Masterpieces from Italian collections

12 NOVEMBER 2019
Auction, 0325
9

CENTER TABLE, ROME, c. 1620

Estimate
30.000 / 50.000

CENTER TABLE, ROME, c. 1620

carved and patinated walnut with rectangular alabaster-veneered top. Supports consisting of two carved scrolls and decorated with large heraldic insignias of a crowned eagle, cm 88x131x97

 

Provenance

Rome, Palazzo Mattei (up to the 1930s);

Rome, Private collection;

Rome, Private collection

 

“For those who want to study Roman furnishings – meaning examples of artistry that, to our current knowledge, have distinctive and unmistakable features – the period warranting more careful examination covers approximately one hundred fifty years, that is from about 1620 and the beginning of Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s astounding career, to 1769 when Giovanni Battista Piranesi published his famous suite of sixty-seven etchings entitled “Diverse maniere di adornare i cammini”. Before and after those dates Roman furniture production, albeit often of high quality and not lacking in elegance, was not outstanding for creative originality” (Per chi voglia studiare la mobilia romana – intendendo con ciò quelle espressioni artistiche che, allo stato attuale delle nostre conoscenza, si presentano con caratteri propri e inconfondibili – il periodo da prendere, con più cura, in esame abbraccia all’incirca centocinquant’anni, si estende cioè dal 1620 circa, quando ha inizio la prorompente attività di Gian Lorenzo Bernini, al 1769 quando Giovanni Battista Piranesi pubblica il suo famoso in folio Diverse maniere di adornare i cammini. Prima e dopo queste date, ciò che si fa a Roma nel campo che qui ci occupa è, spesso, di alta qualità e di non scarsa eleganza, ma non spicca per originalità creative). These, the opening lines of the introduction “Avvio allo studio della mobilia romana” that Alvar Gonzales-Palacios wrote for Goffredo Lizzani’s book Il Mobile Romano (1970), can lead us back to early seventeenth century Rome – the period and place where this important table was made.

 

The table’s noble provenance – the Mattei family - provides an interesting starting point that could also be significant for identifying the maker or at least the milieu in which it was created. It is important to know that the Mattei family reportedly descended from a certain Matteo de' Papareschi and that they built their first small palazzo – which still stands today with the checkered shield with a bend – overlooking the Piazza in Piscinula, not far from the Tiber near the Pons Cestius (Ponte Cestio) – the bridge connecting the Tiber Island to the right bank of the river. The building played an important protective role: from 1271 until they died out, the Gens Mattheia guarded the bridges of Rome during papal interregnums ; whenever a pope died they had to recruit one hundred men from their own fiefs, dress them in red uniforms and arm them to guard the Porta Portese, which gave direct access to the Vatican, and the Ripa Grande river port; they also had to control transit on all the bridges and demand a toll. During the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, other branches of the family, together with Giacomo di Matteo and his son Ludovico, who ran successful mercantile and banking businesses, moved to the Sant’Angelo district (rione) on a large tract which became known as the Insula Mattheorum, consisting of the Piazza Mattei with the famous Turtle Fountain, Via Paganica, Via delle Botteghe Oscure, Via Michelangelo Caetani and Via dei Funari: all the buildings on those streets belonged to various branches of the family. Known for their bitter infighting and for their loyalty to the papacy, the Matteis reached the apex of power and wealth at the beginning of the seventeenth century. The outstanding members of the family at that time were the renowned art collectors Ciriaco Mattei and his brother Asdrubale; they were great supporters of the painter Caravaggio who stayed with them starting in 1601 and contributed to the decorations of the palazzo then under construction.

 

In 1595, Asdrubale Mattei, Marchese di Giove, wed Costanza Gonzaga daughter of Alfonso I Gonzaga, Count of Novellara. She was his second wife and bore him three children. It was around that time that he commissioned the architect Carlo Maderno to build a new palazzo. This was the last of the five Mattei palazzos that comprise the architectural complex known as the “"Isola dei Mattei", between Via Caetani, Via delle Botteghe Oscure, Piazza and Via Paganica, Piazza Mattei and Via dei Funari. As we can see from maps of Rome drawn by Bufalini (1550), Dupérac (1577) and Tempesta (1593), there already was a Mattei palazzo in the sixteenth century at the corner of what are now Via Caetani and Via dei Funari. Maderno had to overcome the problem of fitting the new building into a limited and difficult-to-use space. We know from archive documents that construction was started in 1598, that the cornice was finished in 1611 and that work to extend the side of the building to connect it to Alessandro Mattei’s (now Caetani) palazzo was begun in 1631. The simple and stark façade is characterized by horizontal lines and tapering upwards to compensate for the difficult conditions; the only decorative element is the cornice, the lintel, corbels and coffering decorated with the heraldic symbols of the Mattei (checky – or checkerboard) and Gonzaga (eagle) families (see photo 1). The interior, contrasts markedly with the simplicity of the outside. Perspective effects and a wealth of decorations - statues, busts, sarcophagi and fragments of ancient buildings blend with Baroque stuccowork frames creating a perfect, almost painterly whole (see photo 2).

 

Carlo Maderno, one of the key figures in the transition from Late Renaissance to Baroque architecture, was architect to Pope Paul V and is also known for his work designing furniture. In fact, he countersigned the receipt for the final payment (5 December 1627) for the creation of the choir stalls in the Choir Chapel in Saint Peter’s Basilica (see photo 3), perhaps the most beautiful example of church furnishings in Baroque Rome. Two thirds of the work was done by Giovanni Battista Soria, the same carver (he was also an architect) who had worked for the Borghese family in 1615. Soria is constantly mentioned as one of the finest carvers in the service of popes – first Urban VIII and then Alexander VII, as one of Bernini’s assistant. His name comes up frequently in lists of payments made by the Roman nobility and the clergy during those years (see the book by O. Pollak). Alvar Gonzales-Palacios also attributed an item for home use to Soria. He called it “one of the most important examples of wood [carving] in early seventeenth century Rome (uno dei più significativi esempi dell’arte del legno a Roma ai primi del Seicento) (A. González-Palacios, Arredi..., cit., p. 55). It is a carved walnut washstand comprising three supports on lion feet joined by a carved triangular piece, and it was made for the Barberini family (see photo 4). Comparing the washstand and the wooden choir stalls in the Vatican lead us to suggest that Soria also worked on our table which, on the one hand has the same imposing lion feet as the Barberini washstand and on the other, like the choir in Saint Peter’s Basilica, scrolls on the base with deep grooves and the masterful carving that is particularly evident in the two eagles – clear references to the Gonzaga coat of arms – and we must remember that Asdrubale Mattei’s wife Costanza was a Gonzaga. However, the carved continuous wave motif along the band beneath the marble top, is a direct reference to the decoration on the outside of Palazzo Caetani (see photo 5), which was designed by Carlo Maderno.

 

If the exceptional quality of the table and stylistic similarities suggest that it was made by a famous carver such as Giovanni Battista Soria or, in any event, someone close to him at the time like Bartolomeo de Rossi, with whom he worked on the choir in St. Peter’s Basilica, or Innocenzo Stoppa, Alessandro Nave or Pietro Paolo Giorgetti, all highly renowned craftsmen active in Rome during the first half of the seventeenth century, the table’s “noble provenance” also points in the same direction. It is logical to think that the client, maybe Asdrubale Mattei himself, a most prominent person, great collector as well as patron of artists turned to one of the most outstanding figures of the day to commission this center table, a kind of furniture usually meant to support a mosaic top made of ancient marbles and semiprecious stones or an antique marble-veneered top in the finest tradition of the day. Several similar items are mentioned in the inventories of several period collections. Although many tabletops have come down to us and can be found in public and private collections, there are but few surviving bases. One of these is the exceptional walnut table with gilding and the oval top that belonged to Cardinal Medici, now in the Treasury of the Grand Dukes (formerly the Silver Museum) in Palazzo Pitti, Florence.

 

References

O. Pollak, Die Kunsttatigkeit unter Urban VIII, Vienna 1928;

G. Lizzani, Il mobile romano, Milan 1970, pp. VII-IX, XVI;

A. González-Palacios, Il tempio del gusto. Le arti decorative in Italia fra classicismi e barocco. Roma e il Regno delle Due Sicilie, Milan 1984, pl. I p. 58, pl. II p. 58 nos. 97-98, p. 61 n. 100;

A. González-Palacios, Arredi e ornamenti alla corte di Roma. 1560-1795, Milan 2004, p. 55;

A. González-Palacios, E. Bassett, “Concerning furniture. Roman documents and inventories. Part I, 1600-1720”, in Furniture History, vol. 46, London 2010, pp. 1-135