Pietre dure – meaning ‘hard rocks’ in Italian - is the technique of inlaying pieces of highly polished coloured stones to create a decorative image. Indeed, the cabinet at Stourhead is the finest surviving piece of its kind and date.
The Longest Book ever published about a single piece of furniture?
The ‘Pope’s cabinet’ is the subject of a book by Simon Swynfen Jervis and Dudley Dodd: Roman Splendour, English Arcadia: The English taste for Pietre Dure and the Sixtus Cabinet at Stourhead (National Trust / Philip Wilson 2014).
Magnificently illustrated with colour photography, the book tells the extraordinary story of this remarkable object bought in Rome by Henry Hoare II, ‘The Magnificent’, from a convent, where Pope Sixtus V’s last descendant had been a nun.
The book is based on original research conducted in Italian and English archives. S.S. Jervis describes its history, comparing it to similar Italian furniture, much of which can also be found in British collections. D. Dodd relates the genesis of its gilt mahogany plinth, made in England in 1742 to incorporate a portrait of the Pope and relief images of his Roman monuments, which transformed the Eternal City.
Made in Rome
Originally thought to have been made in Florence, the cabinet is in fact a Roman production. Its design is reminiscent of late sixteenth-century Roman four-storey church façades (for example, the Gesù, the Chiesa Nuova and Santa Susanna).
In addition to the pietre dure patterns, the cabinet is inlaid with jewels and antique intaglios and decorated with gilt bronze statuary. The coloured stones are often framed by thin borders of metal, a distinctive feature of Roman pietre dure work.
Cleaning the Cabinet
Research for the book coincided with restoration work carried out by Colin Piper in a specially constructed workshop, visible to visitors. The cabinet was dirty and in need of remedial conservation, but now it sparkles as it would have done in the loggia of Pope Sixtus V’s palatial villa.