Reef Madness!

August 26 2009, 3:23pm

Figure 1: Jacques Linard; Still Life with Shells and Coral, and a Box; 1640. According to the Ancient Greeks, after Perseus cut off Medusa’s head, he wished to cleanse himself of the act by bathing in the sea. He placed the head on a bed of seaweed, which upon contact was petrified and turned red. Thus is the myth of the origin of coral described. Figure 2: Cutting and Polishing Mediterranian Coral. Underwood & Underwood, 1906. Coral has been widely integrated into decorative objects in Italy from the Middle Ages, with rose-colored coral being the most highly prized. The red skeletons of these marine organisms were viewed as having protective and medicinal qualities, and were incorporated into amulets, jewelry and textiles. Coral was also thought to have to ability of detecting poison in food and was therefore used in the handles of cutlery. In the Renaissance, the Italian towns of Genoa and Trapani became the largest coral production centers and helped to popularize the material through carving. In the 17th century, coral was adopted as a prized material for inlay in jewelry and ecclesiastical and household objects. A Jacques Linard still life circa 1640, he places a vibrant red coral specimen in the center of the canvas (figure 1).

Figure 3: One of a pair of grisaille paintings by Fabrizio Clerici, 1960s. Coral continued to be used into the early 20th century as seen in figure 2, which shows the cutting and polishing of coral in a Trapani workshop in a photograph of 1906. It also figured predominantly as a gemstone in jewelry and other objet d’art, particularly during the Art Deco period. Figure 4: Cabinet painted by Fabrizio Clerici, 1950s. Mid-century Milanese artist, Fabrizio Clerici painted coral amid shells and driftwood in his trompe l’oeil creations, among those a painting currently in the Hobbs collection (figure 3) and a cabinet formerly in the collection (figure 4). Figure 5: An Unusual Pair of Coral Mounted Mirrors, circa 1940s. Carlton Hobbs LLC. A pair of mirrors in the Carlton Hobbs collection, circa 1940s, features coral as their main decorative element (figure 5). Furniture designers in the 1930s and 40s were using materials that were more plain and natural than the previous Art Nouveau movement, but that were nevertheless luxurious, such as rare inlaid woods, straw marquetry, and shagreen. In the present mirrors, small fragments of coral cover the frame and surround meandering bead and glass designs. They serve asĀ  a fine example of how a raw materials were used to create new unusual designs that still maintained an element of restraint and tradition.