Book Review: Jeanette Hanisee Gabriel’s Micromosaics

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Micromosaics: Private Collections

Jeanette Hanisee Gabriel

Published by Brian McCarthy in the United States, 2016, US $125.00

ISBN 978 5136 12591

 

 

Since the beginning of the 20th Century the art of micromosaics gradually has become a lost art due to the introduction of less expensive and physically taxing production techniques.  Its beginning was in Rome and with the Vatican Mosaic Studio in the 16th Century based on a quest to preserve the damaged paintings in the Basilica of St. Peter steadily eroded by the stifling, humid conditions along the Tiber River.   What the restorers found was that the mosaic altarpieces remained robustly intact while the paint was peeling off the rotting frames of the religious paintings.  This led to the art of painting in mosaic combined with the labour-intensive production of enamel for this specific purpose.  The production of fired enamel would take the form of ‘cubes’ and, the even more delicate, enamel thread.

The first micromosaics thus were altarpieces of paintings in St. Peter’s Basilica by such artists as Raphael, Caravaggio, Reni, and Poussin that took over one hundred years to complete.   These first religious micromosaic works of art were then followed by depictions of history paintings and, in the late 1700’s, with depictions of secular themes.

It was the younger members of the European Royalty in the 18th Century, in continuation of their cultural education, so partaking in ‘The Grand Tour’ to the ‘eternal city’, who were responsible for importantly raising interest in the collecting of micromosaics.    Unfortunately, what these cultural explorers found was one of the dirtiest cities in all of Europe.  Nonetheless, these conditions did not dissuade rich royal and aristocratic foreigners, and from all of the leading nations in Europe, to congregate in Rome so including patrons, collectors, scholars, and artists.

The Vatican Workshop eventually became a commercial enterprise selling miniature altarpieces of St. Peter’s as well as portraits of the popes that were then given as diplomatic gifts.   It was the royal families of Russia, Britain, Sweden and Spain, among other royal households, who were the most proficient early collectors.    The Holy Roman Emperor, Joseph II, returned to his collections mosaic tabletops, as did Princess Sophia Albertina of Sweden, who visited Rome in 1793.   Numerous mosaics also were collected by Napoleon Bonaparte and members of his extended family.

Members of Russian royalty and of the aristocracy especially were keen collectors and the Hermitage Museum includes a mosaic portrait of Empress Elizabeth from the early 18th Century as well as micromosaic tabletops from 1791 given to Catherine the Great by Countess Ekaterina Skvaronskaia, the wife of the Russian Ambassador to Naples.    However, the most prolific collector of micromosaics, and probably of all time, was Czar Nicholas I.

In 2011, Sotheby’s sold Lot 254: ‘An Important Italian Micromosaic Table by Gioacchino Barberi after Alexander Orlovski made around 1830 to 1833 ’ for a record sale price of        US $ 1,986,500 (including Buyer’s Premium).   It was Nicholas I who organised its purchase, and who also may have commissioned the table, given its important military theme of the Russo-Turkish War of 1828 -1829.   Based on archives found at the Russian State Historical Archive in St. Petersburg, Michelangelo Barberi and his brother, Gioacchino, already were known to the imperial court as well as to the Czar since in 1826 Czar Nicholas I was in correspondence with Gioacchnino, to secure Michelangelo Barberi’s famous micromosaic table, ‘Triumph of Cupid’ made in 1823.

It was Michelangelo Barberi, following in his prolific father’s footsteps, Giuseppe Francesco Camillo Barberi (1746-1809), who became the predominant and greatest micromosaic artist in history.   Michelangelo’s fame was genuinely grounded on his originality and genius as a painter in mosaics.      In the Appendix, the author makes an important scholarly contribution by including a short biography on Michelangelo Barberi.  This includes a presentation of the little known personal relationship between Michelangelo and the Russian Princess, Zinaida Volkonsky (1789-1862).    Zinaida earlier had become romantically entangled with Czar Alexander I following Zinaida’s appointment as a Lady-in-Waiting to the Dowager Empress, Maria Feodorovna, mother of Alexander I.    A marriage of convenience was organised by the imperial household to Prince Nikita Volkonsky but it was not a happy one.   Zinaida and Michelangelo, who both were musically inclined, journeyed together to Paris in 1815 and would spend the next nine years together in Moscow, Paris, and in Rome.     In 1867 by the end of his life, Michelangelo Barberi was renowned as the pre-eminent artist of his day, and of any other period, receiving a series of prizes including the ‘Order of St. Sylvester’ from Pope Pius IX.   Michelangelo’s landmark book in 1856, ‘Alcuni Musaici Usciti Dallo Studio  del Cav. Michel’Angelo Barberi’ boldly lays out his philosophy that a true artist needs to foremost communicate cultural and artistic wisdom to his audience.

In regards to the illustrious table that sold at Sotheby’s in 2011, it eventually found its way from the Russian imperial collection into the Demidoff collections in Tuscany since it featured as Lot 316 at the ‘The Villa di San Donato Sale of the Century’ organised by Prince Paul Demidoff, 2nd Prince of San Donato, on 5 May 1880.   The speculation is that Czar Alexandre II deaccessioned the masterpiece, so sold the piece to the Demidoffs, finding it not to his artistic taste.   Successive generations of Demidoffs were collectors of micromosaic masterpieces starting with Nicholas Demidoff (1773-1828) who was followed by his sons, Paul Demidoff (1798 – 1840) and Anatole Demidoff, 1st Prince of San Donato (1813-1870).   It was Anatole who commissioned from Michelangelo Barberi a series of micromosaic pavements in front of various fireplaces at Villa di San Donato.   Anatole’s nephew, Paul Demidoff, continued the engagement commissioning similar micromosaic works from Michelangelo Barberi for Villa Demidoff / Pratolino.

The author, Jeanette Hanisee Gabriel, with this important work importantly contributes towards the history of collections.   This richly illustrated book depicts over 250 micromosaic masterpieces and from private collections from around the world that have been catalogued under the separate headings of Tables, Pictures, Plaques, Boxes, Jewellery, and Miscellaneous.    With this work, the author has rendered a tremendous service to scholars, auction houses, and collectors of this highly important, but scarce, art of micromosaics.

Alexandre Tissot Demidoff

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