Powis Castle's mystery table
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The pietre dure (Italian, ‘hard stone’) table at Powis Castle dates from about 1560 and is thought to be from the Borghese Palace in Rome. It was first recorded in an inventory at the castle in 1793 but when it arrived at Powis has not been clearly proven, yet.
The table is of exceptional size and quality. Its splendid pietre dure top and elaborate wooden base both date to the mid-16th century. It is 2.5m long and the top alone weighs 630kg.
It is unusual to find such a table with its original wooden base. This base is highly decorated, partly gilded, and painted to look like porphyry (a semi-precious stone). The fine carving of the wooden figures of lions and lionesses retain most of their original 16th century gilding.
Because the table is now around 450 years old, it is not surprising that it has needed some conservation work. Recent work has repaired parts of the wooden base.
The paint and the gilding on the wooden base have been degraded by infrared light damage caused by exposure to sunlight. Both paint and gilding were flaking off and so a team of specialist conservators came to carry out repairs.
The repairs to the base included the stabilisation of the flaking and damaged water-gilded elements as well as some ‘toning in’ of the gilding where there were losses. The flaking paint was consolidated and areas where paint had been lost were painted in using watercolour pigments.
Conservators also had to rebuild one of the lion heads where furniture beetle (woodworm) had eaten the wood. They used a resin filler to build up the features of the lion’s face, and applied new gilding to match the colour of the original.
These recent works to the table cost about £11,000. It was a priority for us because it is such an important part of the castle’s collection.
It is a Herbert family tradition that this table was from the Borghese Palace in Rome and came to Powis as a gift from Pope Innocent XI. There is a family connection to the papal court to suggest this provenance is quite likely.
The Catholic Herbert family had strong links with Rome and Roger Palmer, Earl of Castlemaine, nephew of the 1st Marquess of Powis, conducted an embassy from King James II to Pope Innocent XI, after being appointed the King’s ambassador-extraordinary in 1685, when items such as the pietre dure table may have been acquired.
The pietre dure technique consists of the cutting and fitting together of various semi-precious and precious stones to create a pattern. The joints between the stones are so tight as to be invisible and the whole piece is supported on a slab of marble or slate.
The pietre dure workshops of Rome usually produced pieces with geometric designs, whereas those in Florence tended more towards motifs that included insects and birds. The Powis table has scrolling foliage with insects and birds. Due to this stylistic trend, it was always believed that it was made in Florence but further research revealed it was produced in Rome. This discovery makes the table even rarer.
Kate Lynch, Assistant House Steward, Powis Castle