A museum quality, late-17th/early-18th century, Italian, scagliola, trompe 1’oeil table top, uniquely figuring Asiae IIII and V, from Gerhard Mercator’s Latin edition of Ptolemy’s Geographia, dated 1584 & the cartouche from Frederick de Wit’s, map of Persia, dated 1660 alongside navigational instruments

September 18, 2019 3:05 pm Published by

A museum quality, late-17th/early-18th century, Italian, scagliola, trompe 1’oeil table top, uniquely figuring Asiae IIII and V, from Gerhard Mercator’s Latin edition of Ptolemy’s Geographia, dated 1584 & the cartouche from Frederick de Wit’s, map of Persia, dated 1660 alongside navigational instruments

MAPS : Mercator’s Ptolemaic atlas was printed in Cologne in 1584. It comprised 28 maps based on the original mathematical co-ordinates of Claudius Ptolemy (d.168 A.D.), from which the first printed maps were published in 1477. Through research I have discovered that the two maps shown on this scagliola are Tabula Asia IIII and (to the right) the western half of Tabula Asia V. The ornate title ‘cartouches’ correspond precisely with the decoration on the Mercator versions.

The two maps are depicted as a trompe l’oeil. The first map shows territories bordering the Mediterranean Sea: Cilicia, Cappadocia, Armenia, Cypress, Syria, Palestine & Egypt; this includes modern day Lebanon, Israel and Jordan. It moves east into the Arabian Desert, Arabia Foelicis, Mesopotamia, Assyria & Babylonia; modern day Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Iraq. The second map overlaps the first, repeating parts of Assyria, Mesopotamia and Babylonia, before moving east to show the Caspian Sea, Media, Susiana, Persis and the Persian Gulf; modern day Iran. The maps are naively penned and annotated throughout with illustrations of lighthouses, forts, mountain ranges and rivers.

CARTOUCHE : A cartouche which presents depictions of the national identities of the different regions of the two maps, and the inscription ‘Persia, Armenia, Anatolia and Arabia’ is shown projecting from underneath the two maps. Through research I have discovered that this reproduces, almost exactly, the cartouche of Frederick de Wit’s Map of Persia, of 1660.

INSCRIPTIONS : The westerly map is headed with a decorative cartouche inscribed in Latin, ‘ Mediuis meridianus 72 ad quem reliqui inclinantur iuxta rationes parallelorum 31.36. id circulum maximum ’. The easterly map is also headed with a decorative cartouche inscribed in Latin ‘ Mediuis meridiamis 88 reliqui ad hunc indinantur iuyta rationes parallelorum 34.&.40 ’. These inscriptions clearly relate to the co-ordinates of the maps and were likely to have been copied or adapted by the artist from the same or a similar source as the maps.

INSTRUMENTS : The corners are decorated from left to right with navigational instruments that most likely belonged to the person who commissioned this top in his cabinet of curiosities (wunderkammer). It is also conceivable that he owned the maps. The top left shows a pair of dividers for measuring distance and use as a drawing compass. A 30-60 set square, for drawing parallel and perpendicular lines accurately, is overlaid on the map. On the top right is a quill, and lower right shows an ivory diptych dial for parallels 37 to 40 degrees north (circles of latitude which cover part of the area shown on the right hand side map) with a table of latitudes listing 24 Spanish cities inferring that this top is either of Spanish origin or was made for a Spaniard. Diptych dials (sundials) are portable instruments, usually made from ivory. They were mainly produced in Nuremberg from the late fifteenth century onwards. They remained fashionable throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and were still in use in the eighteenth century. They are based on the principles of vertical and horizontal sundials. The gnomon (shadow caster) is in this case not a solid piece, but a string, which ‘points’ to the celestial north pole. The string can be adjusted to suit different latitudes between a narrow band. The list of latitudes of different locations in Europe, enables the traveller can use the instrument to tell the time wherever he is, and to adjust his watch to local solar time. Finally, on the lower left of the scagliola there is the depiction of a scroll.

SCAGLIOLA : This is made using crushed gypsum mixed with pigments and glue to bind the mixture. Once hardened it is polished to resemble marble. In historical terms, it is generally agreed that coloured mixes of scagliola were being used around about the end of the 1500s and the beginning of the 1600s in both Germany and Italy. It is very likely that in the 17th century Carpi in the Emilia region was the major centre where this technique was practised, first of all in black and white, and then in polychromy, and mainly for ecclesiastical clients. In the 18th century, Florence and Tuscany definitively recognised the merits of scagliola, mainly thanks to the work of Enrico Hugford (1695-1771), a Vallombrosian brother. Works made of scagliola can be found in Florence in the church of San Miniato al Monte, in the Oratorio di San Tommaso d’Aquino, and in surrounding areas such as Settignano, Chianti, Valdarno, and the Valdisieve, and also the Abbazia di Vallombrosa, which still preserves many of Hugford’s works.

The scagliola bears losses, old repairs and restorations throughout. It is difficult to date this scagliola top accurately from the maps and it is not possible to carbon date scagliola. Whilst it could have been made in the late-17th century, the top most likely eminates from the 18th century, and was commissioned from one of the Carpi workshops by someone with or for a Spanish connection, which I am currently researching.

I have united the scagliola top with a commissioned, bronze, low, table incorporating a frieze of Achaemenid griffins & acanthus leaves. This is appropriate because the Achaemenids were the first Persian dynasty (about 550 – 330 BC), and there are griffins very like those cast in the bronze base on stone pylons in Persepolis, which was built by Darius I. The griffins were thought to protect against evil and witchcraft, and the acanthus is often used as a decorative element in the Mediterranean and the East – it is sometimes connected with everlasting life, but this may be a later meaning. I wanted the table to be of a low height so the maps can easily be seen from all directions. Alternatively the height can be adjusted and the scagliola could also be mounted on a wall with the appropriate fixtures.

SIGNIFICANCE : The two maps depicted in the scagliola cover a significant part of the Persian Empire which, circa 500 BC, eclipsed all others and was the largest empire the world had ever seen. At its greatest extent, between 530 and 486 BC under the Achaemenids Cabyses II and Darius I, the Persian Empire included the modern territories of Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, parts of Central Asia, Asia Minor, Thrace and Macedonia, much of the Black Sea coastal regions, Iraq, northern Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Israel, Lebanon, Syria, and all significant population centres of ancient Egypt as far west as Libya. It is noted in western history, as the antagonist foe of the Greek city states during the Greco-Persian Wars, for emancipation of slaves including the Jewish people from their Babylonian captivity, and for instituting infrastructures such as a postal system, road systems, and the usage of an official language throughout its territories. The empire had a centralised, bureaucratic administration under the Emperor and a large professional army and civil services, inspiring similar developments in later empires.

Through research I have discovered that the two maps resting on the top in trompe l’oeil composition are copied from Gerhard Mercator’s Asiae IIII & Mercator Asiae V. They were printed in 1584 and an important cartographic source using Ptolemy’s Geographia and his system of longitude and latitude as a basis. It is characteristic of the Ptolemeic map to include the names of the provinces of Persia, as here, rather than title the region as a whole. The regions Ptolemy identified are Assyria (northwest), Susiana (southwest), Media (north), Hyrcania (northeast), Parthia (east), Persis (south), and Carmania (southeast) – the easternmost of these are not included in this representation.

As European cartographers continued to use their Ptolemeic system widely until the 18th century, even though new geographic knowledge became available in 1570, it is difficult to date the maps represented in the scagliola accurately from these sources alone. Gerard Mercato’s, Ptolemeic Map of Persia, Utrecht, François Halma, c.1695, a revision of the Ptolemeic map originally published in 1578. shows very similar composition and naming conventions to the maps reproduced in the scagliola which is a good, stylistic indication of when it might have been made. The cartouche at the central lower edge of the scagliola, on the lower sheet in the trompe l’oeil composition, which presents depictions of the national identities of the different regions of the two maps, gives a more definite clue. It reproduces almost exactly the cartouche of Frederick de Wit’s Map of Persia, of 1660.

With regard to the country of origin, Scagliola is usually connected to workshops based in Tuscany where craftsmen were highly specialised as it requires an exceptional, skill to draw on the stone-based surface. The trompe l’oeil composition is unusual and highly appropriate for this subject matter giving the appearance that the maps and instruments have just been laid out on the table. The scagliola is exquisitely decorated and of exceptional quality indicating that it is most likely from the Carpi workshops in Bologna which were one of the leading specialists in scagliola. Interestingly, the Geographia was widely circulated in Italy in particular. The first with maps appeared in Bologna in 1477, followed by more than fifty editions in Latin and some vernacular European languages. Almost all of this publishing activity occurring in Italy and Germany, until 1730 or later. Whilst this would infer that the top is most likely to be Italian, we have to consider the Spanish connection. In the 18th century King Ferdinand VI of Spain appointed Charles-Joseph Flipart (1721 – 1797) as his official painter. Interestingly, Flipart was noted for his trompe l’oeil designs for table tops which were then rendered in hard stone, and King Ferdinand had a taste for these. In the 18th century, where a monarch led in taste, generally the populace followed, and so a fashion for such things would have been born and a Spanish origin must be considered which I am currently researching.

Exploring the Spanish connection further, the Spanish towns listed in the diptych dial indicate that this top was most likely made for a Spaniard. It is possible that it was commissioned for a traveller or merchant, or to commemorate ambassadorial or trade relations between the two regions. From the end of the 16th century, after Shah Abbas sent the first Persian embassy to Spain in 1599, and political and trade relations became first possible and then widespread, the West developed a renewed fascination with the Near East which was manifested in both art and literature. In the summer of 1614, the Grand Duke Cosimo II of Tuscany lodged the Earl and Countess of Arundel in the Palazzo Vecchio presenting them with a precious pietre dure table and three lengths of gold cloth on their departure

SUMMARY : This is an extremely, rare and beautiful object in terms of its technique and the virtuosity involved in the handling of the scagliola, its significant size, exquisite and intricate detail. It is a true conversation piece with subject matter that relates not just to when and where it was made but back to 1598 when the original maps were published, to 1477 when the first maps were printed, to circa 150AD when Claudius Ptolemy established mathematical co-ordinates, and finally to 500BC when the first Persian empire was established by the Achaemenid dynasty.

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This post was written by joecollinson