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A Kaleidoscope of Colour: Pietra Dura

Pietra Dura, meaning ‘hard stone’, is a technique of laying platelets of polished marbles and semi-precious stones into a veneer-like pictorial design or pattern.

Stonework is inherent to Italy’s artistic culture. Just think of the marble wonders of Michelangelo, the unprecedented building of the cupola of the Duomo in Florence, or the sleek polished Terrazzo floors in Venetian Palazzi. In the summer heat, nothing is as soothing as a cool environment and stone is slow to warm. Stonework craft did not stop at those uses and also came to adorn furniture. Pietra Dura first appeared in Rome in the 16th century but it was in Florence where the art reached its full potential and glory. Pietra Dura goes back to the ancient Roman art of Opus Sectile where stones are inlayed into walls and especially floors to create a design. Unlike mosaics where each stone (tessera, pl. tesserae) is roughly the same size, the aim with Opus Sectile and Pietra Dura is a smooth, groove-less finish. The stones are cut with slanting sides so that they interlock unseen at the underside of the design.

For Pietra Dura, the design gets created and then the forms are cut from platelets of stone and finally set like a jigsaw puzzle without visible grooves, glued, polished and varnished. Usually, the designs work by offsetting a picture or pattern in bright colours against a background of black or white marble. Works of Pietra Dura from the Renaissance that were produced for the upper classes such as the Medici family even featured sapphire and emeralds.

A finished Pietra Dura artwork (Photo Nina Möller)

One of the workshops that keep this ancient craft alive in Florence is I Mosaici di Lastruccio in the Via dei Macci.

The process is as highly laborious as the finished result is stunning. Once the design is drawn, the stones need to be selected. Many plates are necessary to make sure a colour appears the same throughout the design. Even in the same kind of stone, the hues vary or it has veins and inclusions so that it requires experience to match the colour consistently and to know which part of the stone to use and which are porous and would crumble when cut. As Pietra Dura seeks to imitate painting to some degree, the stone needs to be cut so that colour gradients match the direction of the light falling into the design, i.e. all fruit in the design should have highlights at the same place or it will look unnatural and without depth. It is about understanding and respecting material, and about patience and persistence in seeking for the right piece of stone.

A Pietra Dura Workshop (Photo Nina Möller)

Pencil is used to outline the design onto the stone plate. The saw that is used to cut is a single wire, strung onto a bow of wood. This allows the very fine cutting of the hardstones for the delicate designs. The pieces are then assembled and mounted. A last polish is applied to achieve maximum smoothness in the surface and finally a coating of varnish. Stones that appear dull when dry can still be translucent and colourful when wet and the varnish is used to bring out these qualities and give a nice sheen. A large table with a particularly intricate design of acanthus leaves, flowers and fruit can take the maker up to 10 years to create! This is the very opposite of our contemporary culture of consumption and fast fashion and makes us think whether we do not lose too much culture by trimming every process to efficiency and high output.

Pietra Dura, the art of hardstone cutting (Photo Nina Möller)

The craftsmanship of Pietra Dura, of hardstone cutting, is utterly awe-inspiring in its dedication to the material and process. There is a calm serenity about the workshop and showroom, and I cannot find a better word than gravitas. I wandered around the bottega in a very philosophical mood as I admired everything. To think that this is the same work as 500 years ago!

Nowadays, artisan workshops produce works of smaller scale for tourists but also the interior décor of the locals, and large-scale pieces as replicas for museums as well as carrying out restorations for the same. It is a profession of diminishing numbers of craftspeople, but the art must be kept alive as a mirror of the past when Florence experienced its Golden Age. Documenting this is what ArtisansCurator is dedicated to.

Pietra Dura Jewellery Boxes and a Mirror (Photo Nina Möller)

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