The oval rock crystal plaquette finely reverse engraved with stylised floral and foliate designs, embellished with fauna such as rabbits, birds and insects in the Renaissance style, late 18th or first half of 19th Century. Dimensions: 7.2cm x 5.5cm x 0.5cm
Note: Rock crystal, or Hyaline quartz, has been revered and carved since prehistoric times. Due to its incredible transparency, rarity of fine specimens, and unique play of light a mystical fascination for the material has been held for centuries. It is recorded in an Ancient Chinese treaty on geology by Jin Ni Zi (4th Century BC) and was described by Pliny (23 - 79 AD) in ‘Naturalis Historia’ as a form of permanently frozen or petrified ice. This is a belief that continued through the Middle Ages (and wasn't really challenged until Danish geologist Nicolas Steno in the 17th Century who came up with the first principles of crystallography that became some of the foundations for modern geology), perpetuated by the fact that, outside of the importation from India and further East through Venice, a large deposit known by Europeans was high up in the Alps.
From the 9th and 10th Centuries the purity of fine specimens and their rarity meant that rock crystal became a symbolic, as well as decorative, choice for Christian liturgical objects, particularly for reliquaries. At the same time, it was also popular with the Arab Fatimid civilisation and a source of important trading between the continents as a result. Its rarity meant that the material was highly prized by monarchs as a demonstration of wealth, (King Jean I of France ordered a throne made of rock crystal in the early 14th Century) and its allure was enhanced by the idea that cups carved from rock crystal would turn milky in colour if poison were poured into them.
But the zenith of its popularity came during the Renaissance and by the 16th Century European lapidary techniques and competing royal and noble figures created the perfect atmosphere for a fervour in the exploration of the medium's decorative potential. Schools of engraving emerged in Milan and Florence (later in Freiberg and Prague) and the balance of importance between engraver (previously beneath that of the goldsmith) and jeweller tipped. Up until the Renaissance engravers names were not recorded and so little information remains on them but in this period the status of the engraver meant that the most famous names are still known. The Miseroni, Annibale Fontana, the Sarracchi, Giovanni Ambrosio, Valerio Belli and Giovanni Bernardi. Bejewelled and exquisitely carved pieces were held in such regard that Philip II of Spain valued his significantly above his collection of paintings by Titian in his will for example and by the reign of Louis XIV there were no less than 394 recorded rock crystal objects in the crown's inventory. Another statement of their value is that even broken objects were repurposed as elements were married together, and chips filled, with the use of gold creating hybrids of different époques and origins.
The intensity of competition to create the most impressive ‘Schatzkammer’ (a German word used to refer to a room housing a collector’s objets de virtu and typically Renaissance ones) resulted in some truly magnificent collections, in the hands of the most prominent noble and royal families, some of which can be still seen today, notably the Florentine Grand-Ducal collection at the Palazzo Pitti, the collection of the Habsburgs in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, and the Wittelsbach collection in Munich. The Renaissance Revival seen in the 19th and into the 20th Century is another source of incredible collections of carved rock crystal objects as a fervour for the styles of the 16th&17th Century became a sign of style and taste. The competition, mounted by both European (famously branches of the Rothschild family competed even amongst themselves) but also American collectors (JP Morgan had an incredible collection of Renaissance objects and jewels) created a hunger for objects and art from these decades but also simultaneously created a market for contemporary examples and the blurring of the lines between the two. As Archaeological Revival and Neo-Classical styles aimed to provide homages to ancient decorative elements, so too did Renaissance Revival artisans of the respective 16th&17th Century originals.
It is sometimes a difficult task to date precisely objects that have been created in a style that enjoyed recurring homages over the centuries. This is particularly true of both the afore-mentioned time periods and the prowess of artisans and craftsmen who had mastered the techniques and sensibilities of their respective past periods, combined with there being relatively few confirmed originals from each period and many mistakenly confirmed originals (which can even be found in museum collections), can make it complicated to extricate one from the other. As with all fields, the only way you can form an opinion yourself beyond available documentation is by examining numerous examples and forming a feel for the subtleties in technique and material from each period. Even this is however not a guarantee, as was to be proved when a cache of designs by the German goldsmith Reinhold Vasters (1827 -1909) was unearthed from the archives of the V&A in the 1970s. Amongst these was the original drawing for the carved rock crystal and gold Rospigliosi Cup which is housed in the MET museum in New York and was previously thought to have been 16thCentury. Unveiled as a very competent Renaissance art forger, and far from the only one (Parisian restorer Alfred André (1839-1919) being another famous example whose works are in major Renaissance collections and museums), Vasters’ works now enjoy their own market at auction and this is a reminder of the complicated truth about erudite art forgery – sometimes the copies are genuinely beautiful themselves.
The blurring of the lines between embellishment of originals, restoration, homage to, and direct copy of, previous eras is certainly a very real phenomenon and one that has been viewed differently throughout the ages and by different cultures. There are many examples of such practises, certainly the Roman archaeological-revival jewellers Castellani muddied the waters with their restoration and simultaneous production of jewels in the same taste, and in the early 19th Century King Stanislaw Poniatowski of Poland commissioned a collection of 2,500 Neo-Classical intaglios which were signed with pseudo Greek signatures and of which he was hugely proud and encouraged speculation about them being ancient originals. The Poniatowski intaglios are a virtuoso feat of carving and collectible in their own right. Castellani archaeological jewels were hugely influential in their time and considered the finest of the period to this day.
This plaquette is a beautiful example of Renaissance motifs, exquisitely carved, showing traces of having been mounted in an ornamental object that is now lost. It bears the signs and taste of Revival works, be it 18th or 19thCentury is much harder to ascertain, but its subject matter and similarity with the rock crystal work in the works of Alfred André and Reinhold Vasters make it likely to be 18th or 19th Century rather than from the 16th or 17thCenturies. As with archaeological revival jewels and Neo-Classical carved gems, there is a tendency in the later inspired works for an idealisation and perfectionism. The Renaissance Revival pieces were often guilty of the same nuance of nostalgia, giving them a beauty all of their own.