The Opificio delle pietre dure, literally meaning Workshop of Semi-Precious Stones, is a public institute of the Italian Ministry for Cultural Heritage based in Florence.
The institute arose in 1588 from the passion of the Medici Family, of which author Dan Brown mentions in his latest book Inferno, for the semi-precious stone inlays.
The Opificio (OPD) is a global leader in the field of art restoration and provides teaching as one of two Italian state conservation schools (the other being the Istituto Superiore per la Conservazione ed il Restauro). It also maintains a specialized library and archive on conservation, as well as a museum displaying historic examples of pietre dure inlaid semi-precious stone artefacts. A scientific laboratory conducts research and diagnostics, and provides a preventive conservation service.
The institute was founded by the merger of two entities with different histories, but that over time became related in their purpose and objectives: in 1975, thanks to the law establishing the Ministry for Culture and Environment, all restoration workshops in Florence (the former Opificio delle Pietre Dure and the Florentine restoration workshops) were combined under the name Opificio delle Pietre Dure, due to the status of autonomy already enjoyed by the ancient institution.
The institute was established in 1588 at the behest of Ferdinando I de’ Medici to create the elaborate, inlaid precious and semi-precious stoneworks. It was primarily engaged throughout the 17th century in manufacturing decorations for the family funerary chapel begun by the Medici at the church of San Lorenzo in 1605.
The technique, which originated from Byzantine inlay work, was perfected by the masters of the institute, and the artworks they produced became known as “opera di commessi medicei” (commesso is the old name for the technique, similar to ancient mosaics) and later as “commesso in pietre dure” (semi-precious stone mosaics).
The artisans performed the exceptionally skilled and delicate task of inlaying thin veneers of semi-precious stones especially selected for their colour, opacity, brilliance, and grain to create elaborate decorative and pictorial effects. Items of extraordinary refinement were created in this way, from furnishings to all manners of artwork.
Commesso pictures range from emblematic and floral subjects to landscapes. Some are executed with such laborious care and sensitivity in accordance with the pictorial possibilities of the colours and shadings of the stones that they rival paintings in their detailed realism.
The institute’s workshops were originally located in the Casino Mediceo, the Mannerist style palace located on Via Cavour. After being subsequently located in the Uffizi, they were finally moved to their present location on Via Alfani in 1796.
After the end of the 19th Century, the institute’s activities moved away from the production of works of art and toward its restoration. While at first specializing in hardstone carving, in which the workshops were a world authority, and the institute later expanded into other related fields (stone and marble sculptures, bronzes, ceramics).
The second branch of the Institute (laboratori di restauro) has a more modern story. In 1932, Ugo Procacci, the distinghished scholar of Florentine art, in his career as an officer of the Italian Ministry for Cultural Heritage, founded a Laboratory of restoration (original Italian name: Gabinetto di restauro) at the Florence Soprintendenza.
It was the first modern restoration laboratory in Italy and one of the very first of its kind in the world.
The Gabinetto di Restauro used scientific methods for the preliminary exhaminition of the works of art (as X radiography) and began an outstanding campaign of restoration on paintings by early Tuscan masters.
In 1966, the flooding of the Arno River resulted in many priceless works of art requiring restoration. The institue provided a significant impetus for the expansion of the Gabinetto di restauro’s research and restorative services.
The expansions provided new laboratories in the Fortezza da Basso. Thanks to financial aid and an influx of expertise from around the world, the Florentine Laboratory quickly became one of the vanguard restoration laboratories in the world, combining traditional practices with modern technology.
In 1975, the Cultural Heritage Ministry merged the institute’s laboratories with the Gabinetto di restauro (plus other minor Florentine restoration laboratories) to create the modern Opificio delle pietre dure.
Today, the institute is organized in departments specific to the various types of artworks it treats.
The small museum on Via Alfani displays examples of pietre dure works, including cabinets, table tops, and plates, showing an immense repertoire of decoration, usually either flowers, fruits, or animals, but also sometimes other picturesque scenes.
The museum was renovated and re-designed by Adolfo Natalini in 1995.
The reorganization of the collection was oveseen by Anna Maria Giusti in accordance with thematic criteria: the rooms created in the hall document the productions of the grand-ducal Medici and Lorraine, while those in the other rooms exhibit productions from the post-unification period.
The mezzanine of the hall is dedicated to processing techniques: from the rich stone samples, work benches, tools, and even didactic examples of certain phases of production of inlays and carvings.
It can thus trace the full process, from conception to the finished work, and demonsrate the most intimate mechanisms of a fascinating period of Florentine art history.
Picture by multimedia.quotidiano.net