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Transparent Art. Rock Crystal Carving in Renaissance Milan

Museo Nacional del Prado. Madrid 10/14/2015 - 1/10/2016

The present exhibition offers visitors a unique opportunity to see a little known chapter in art history, namely that of carving hyaline quartz or rock crystal, a technique for which Milan was particularly celebrated in the second half of the 16th century. Due to their value, both material and artistic, these works were only within the reach of monarchs and the highest ranks of the European aristocracy.

The exhibition includes six magnificent examples loaned from two of the most important historical collections: that of the Medici, now in the Museo degli Argenti in Florence, and the collection of Louis XIV, now in the Musée du Louvre in Paris. Another fourteen splendid pieces, now in the Prado, come from the collection assembled by the Grand Dauphin of France, son of Louis XIV, which was in part inherited by Philip V, the first Spanish Bourbon monarch, in 1711.

The latter group, known as “The Dauphin’s Treasure”, entered the Prado in 1839. Although somewhat reduced over the course of its eventful history, it still includes important objects, particularly those in rock crystal. In total it has 47 hyaline quartz vessels, 2 in citrine quartz and 1 in smoky quartz. Various academic studies have attributed these pieces to leading workshops and masters, almost all of them Milanese.

In their own time these unique works were considered to represent a courtly, sophisticated art form: a “transparent art” of astonishing beauty.

Curator:
Letizia Arbeteta Mira, curator of Museums.

Access

Jerónimos Building

Technological support:
Samsung

Multimedia

Exhibition

Transparent art

Transparent art
Vase with the story of Noah
Rock crystal, enamelled gold, rubies and a diamond
Milan, second half of the 1500s (vase), Italy, second half of the 1500s (mounts)
Paris, Musée du Louvre, Département des Objets d´art

Rock crystal or hyaline quartz is a natural gemstone and mineral that is worked by removing material rather than by modelling or with moulds. The variants known as smoky quartz and citrine quartz have tones that range from straw yellow to black.

Rock crystal’s prestige is partly due to the beauty and extremely high value placed on objects made in this material since antiquity, while in the Middle Ages it was associated with the celestial and with magic.

During the second half of the 16th century an entire craft industry emerged in Milan in response to the demand for exquisite objects from the highest ranks of European society. Among these skills was that of rock crystal carving, an ancient art that reached its peak of splendour at this period, resulting in unparalleled masterpieces which were as highly esteemed as the most outstanding works of painting and sculpture.

From an intellectual viewpoint, the ideas on art promoted by the Counter Reformation differed from the Renaissance spirit, which explored classical antiquity from a philosophical viewpoint. This latter spirit prevailed in some Milanese circles, notably the Accademia della Val di Blenio, to which a number of the most important intagliatori belonged, which may explain the uniqueness of some of their works.

The vessels and their different types

The vessels and their different types
Vase with the stories of Susannah and Judith
Rock crystal and enamelled gold. Milan, mid-1500s (medieval vase, re-carved and engraved), Milan, mid-1500s; Paris (?), late 1500s (mounts)
Paris, Musée du Louvre, Département des Objets d´art

Some of the rock crystal objects on display were inspired by drawings and engravings of archaeological finds, interpreted in different and sometimes fantastical ways. Another recurring motif is that of fabulous beasts, of which a good example is the caquesseitão, supposedly spotted by the Portuguese in Sumatra in the 16th century.

The creation of these vessels, for which the methods were kept strictly secret, required time, enormous effort and exceptional technical skill. Each one required different phases involving a collective effort based on family workshop systems. The cristallari gave the vessels form and hollowed them out (arte grossa), while the intagliatori carved the scenes and decorations (arte subtile or minuta). These scenes were carved in both intaglio and relief, resulting in extremely beautiful images that changed with the light. The tools and machinery constantly evolved and it is thought that some of the improvements applied may have been devised by Leonardo da Vinci.

Extremely high value

Extremely high value
Dish with the story of Hermaphrodite and cameos of the Twelve Caesars
Milan, workshop of the Sarachi, possibly designed by Annibale Fontana (1540–1587) (?). Rock crystal, silver gilt, enamelled gold, pearls and lapis-lazuli
Milan, 1570–80 (crystal), Milan (?), 1570–90 (cameos), Europe, 1580–90 (mounts)
Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado

In the 16th century the value of a rock crystal vessel was far higher than that of a masterpiece of painting. In Philip II’s will, paintings by Titian, Bosch and Alonso Sánchez Coello were valued at far less than some items of carved rock crystal in the same collection. This was due to their rarity and exclusivity, given that they were objects only made for the highest ranks of European society. In addition, their elaborate gold or silver mounts embellished with enamelling, pearls and precious stones considerably increased their value.

With regard to the episodes carved on them, the most popular subjects were classical ones, principally based on Ovid’s Metamorphoses, as well as stories relating to wine and water which on occasions involved religious references, all brilliantly executed and enriched with a notable symbolic and theoretical element.

The prince’s table

The prince’s table
Victory column
Milan, Francesco Tortorino (c. 1512–1572). Rock crystal, agate-chalcedony, bronze, silver gilt. Milan, 1554–65 (crystal), Italy, 1600s–1700s (mounts)
Florence, Palazzo Pitti, Museo degli Argenti

For society of the time these objects were authentic marvels, the result of a miraculous combination of human skill and intelligence and the treasures of nature. Housed in princely collections, they were particularly displayed at banquets and solemn events in which the public virtues of the prince, his magnanimity and liberality, refinement, culture and elegance, had to be clearly expressed. In addition, due to the all-encompassing concept of art characteristic of this period, these objects were enjoyed with all five senses. In some cases they transcended their own appearance due to the presence of visual puzzles in the scenes, which transformed them into displays of wit or references to power. An example of the latter is the Triumphal Column from the Museo degli Argenti, which illustrates episodes associated with the Spanish monarchy. As a consequence, the more complex their interpretations and the more elevated the concepts and references involved in them, the more they were appreciated intellectually and socially.

The Miseroni Family in their Workshop

The Miseroni Family in their Workshop
Vase in the shape of a dragon or ‘caquesseitão’
Milan, workshop of the Miseroni, possibly Gasparo Miseroni (act. 1550–70) (?)
Rock crystal. Second half of the 1500s. Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado

Milanese workshops achieved their peak of splendour in the second half of the 16th century, partly due to the presence of six generations of the Miseroni family. Particularly notable were the brothers Gasparo and Girolamo and their sons, Giovanni Ambrogio and Ottavio. The latter set up a workshop in Prague in the service of the Emperor Rudolf II, who conceded the family a title. Also working in Prague was Ottavio’s son Dionisio, who is depicted with his family in the painting by Karel Škréta on display in the exhibition. In the background of the painting, which shows the distribution of the different tasks in the workshop, are the large water-turned wheels that represented a technological advance on the previous century.

The artists

The artists
Vase with hunting scenes
Milan, Francesco Tortorino (c. 1512–1572)
Rock crystal. Third quarter of 1500s
Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado

Attributing these objects to a specific artist is a challenging task, given that very few of them are signed and also because their creation involved different makers in the different stages of production.

Together with a few individual artists, such as the highly esteemed Francesco Tortorino and Annibale Fontana, there were two principal workshops in Milan: that of the Miseroni family, whose works involved original combinations of organic elements and classical forms bordering on the abstract; and that of the Sarachi family, which specialised in extremely high quality vessels in the form of fabulous beasts. In La nobiltà di Milano (1595) Paolo Morigia states that leading aristocrats from both Milan and elsewhere visited the Sarachi workshops given that they were inventors of highly esteemed bizzarrie or marvellous rarities “which astonished the cognoscenti who contemplated them”. Both families worked for the leading European courts, including Madrid, Vienna, Prague, Mantua, Florence, Paris and Munich.

Special features

The exhibition enables visitors to see the complete contents of the catalogue through tablets available in the gallery thanks to the technological support of Samsung. These tablets will also offer additional content, including the reproduction of images of the works from the Prado’s collection in very high resolution and in some cases with 360-degree views, as well as additional information allowing for a more in-depth focus on these pieces, divided into the following thematic sections: Milan in the 16th century; The artists; Techniques and models; The decoration; Uses and functions; and Economic value.

Artworks

3

Hyaline quartz (SiO2), known as ‘rock crystal’, in its natural state

Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado

7

‘Coccus de Maldiva’

Print in Charles de l’Écluse (1525–1609)

Exoticorum libri decem...

Leiden, FranciscusRaphelengius, 1605, book I, p. 193

8

Ovoid vase

Rock crystal, silver gilt and enamelled gold

Milan, c. 1600 (vase), Paris (?), 1700s (mounts)

París, Musée du Louvre, Département des Objets d´art

10

Still-life with a Clock

Antonio de Pereda (1611–1678)

Oil on canvas

1652

Moscow, The Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts

12

Still-life with historic objects belonging to the Musée du Louvre collection: rock crystal vase, purse of Henry II, enamel by Jean Limousin

Blaise-Alexandre Desgoffe (1830–1901)

Oil on canvas

1862

Paris, Musée d’Orsay

13

Vase with the story of Noah

Rock crystal, enamelled gold, rubies and a diamond

Milan, second half of the 1500s (vase), Italy, second half of the 1500s (mounts)

Paris, Musée du Louvre, Département des Objets d´art

14

The Miseroni Family in their Workshop

Karel Škréta (1610–1674)

Oil on canvas

1653

Prague, Národnígalerie v Praze

15

Vase with mascarons and handles in the form of snakes

Milan, workshop of the Miseroni, possibly Ottavio Miseroni(c. 1567–1624)

Smoky quartz, enamelled gold, diamonds and emeralds

Milan, 1600–10 (vase), Paris, c. 1647 (mounts)

Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado

16

Vase in the shape of an oil lamp

Prague, workshop of the Miseroni, Ottavio (1567–1624) and/or Dionysio Miseroni(c. 1607–1661)

Citrine quartz and enamelled gold

First third of the 1600s (vase)

Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado

17

Vase with the stories of Susannah and Judith

Rock crystal and enamelled gold

Milan, mid-1500s (medieval vase, re-carved and engraved), Milan, mid-1500s; Paris (?), late 1500s (mounts)

Paris, Musée du Louvre, Département des Objets d´art

21

Flask with Midas and Apollo or Orpheus

Milan, workshop of the Sarachi, possibly designed by Annibale Fontana (1540–1587) (?)

Rock crystal and enamelled gold

1580 – 1589

Florence, Palazzo Pitti, Museo degli Argenti

24

Cup with marine scene

Milan, workshop of theSarachi (?)

Rock crystal and enamelled gold

1670 – 1689

Florence, Palazzo Pitti, Museo degli Argenti

25

Victory column

Milan, Francesco Tortorino (c. 1512–1572)

Rock crystal, agate-chalcedony, bronze, silver gilt

Milan, 1554–65 (crystal), Italy, 1600s–1700s (mounts)

Florence, Palazzo Pitti, Museo degli Argenti

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