Between 1859 and 1860, Catherine (Kate) Gansevoort, a young American, was undertaking a Grand Tour with her family, spending most of her time in Italy. The first place in Italy that she and her family visited was Florence. They visited museums, the studios of artisans, attended concerts and shopped. At the time Kate was visiting Florence, it was known as the centre for pietra dura (pietra dure) jewellery.
Pietra Dura is an Italian term for a method of inlaying coloured stones or gems into a stone base. It has been described as stone marquetry. The surrounding base in which the coloured stones are inlaid is usually black marble, though was sometimes ebony. In Italy, the technique is also called commesso, meaning ‘fitted together’ and the phrase ‘pietre dure’ refer to the hard stones used in the technique. Pietra dura uses hard stones cut into the shape required, say, a leaf or flower. Commonly used stones are coloured marble, as well as gemstones like quartz, chalcedony, agate, jasper and porphyry. On rare occasions, gemstones such as emerald, ruby and sapphire were used.
A common theme of these inlay pictures was flowers, sometimes with birds and fruit. As well as jewellery, pietra dura was used to decorate small boxes, chests, picture frames and tables. In the 17th and 18th centuries, the colours used were strong and intense, and the pieces had ornate gold and gilded Rococo frames. By the mid-19th century, the stones inlaid were often lighter and more delicate, though flowers were still the common theme.
Rome was the last leg of Kate’s Italian tour and as well as visiting churches and museums, she again shopped for jewellery, this time, micromosaic jewellery. Miniature glass mosaics, called ‘micromosaics’ began to appear in the late 18th century. There were two main impetus for the creation of micromosaics. The first was that, in 1737, a Roman mosaic was excavated in Tivoli, Italy, one which appeared to have been described by Pliny. The mosaic was a picture of doves drinking at a bowl, becoming known as the Doves of Pliny, and it was created out of small stone tesserae , about one tenth of an inch square, which were the smallest ever discovered. The mosaic became a popular tourist destination in Rome. The second impetus was that a craftsman in around 1731 had produced glass in a range of new colours that were matt and opaque and that were an improvement on the glass produced in Venice. The enormous range of colours meant that mosaic craftsmen could produce very realistic pictures with lovely shading and depth. Rome became the centre of the micromosaic craft.
Early subjects of micromosaics were copies of Roman mosaics with animals and birds, and imitations of marbles statures and busts. Then Roman ruins, particularly tourist attractions, became popular, as well as copies of landscapes by 18th century painters. Other popular subjects were baskets and bouquets of flowers, again inspired by newly excavated Roman mosaics.
The popularity of micromosaics continued throughout the 18th century but standards had begun to drop by the second half of the century and images became simpler, to satisfy the large tourist market.