Stone Imitating Stone

January 13 2010, 10:54am

In mid-16th century Renaissance Italy, the production of panels and tabletops using inlays of semiprecious stone began, with materials and geometric designs deriving from classical Roman motifs.

However, the design of this particular tabletop, which is probably Roman circa 1680, represents a complete departure from this tradition in that it is a pure interpretation in mosaic of ancient marble, possibly Egyptian alabaster or giallo antico. We know of no other comparable example and, as such, believe this top to be probably unique. Egyptian alabaster was one of the stones most highly prized by the ancient Romans, and was largely employed in the making of canopic jars, statues, ritual objects and sarcophagi. “Alabaster” of ancient civilizations describes calcium carbonate (sometimes referred to as calcite-alabaster, travertine, or limestone onyx). The layers of Egyptian alabaster, formed by deposits in limestone caverns or calcareous springs, create a banded appearance in the stone. It occurs in three forms: an opaque, milky appearance; “fibrous, coloured in shades of pale brown or yellowish to orangish-brown with faint to marked layering;”1 and a combination of the two, which is possibly figured in the present tabletop.

The ebonized base, made in the 19th century, is reminiscent of mid-17th century designs for drawer-leaf tables found in both the Netherlands and Sweden.