: the iconic marble Head of a Faun, carved around 1489 but lost in 1944 and today known through the descriptions by Condivi and Vasari, and thanks to some plaster casts.

bronze-doorknockers-comparison

On the left : Michelangelo Buonarroti, Head of a Faun, c. 1489 (lost in 1944).

Michelangelo’s head, like that of our doorknockers, is bearded and laughing, showing large eyebrows, a “broken” nose and an open mouth with protruding teeth and tongue. It is a powerful and fascinating representation, which can also be found on cameos, handles, doorknockers and other Renaissance objects: an allusion to the most wild and instinctive aspect of mankind, as it was already celebrated in the ancient and pagan world.

Another doorknocker, nearly identical to those presented here and certainly made in the same workshop, is housed at Museo Stefano Bardini in Florence (Nesi-Rago 2009, p. 168). Two other quite similar ones were still in place in 1903 on a door of a house in Reggio Emilia (Balletti 1903, p. 121-122).

Look at a stunning pair of German doorknockers here; and discover an unrivalled spanish one here.

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On the left: Sandro Botticelli, Portrait of a Man with a Medal of Cosimo the Elder, c. 1474-1475. Florence, Uffizi Gallery. | On the right: Emilia workshop, Doorknocker, late 16th century. Florence, Museo Bardini.

The collection of small bronze objects from the Ancient World , mainly focused on medals, starts in the late Middle Ages and leads, during the Renaissance – in Veneto, especially in Padua-, to a ‘rebirth’ of small bronzes, often made by excellent artists such as Pisanello and Donatello and inspired by the ancient models. The production of these small bronzes quickly became a specific genre – addressed to a cultivated élite of refined amateurs – rapidly spreading in Emilia and in Tuscany.
Considered as autonomous works of art, Renaissance small bronzes will be then very appreciated between the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century, and sought after by the greatest and best European collectors.

As the great 14th century poet Francesco Petrarca already noticed, the special charm of small antique objects derives from the fact that they are manageable sculptures, providing a pleasure that is certainly visual but also substantially tactile; the same aspect is emphasized, centuries later, by Galileo, and again in 1961, the celebrated antique dealer Luigi Bellini wrote: “Bronzes are like pearls, […] because you feel a physical pleasure in caressing them […], you would never stop”.

Bronze-doorknockers-pair

PAIR OF DOORKNOCKERS
Italy (Emilia)
Second half 16th century
Bronze
H cm 16
Bibliography: La camera delle meraviglie, exhibition cat., Galleria Mazzoleni, Milan 1985, n.20; Museum, exhibition cat., Galleria Lorenzelli, Bergamo 1994, p. 244.
References: A. Balletti, Gli ultimi battenti in bronzo a Reggio dell’Emilia, in “Rassegna d’Arte”, 1903, III, p. 121-122; Museo Stefano Bardini. I bronzetti e gli oggetti d’uso in bronzo, ed. by A. Nesi, cat. by T. Rago, Florence 2009, p. 168, cat. 65.

A very elegant Tinder Pistol

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At first sight, this refined and curious object might look like a pistol but it is in fact a remarkable example of a mechanical tinder lighter designed for domestic use or, more precisely, a tinder-pistol.
The piece examined here just looks like a small pistol, with an elegantly shaped walnut wood body on which different metal parts are mounted (butt cover, trigger, flintlock mechanism, sideplate, barrel, candle holder and support): all parts are made of steel, engraved with elegant war motifs, vegetables, palmettes and flowers. The butt hosts a small chamber provided with a lid, designed to store flint and tinder reserve, the candle holder is regulated by a spring hinge inside the barrel as well as the violin-shaped support is spring hinged under the barrel and allows the tinder pistol to be stably placed on a table to be used as a candlestick.

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The first mechanical lighters, dating to around the mid 17th century, employed the same flintlock devices as arquebuses and pistols, and they were quite rough and simple. Some slightly sophisticated lighters appear later, but really refined and elegant versions are manufactured only in the full 18th century. On a practical level a tinder pistol basically works like a pistol in the barrel of which, instead of gunpowder, both the tinder and a small candle holder are housed. By pressing the trigger  the flintlock mechanism is activated, which almost instantly ignites the wick of the candle; a fraction of second later, the barrel is uncovered, thus allowing the candle holder and the support to stand upright.

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The sideplate bears the gunsmith’s signature, in italics: “Bonnehay à Maubeuge”. The same signature, in capital letters, is damascened in gold on the barrel – BONNEHAY A MAUBEUGE  – togheter with elegant Louis XV style scrolls and a palmette.

tinder-pistol-detail-signature
The French city of Maubeuge was famous in the early 18th century as the seat of an important Royal Manufactory of Weapons and the signature that appears on this tinder pistol, rather rare, corresponds to that of a poorly documented family of gunsmiths. A certain Monsieur Bonnehai (Bonney, Bonnechay, Bonnehay), is remembered as the master gunsmith of the Maubeuge arsenal, when he was appointed as inspector at the Manufacture for six months in 1754, and again in 1779  the sources speak of three members of the Bonnehay family in Maubeuge: E. Louis, Jean and Alexandre. Most likely, we owe to one of them the creation of this luxurious piece.

tinder-pistol-detail-barrel-signature
Among the high-quality tinder pistols we must certainly mention: a twin example to ours, housed at the Museum Le Secq de Tournelles in Rouen, and some notable ones preserved at the Wallace Collection in London, but the most significant nucleus is part of the important Bryant and May collection, exhibited for almost a century at the Science Museum of the English Capital.

tinder-pistol-comparison

Tinder Pistol, signed ‘Bonnehay à Maubeuge’. Rouen, Musée Le Secq de Tournelles.

Sophisticated and expensive devices of this kind were, as always, intended for a small and wealthy minority of gentlemen, who used them to light fires, pipes or other candles in their homes but a tinder-pistol like this, signed by a gunsmith and richly decorated with the same care of a real firearm, is undoubtedly a top of its category.

tinder-pistol-side-view

Bonnehay (armorers active in Maubeuge in the 18th century)
TINDER PISTOL
Engraved steel with gold damascening; walnut wood
Maubeuge (France)
Second half 18th century
Cm 25,5 x 15,5
Signed “BONNEHAY À MAUBEUGE”

Bibliography: V. Cacciandra, A. Cesati, Fire Steels, Allemandi, 1996, plate VIII (K), p. 128.
References: Christy, M., The Bryant and May Museum of Fire-Making Appliances, London: Bryant & May Ltd.,1926.

WEBSITE RENEWED

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The art world is facing a historical phase of great changes.

The art market is especially undergoing and will undergo for a while a remarkable transformation, due to the greater travelling difficulties and to the postponement of many important art fairs. These events were until now the most pleasant and important occasions of interaction between dealers and art collectors, with the physical presence of the artworks.

Therefore, in order to keep nowadays the dialogue with collectors and art lovers open, it becomes important, more than ever, to give larger space to online communication.

In these weeks we extensively thought and worked in this direction and we are now finally glad to announce that we achieved a wide updating of our website.In order to let you better explore our collection, you will find two new sections:
sculptures and works of art.

Into these sections you can find several artworks, partially unpublished and, as always, carefully selected for their quality, rarity and curiosity: they include traditional metalwork and items in the most different materials, such as ivory, bronze, marble, stone, wood, wax, tortoiseshell and terracotta.

Each work is accompanied by a text illustrating its uniqueness, the historical and cultural context, as well as its most curious and fascinating aspects.

We invite you to explore our website, discover our selection of artworks and share your comments to our email address.

An Appealing Spanish Lock

Spanish-Lock_detail

This intriguing ironwork belongs to the so-called à moraillon kind of locks, designed for closing chests and coffers, and quite common in the Gothic and Late Gothic periods, especially in the French and Spanish areas.
The present one shows a typical quadrangular shape and a warm brown patina; moreover, it has a rather unusual and rare decorative layout.

Appealing-Spanish-Lock_detail
The upper part is marked by three embossed and engraved vertical elements, imitating three knobby trunks wrapped in helical bands: the first and third elements are the staples anchoring the lock to the chest, while the second and tilting one is the keyhole cover; a small winged dragon with knotted tail, carved in full relief, appears between the first and the second element, with the aim to adorn the moraillon below and also to enable the grip of it when the coffer has to be opened.

Appealing-Spanish-Lock-side
The lower part is a band decorated with two carved grotesque masks, separated by a rectangular plate with an orbe-voie tracery. This type of ornament consists of an overlapping of several pierced plates, each one with a different design, thus obtaining a precious effect imitating a goldsmith’s work.

Appealing-Spanish-lock-tracery
Ironworking in Spain had already reached significant levels during the early Middle Ages, due to the Arabic presence, introducing new and sophisticated techniques; above all, Spanish blacksmiths drew from the Islamic aesthetic the taste for the minute and refined metalworking.
At the same time, the iconographic theme of the dragon enliving this rich lock is omnipresent in the Christian world: used at least since the Romanesque period in the context of a vitalistic conception of ornamentation, it is undoubtedly among the protagonists of the Gothic drôlerie.
Moreover, dragons are recurrent elements in the typical decorative lexicon on locks and doorknockers: as well as heads and monstrous masks, they are elements decorating crossing points – not by chance – and often with an apotropaic meaning.

Spanish-lock-example

Chest with ‘moraillon’ lock, Spain, circa 1500. Madrid, National Archaeological Museum

This fertile crossroad of cultures is therefore at the origin of an unparalleled Spanish flair in the art of iron, long-lasting over the centuries, of which this lock is a significant example. A really appealing work, not only for its compositional invention, but also because it shows the simultaneous application of all the major metalworking techniques: embossing, piercing, engraving and full-relief carving.

Appealing-spanish-lock

CHEST LOCK
Wrought, embossed, carved and pierced iron
Spain
Circa 1500
Cm 20,5 x 22,5 h

References: Henri René d’Allemagne, Decorative Antique Ironwork, Dover Publ., 1968, Pl. 39; Catherine Vaudour, Clefs et Serrures, des origines au commencement de la Renaissance, Catalogue du Musée Le Secq des Tournelles, Fascicule II, Rouen Offset Fernandez, Rouen 1980, p. 72-75.

An Outstanding Jewelry Casket

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This small and precious rectangular brass casket -completely gilded both outside and inside- shows a stepped base, a domed lid and a front enriched by two reverse-painted oval rock crystals, set into bezels: the left one depicts the Annunciation and the right one depicts the Nativity.
Outstanding-Jewelry-Casket
The entire outer surface of the casket is finely engraved with interwoven ribbons, twirls and plant festoons, following a stylistic repertoire very common in the German area.
On the front, between the two ovals and surrounded by a rich decoration, the keyhole houses a delightful miniature key that moves a tiny spring lock, still working. The trilobed key handle follows a typical Southern German model, just like the miniature doorknockers decorating the short sides of the casket: a pair of beautiful leonine masks with a ring in their jaws.
eccezionale-cofanetto-portagioie-lati
The lid, equipped with a beautiful baluster-shaped handle, is richly engraved: on the lateral lunettes there are two cupids hidden in the vegetation, while centrally there’s a lady in profile within a laurel wreath. The lady is richly dressed according to the Habsburg fashion dating from between late 16th and early 17th century: a high collar, a narrow gorget, the hair gathered in a net and the head crowned by a small hat.

Outstanding-Jewelry-Casket-comparison

Right: J. Pantoja de la Cruz, Queen Elizabeth of Valois, c. 1605 (det.). Madrid, Prado

The presence of a female portrait, as well as the iconographic choice of both crystals, related to the theme of motherhood, allow us to understand that the small jewelry box represents a special example of those wedding caskets, widespread in all European regions since the Middle Ages and especially in the German region (where they are known as Minnekästchen, from the German word “Minne” meaning ‘courtly love’): a gift between lovers or newlyweds, used to store jewelry and other personal objects.

Outstanding-Jewelry-Casket-detail

Right: Tableclock with alarm. Southern Germany, 1530-1540.

Similarly, the sophisticated decoration of our refined piece finds significant comparisons within the best German goldsmith production, typical of Augsburg and Nuremberg, like, for example, some gorgeous watch cases crafted in that area from the mid-16th century onwards.
Finally, the quality of the two painted crystals is particularly evident in the fine pictorial details, which can be found in similar artefacts, once again from the German area.

Outstanding-Jewelry-Casket-glass

Right: Pendant with the Nativity (painted rock crystal), Nuremberg c. 1550. Coll. Ryser

The reverse paintings on glass or rock-crystal, a pre-Roman technique, required a high degree of virtuosity, not only because of the small size of the work surface, but also due to the difficulty of conceiving the painting in the opposite way, i.e. starting from the details and ending with the background. These works were manufactured, in the Renaissance, especially in the Italian and German areas, by artists who achieved expressions of such an excellence that they fed an international trade.

Outstanding-Jewelry-Casket-side-viewJEWELRY CASKET
Engraved and gilded brass; gilded and painted rock-crystals
Southern Germany (Augsburg or Nuremberg)
Late 16th century
cm. 8,5 x 3,5 x 6,5 h

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