The front of the cabinet consists of six moulded wooden panels, to which six drawers correspond on the inside. Each panel contains eight different specimens. The fall veneered in thuja wood on the inside, bearing an ebony medallion in the centre monogrammed ‘AC’ in brass inlay. The sides of the cabinet are each divided into three panels, each containing eight specimens. Interior with a printed paper label behind a drawer: 'EUGENIO ARGNANI, INTARSIATORE, ROMA, VIA SISTINA 47'
The following text is an abridged version of an article about this cabinet written by Anna Maria Massinelli and translated by Emanuela Tarizzo. Please contact us for the full version of the article including images and substantial additional information. A full key identifying all of the specimen stones, complied by Emanuela Tarizzo and Anna Maria Massinelli is also available on request.
Eugenio Argnani (Faenza 31 October 1827 - 17 December 1920) The cabinet is an important testimony of the Roman work of Eugenio Argnani, the inlay master born in Faenza in 1827, who spent several years in the papal city. Contemporary sources praised Argnani's expertise in the art of inlay, even if his name has remained in the shadow of that of Giovanni Battista Gatti (Faenza 1816-Rome 1889), alongside whom Argnani worked for most of his career.[i] Another illustrious figure associated to Argnani on a professional level was his brother Federico (Faenza 1822-1905), a scholar of Faenza ceramics and author of books on the subject, founder of the Pinacoteca di Faenza (the town’s art museum). Together, the brothers cultivated their passion for Faenza majolica, which they both collected, and, in the later part of their lives, jointly ran an antique shop in Faenza.
The two brothers were heirs to an established tradition of cabinetmaking and inlay work, which had been passed down through generations in Faenza. Their father Antonio was a wood craftsman, documented in the first half of the 19th century, and it is likely that Eugenio trained in his workshop.[ii] In the mid-19th century, an event that would change the course of Argnani’s life took place, linking him professionally to Giovanni Battista Gatti. The latter, a celebrated and older cabinetmaker and inlayer, had returned to his native town, Faenza, after a period spent in Florence, where he had perfected inlay techniques in the workshop of brothers Angelo and Luigi Falcini, who specialised in the production of furniture in neo-Renaissance style, inlaid with ivory and rare woods.[iii]
Upon his return home, Gatti participated in the Ravenna exhibition of 1841, presenting a spectacular table with ebony and engraved ivory inlay that caught the attention of Cardinal Luigi Amat, apostolic legate at Ravenna. The influential cleric became Gatti’s patron and when, in 1843, the Vatican summoned him to take up the position of prefect of the congregation of Propaganda Fide, he asked Gatti to follow him to Rome. Thus began Gatti’s successful career as a cabinetmaker and inlayer, which would be punctuated by several honours and the esteem of the grandees of his time, including pope Pius IX, who held him in high regard. Notwithstanding his position in the papal city and the fact he yielded a degree of influence at the Vatican, Gatti was described as a man of simple habits, who always maintained a humble attitude. The Cardinal assigned him a studio inside Palazzo Riario, the headquarters of the papal state’s Chancellery, where Gatti was able to establish a workshop. His sophisticated tables, cabinets, sideboards and frames, finely inlaid in ivory with floral motifs and grotesques in the style of Raphael (fig. 3) were greeted with enthusiasm by Roman and foreign patrons. His creations responded to that eclectic taste that characterised the central decades of the 19th century and that found a niche even in Rome, where an interest in hardstone-mounted furniture dominated. Gatti knew how to make the most of the warm welcome he received and with fine entrepreneurial intuition managed to expand what in due course became a profitable business. To cope with increasingly pressing commissions, he needed more space and assistants, and his original workshop turned into a real manufactory that employed several craftsmen.
It in this context that Eugenio Argnani came into the picture. Sources always mention him in passing, in relation to his more famous fellow native of Faenza, but we know that Gatti held him in high esteem and sought him out to direct his workshop in Rome, as he was familiar with his origins and professional training. Argnani accepted and in 1855, at the age of twenty-eight, he left Faenza and settled in Rome, to take up the role of director of the well-established cabinetmaking and inlay business founded by Gatti, who, after his beginnings in Palazzo Riario, had expanded his activity by taking over additional spaces. We know of two other workshops Gatti opened in Rome. A label inside one of his cabinets (Bonhams London 27 November 2019) bears the address Via degli Angeli Custodi 30. In addition, the Guide to Rome of 1875 mentions one workshop of Cav. Giovanni Battista Gatti, inlayer at Via Sistina 47[iv]. Numerous labels found in furniture by Gatti bear his name followed by the specialisations he had become famous for: “inlayer in ivory, ebony, semi-precious stones etc.” and the address on Via Sistina 47 (fig. 4). It is at this location that Eugenio Argnani most likely carried out his activity as director of Gatti’s workshop. It appears evident, however, that Argnani simultaneously worked independently and signed his works accordingly, as the label found in the present cabinet bears only his name and the Via Sistina 47 address, the same as Gatti’s labels. We do not know for how long the collaboration between the two inlayers from Faenza lasted in Rome, but documentary evidence suggests a time frame of about two decades. Eugenio Argnani certainly played a leading role in Gatti’s business, as contemporary sources attribute the success of the works produced in the latter’s workshop to Argnani: 'from the Gatti workshop came out of true masterpieces ... and the merit was due to Argnani who exerted in the execution of caskets, tables, frames etc. all the expressive power of his mind and put drawings into practice with the patient accuracy of puncturing and engraving’.[v]
It appears that an eye disease temporarily prevented Argnani from working,[vi] but he subsequently resumed his activity as an inlayer until the end of his long life.
The enigmatic monogram Alongside the label with the name of the inlayer and the address on Via Sistina 47 (fig. 2), the present cabinet also bears a peculiar monogram, inlaid on the inside of the fall, consisting of the letter A apparently inscribed inside a C. An identical monogram is also inlaid on a similar specimen cabinet of smaller size (formerly also with Thomas Coulborn & Sons). In this piece, however, the monogram is also drawn in ink on the underside of a drawer, followed by the inscription Rome 1878 (figs. 5,6,7). Thus repeated, the monogram, together with the date and place of execution, appears to be a kind of logo, a trademark used by Argnani to distinguish his creations, rather than the initials of a possible patron, as one might be led to believe at first glance.
However, the meaning attributed by Argnani to his logo remains rather enigmatic. If the letter A obviously refers to the initial of his surname, the letter C within which it is inscribed appears difficult to interpret. Hypothetically, it could refer to the author of the marble specimens, considering that this type of cabinet had to be the result of collaboration between two craftsmen with different skillsets.
It is also possible that in designing his logo Argnani wanted to create a sort of puzzle, as done by his friend Gatti, who signed his works by inserting in the middle of his elaborate inlays the figure of a cat, in reference to his surname, sometimes accompanied by enigmatic images and letters.
Works of art In addition to being documented by contemporary sources, the close collaboration between Argnani and Gatti is attested by works of art such as the cross in ebony and other woods inlaid with engraved ivory and lapis lazuli, that they executed in Rome between 1860 and 1865 (Faenza, Pinacoteca Comunale, fig.8).[vii] Gatti’s style is reflected in Argnani’s creations, as the latter absorbed the secrets of those virtuoso techniques that his master excelled at.
The inlaid furniture presented by Argnani in exhibitions at Faenza in 1862 and 1875, and at Ravenna in 1896 – on which occasion he won a prize for his arabesque inlays in engraved ivory, punctuated by medallions with portraits of renowned figures or Roman emperors[viii] – fully reflect the neo-Renaissance style and the inlay technique developed by Gatti. This type of inlay, favoured in the production of luxury furniture until the late nineteenth century, was never abandoned by the two cabinetmakers, whose workshop attracted clients from the highest echelons of society, including the Emperor of Austria, the Duke of Hamilton, and American collectors such as Wright E. Post and William Gilstrap.
However, their presence in Rome and their frequent participation in international exhibitions granted Gatti and Argnani access to a multifaceted reality, in close connection with the social circles linked to the world of grand tourists, dominated by widespread interest in marbles and semi-precious stones. Their clientele was diverse and, consequently, part of their production was adapted to the demands of a broader and more varied market. His style always rooted in the neo-Renaissance and neo-Baroque genres, Gatti nevertheless updated his works and added to ivory and mother-of-pearl inlay that of stone. Lapis lazuli and other semi-precious stones were thus combined with the two tonalities of white ivory and dark ebony. In some cases, he completely abandoned ivory to create architectural cabinets in ebony and semi-precious stones, clearly inspired by the Florentine production of the grand-ducal workshops (fig. 9). To his passion for ivory, during his years in Rome Gatti added that for stones, becoming a great collector, to the point that during his lifetime he assembled an impressive 983 semi-precious stones and 988 marble specimens, which he bequeathed to his hometown (Faenza, Pinacoteca).
The cabinet de minéralogie by Eugenio Argnani and the archeologic approach to hard stones between the 18th and 19th centuries
During the years spent in the Eternal City, Eugenio Argnani clearly fell under the spell of marmora romana, as, after all, had done his business partner Giovanni Battista Gatti, who was a passionate collector of ancient marbles, and with whom he shared a workshop on Via Sistina in Rome. Argnani had come to fully appreciate the function of the collector’s cabinet and succeeded in developing a prototype of very fine craftsmanship, in which his inlay skills were fused with the erudite taste for marble collecting.
The two specimen cabinets Argnani proudly monogrammed stand out as remarkable works of art for their choice of woods, for their meticulous attention to detail and for the variety and quantity of specimens used. His cabinets are conceived for the display of a complete collection of stone types, structured and selected on the basis of lawyer Faustino Corsi’s Trattato sulle pietre (Treatise on stones), first published in 1825, the reference point, at the heart of the nineteenth century, for the creation of repertoires of ancient marbles and semi-precious stones. The specimens featured in the present cabinet encompass all canonical varieties of marmora romana once quarried in different parts of the Roman empire: Egypt, Asia Minor, Greece, Spain (see the attached index). Different types of ancient brecce, with their various colours, are included, as are the unmissable giallo, rosso and verde antico marbles, broccatello di Spagna and oriental alabasters. Porphyries appear in every possible colour variation, as do granites. A broad spectrum of varieties of lumachelle and astracane are featured, of Italian and African provenance. As customary in nineteenth century ‘lithotheques’, specimens of Sicilian jaspers and of precious stones such as malachite and lapis lazuli are also introduced. Argnani’s cabinets, designed in the early 1870s, were part of a broader interest towards marble that had given rise to the formation of important collections at national level[ix]. The two specimen cabinets are extraordinary examples in a long tradition of marble and semi-precious stones-mounted furniture that developed incisively in the second half of the 18th century and consists primarily of tabletops and cabinets. Indeed, collections of ancient marble and semi-precious stones specimens were perfectly attuned to the encyclopaedic tendencies of the late 18th century, as they represented compendia of different disciplines, ranging from art, nature, antiquarian erudition, and the natural sciences. The vivid colour arrangements of the stones, aside from pleasing the aesthetic tastes of learned and inquisitive travellers, responded to their voracious need for enriching their own historical and scientific knowledge.
The value of rare marmora romana was closely linked to the intellectual enjoyment patrons derived from the direct connection to the Rome of the Caesars sparked by these lapidary fragments, unearthed from the ruins of the Eternal City. Papal patronage, alongside that of aristocratic Roman families, had stimulated and favoured the proliferation of the pursuit of stone materials, hand in hand with the production of furniture conceived essentially for the display of these prized archaeological finds, intended for an elite clientele[x].
The retrieval and reuse of ancient marbles has always been a tradition in Rome. However, the earliest attempts at classifying such specimens, and at documenting their historic uses in antiquity, from their physical description to the identification of their provenance, date back to the 17th century. This pursuit, which coincides with the Baroque taste for the sumptuous display of polychrome marbles in the architectural decorations of aristocratic palaces and churches, is mirrored in Cassiano dal Pozzo’s (1588-1657) illustrated Museum Cartaceum (Windsor Castle). In its twenty volumes, among other things, Dal Pozzo dwells upon the specific properties of different minerals, illustrated in dedicated colour plates[xi]. Around 1700, monsignor Leone Strozzi (1652-1722) compiled a singular Book of marbles (Libro dei marmi) in two volumes, in which specimens were not illustrated as in Cassiano dal Pozzo’s work, but inserted within the pages, cut in very thin slices and with the name for each in the opposite page[xii]. This ‘marbletheque’ (collection of marbles) in two volumes delighted the visitors to the Strozzi family’s Roman palace, where guests could leaf through it and admire it. Pier Leone Ghezzi’s studies[xiii] followed in its stead, containing the tempera reproductions of no less than 275 varieties of stones. Titled Studio di molte pietre messo insieme da me P.L. Ghezzi nell’anno 1726 e tutte fatte e colorite da me medesimo con li prezzi che corrono nel dì anno 1726, it supplies interesting information on the commercial side to the period’s passion for ancient marbles and semi-precious stones. The Neapolitan Biagio Garofalo published in 1738 in Vienna a book that became the principal foundation for marble studies in the nineteenth century: De Antiquis Marboribus. An erudite treatise in which all marbles originating from the territories of the former Roman empire known at the time are catalogued, it also gathers all the mentions of marbles and stones found in ancient texts, most importantly Pliny the Elder’s Naturalis Historia. As these pioneering attempts at classifying and cataloguing the ancient knowledge on stones and marbles emerged in Rome, in the eighteenth century and beyond, the workshops of stonecutters (scarpellini) and marble carvers (marmorari), located predominantly in and around the Roman Forum, known at the time as the Campo Vaccino, became focal points of reference for the understanding of such materials. Seen as repositories of profound knowledge, based on the practice of their trade, the ‘marmorari’ conspicuously intensified their activity, in order to respond to ever growing demand. They became the fulcrum of a process that involved lapidaries (lapicidi) and cabinetmakers, all dedicated to the common goal of transforming entire series of pietre dure and marble specimens into precious ‘lithotheques’ in the form of collectors’ cabinets or specimen tables, for the private enjoyment of studious collectors and passionate admirers of antiquity. The lapidaries (lapicidi) cut the specimens from the cylindrical blocks that originally formed part of ancient columns and from architectural remains of various types, and they identified and named the marbles based on the terminology in use at the time. For the more well-known specimens, the nomenclature was based on expertise acquired through texts dating all the way back to antiquity, while for the more unusual specimens or those of recent discovery, names were based on aesthetic qualities or on the location where they were found. Lapidaries (lapicidi) constantly searched archaeological sites across the Lazio region looking for prized, ever different stones and marbles, and did so in the service of erudite antiquarians and collectors, who often created collections. These generally comprised all standard specimens, including the most renowned and widely used in the ancient world ones. Each collector then aspired to add more unusual examples, not yet acquired by other collectors, to make their own collection rare and unique.
Around 1820, Corsi put together a vast collection of marble varieties consisting of a thousand specimens cut into tiles of 7.5 x 15 x 3 cm, which he ordered into an exhaustive classification[xiv] that resulted in the publication of the Catalogue raisonné of a collection of decorative stones formed and owned in Rome by the lawyer Faustino Corsi, published in 1825. The publication of this catalogue gave scientific weight to the collection and at the same time enhanced its value and allowed its dissemination in Italy and abroad. The collection also established itself as a reference point for the identification of ancient marbles and for the use of a unified and correct nomenclature. Corsi’s role as driving force in the field of modern archaeological study of marbles was then consecrated by his subsequent publications[xv]. The treaty On ancient stones (Delle pietre antiche), printed in three editions in 1828, 1833, and 1845, enjoyed wide distribution and became a fundamental reference tool for the composition of marble and semi-precious stone collections in the 19th century. Corsi was in contact with many of the prominent figures in the world of collecting ancient marbles. Among these were the brothers Francesco and Tommaso Belli[xvi] who, with their publications, supported Corsi in deepening lithological studies and facilitating the understanding and dissemination of these materials. In the mid-nineteenth century, thanks to the publications of Corsi and of the Belli brothers, the visions of antiquity entertained by the many passionate visitors to Rome could combine aesthetic enjoyment with a correct historical-scientific understanding.
This is the context within which the specimen cabinets of Eugenio Argnani were produced, perhaps originally accompanied by a catalogue of the marbles displayed, and that started our brief excursus into the tradition of collecting ancient marbles and semi-precious stones. Specifically, the present cabinet was created at the close of a period rich in stimuli for the collection and study of such specimens, which had seen the passion for marbles and stones transform from pure hedonistic aesthetic satisfaction into a scientific discipline. Argnani's work, an exquisite example of cabinet-making and lapidary art, manages to sublimate that poignant memory of antiquity that had captured generations of Grand Tourists enthralled by the charm of the Eternal City.
[i]E. Colle, Il Mobile dell'Ottocento in Italia, Arredi e Decorazioni d'Interni dal 1815 al 1900, 2007, Milan, pp. 393-395. [ii] E. Golfieri, L’ebanisteria Casalini e l’arte del legno a Faenza, Faenza, 1987; E. Golfieri, “Repertorio delle botteghe e degli artigiani faentini dell'Ottocento e della prima meta del Novecento”, in: Manfrediana, Pubblicazione della Biblioteca Comunale di Faenza, n. 30, 1996, pp. 6-28. [iii] E. Colle, Il Mobile dell'Ottocento in Italia, Arredi e Decorazioni d'Interni dal 1815 al 1900, 2007, Milan, pp. ?? [iv] Guida contenente la descrizione storica dei monumenti della città di Roma-passeggiate-piazze-chiese-curiosità-ambasciate-uffici di posta-telegrafo-stazioni di strade ferrate-teatri-tariffe delle vetture-corse e tariffe degli omnibus etc., first edition, Tipografia delle terme Diocleziane, Rome, 1875 [v] ‘dal laboratorio Gatti uscirono dei veri capolavori … ed il merito era dovuto all’Argnani che esplicava nella esecuzione di scrigni, tavole, cornici etc. tutta la potenza espressiva della sua mente e metteva in pratica i disegni colla paziente esattezza del traforo e della graffiatura’, quoted in “Acquisti e Doni”, in: Faenza. Bollettino del Museo Internazionale delle ceramiche, 9, 1921 [vi] “Acquisti e Doni”, op. cit. [vii] M. Vitali, “Artisti Faentini”, in: Manfrediana. Bollettino della Biblioteca Comunale di Faenza, no. 41/42 -2007/2008, pp. 38-43 [viii]E. Colle, Il Mobile dell'Ottocento in Italia, Arredi e Decorazioni d'Interni dal 1815 al 1900, 2007, Milan, p. 426 [ix] E. Dolci, “La cultura del marmo”, in: Eternità e nobiltà di materia edited by A. Giusti, Florence, 2003, pp. 130-135 [x] On this subject, see.: R. Gnoli, Marmora Romana, Rome, 1971, II ed. Rome, 1988; C. Napoleone, “Il collezionismo di marmi e pietre colorate dal sec. XVI al sec. XIX”, in: Marmi antichi edited by G. Borghini, Rome, 1989, pp. 98-115; E. Dolci, “La cultura del marmo”, in: Eternità e nobiltà di materia edited by A. Giusti, Florence, 2003, pp. 105-138; C. Napoleone, “Cultura antiquaria nel collezionismo dei marmi colorati tra XVI e XVII secolo”; “Bagliori dell’Illuminismo nella classificazione dei marmi colorati fra XVIII e XIX secolo”, in: Eternità e nobiltà di materia edited by A. Giusti, Florence, 2003, pp. 169-183 and pp. 185-196; I marmi colorati della Roma imperiale, exh. cat., Rome, Mercati di Traiano, 2002-2003, Venice, 2002; M.Mariottini, “Per una storia del collezionismo dei marmi antichi”, in: L. Lazzaroni, Pietre e marmi antichi, natura, caratterizzazione, origine, storia d’uso, diffusione, collezionismo, Padua, 2004, pp. 135-189. [xi] https://www.rct.uk/collection/themes/trails/highlights-from-the-print-collection/the-paper-museum-of-cassiano-dal-pozzo C. Napoleone – I. Rolfe, “Minerals and Natural Curiosities in The Paper Museum”, in The Paper Museum of Cassiano dal Pozzo, Birds, other Animals and Natural Curiosities, The Paper Museum, Series B, Natural History, Parts IV and V, Volume two, London, Royal Collection Trust, 2017, pp. 591- 781. [xii] A. González-Palacios, “Le livre de marbre, la lithothèque de Leone Strozzi”, FMR, April March 2001, pp. 113-128. [xiii] Le pietre rivelate. Lo Studio di molte pietre di Pier Leone Ghezzi, edited by P. Coen - G. B. Fidanza, Rome, 2011 [xiv]The latter was then acquired by the Englishman Jarret who donated it to the University of Oxford. On the Corsi collection, see: L. Cooke, M. Price, "The Corsi collection in Oxford", in edited by J.J. Herrmann Jr., N. Herz, R. Newman, Interdisciplinary Studies in Ancient Stone, actes de colloque, Boston, Museum of Fine Arts, 1998, London, 2002, pp. 415–420. http://www.oum.ox.ac.uk/corsi/ [xv]F. Corsi, Catalogo ragionato d'una collezione di pietre di decorazione formata e possessed in Roma dall'Avvocato Faustino Corsi, Rome, 1825; F. Corsi, Supplement to the Catalogue raisonné of a collection of decorative stones formed in Rome by the lawyer Faustino Corsi purchased by the Honorable Lord Stefano Jarrett English and owned by the University of Oxford, Rome, 1827; F. Corsi, Libri quattro di Faustino Corsi romano, Rome, 1828; F. Corsi, Delle pietre antiche. Treaty of Faustino Corsi Roman. Second edition in some parts corrected in many increased, with the addition of the indication and description of all the columns and remarkable boulders of ancient stones that are in Rome, Rome, 1833; F. Corsi, Delle pietre antiche. Treaty of Faustino Corsi Roman. Third edition with notable addition to the third book in which are indicated and described all the columns and some boulders of ancient stones remarkable for size or rarity existing in Rome, Rome, 1845. [xvi] Tommaso Belli's collection is today part of the Department of Geology at "La Sapienza" University in Rome. That of his brother Francis is described in Catalogue of the collection of stones used by the ancients to build and adorn their factories now owned by Count Stephen Karolyi, published in 1842. Another descriptive list by him accompanies Enumeration of ancient and modern ornamental stones collected by Mr. E. de Meester de Ravestein, Minister of Belgium to the Holy See, until the end of the year 1857, preserved in the Musées Royaux de l'Art et d'Histoire in Brussels.