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  • Place of origin:

    Florence (made)

  • Date:

    1795-1797 (made)

  • Artist/Maker:

    Opificio delle Pietre Dure (maker)

  • Credit Line:

    The Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert Collection on loan to the Victoria and Albert Museum, London

  • Museum number:

    LOAN:GILBERT.77:1, 2-2008

  • Gallery location:

    In Storage

Pietre dure means ‘hard stones’ in Italian. Mosaics of hardstones, or commessi di pietre dure, were made during the Roman Empire and throughout the medieval period. But it was not until the Renaissance in Florence that the technique was perfected, under the impulse of Ferdinando I de’ Medici (r.1587-1609), Grand Duke of Tuscany who united the city’s workshops and channelled their creativity into one organisation, the Opificio delle Pietre Dure.

Sir Arthur Gilbert and his wife Rosalinde formed one of the world's great decorative art collections, including silver, mosaics, enamelled portrait miniatures and gold boxes. He donated his extraordinary collection to Britain in 1996. Arthur Gilbert was also fascinated by the evolution of pietre dure and purposefully acquired 16th-century masterpieces as well as 20th-century creations.

This plaque of a famous Roman ruin is part of a series of pietre dure proposed for the Florentine Ducal palace. Only four were completed. Here, sunlight is shown using bright and darker jaspers on the tomb. This is accentuated by painting the alabaster plaque on the reverse with blue sky and pink clouds.

To find out more about the making of pietre dure, watch the video Making a Pietre Dure panel: http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/videos/m/video-making-a-pietre-dure-panel.

Physical description

Rectangular picture representing a view of the Ancient Roman Tomb of Cecilia Metella in a sunny spell, with peasants, cows and a goat. In an ebonised wood and gilded bronze frame.

Place of Origin

Florence (made)


1795-1797 (made)


Opificio delle Pietre Dure (maker)


Height: 68 cm Mosaic out of frame, Width: 90 cm Mosaic out of frame, Depth: 6.2 cm Mosaic out of frame

Object history note

This panel is based on a painting by Ferdinando Partini, who, between 1794-1797, was instructed to prepare six views of the monuments of Rome by Luigi Siries (director of the Opificio delle Pietre Dure, Florence). These were commissioned for a pietre dure room, to be installed in the Palazzo Pitti for the Grand Duke of Tuscany, Ferdinando III.

With the exception of the first panel, under Siries direction, the designs for the other five landscape views, including the composition, architecture, coat-of-arms and frieze decorating the tomb, were largely taken from etchings by Giambattista Piranesi of 1762. The first two paintings Partini delivered were the View of the Pantheon (1794) and the Tomb of Cecilia Metella (1795). Two others followed, the View of the Temple of Peace (1796) and the Arch of Janus (1798).

Four of the paintings were completed in pietre dure – the View of the Pantheon and the Tomb of Cecilia Metella were both completed by the autumn of 1797. However, the arrival of Napoleon’s troops in Florence in 1799 halted production on the rest of the series, which was left incomplete. Both of these panels were seized by Napoleon’s troops from the Palazzo Pitti where they were displayed and taken back to France. After the fall of Napoleon’s empire in 1815, they were returned to the Palazzo Pitti in Florence.

In 1857, the Tomb of Cecilia Metella was presented as a gift by Leopold II to Pope Pius IX during a papal visit to the Palazzo Pitti. This later came up for sale and was subsequently acquired by Sir Arthur Gilbert. In 1857, a copy of this one was commissioned to be presented at the International Exhibition in London in 1862. It missed this deadline and was instead presented at a later exhibition, probably the 1867 Paris Exhibition instead. This second version is now kept in the Museo dell’Opificio delle Pietre Dure in Florence.

Grand Duke Ferdinand III, in the Palazzo Pitti, Florence
Siezed by Napoleon's army in 1799
Restituted to the Opificio delle Pietre Dure, Florence in 1815
Given to Pope Pius IX in 1857
Acquired by Giorgio Rovelli, Rome, 1971
Bought by Arthur Gilbert, 1971

Spotlight on Conservation
The hardstone jasper is found in a vast array of colours, with various patterns and natural markings such as speckles or stripes. This plaque, which is composed almost entirely of jaspers, is an excellent example of the versatility of this stone. Some jaspers used are from different parts of what was once the Holy Roman Empire, precisely from its western borders (South Baden) and from the Kozakov mountains in the East. Sunlight is shown by using bright and darker jaspers and flints on the tomb, while the peasants’ costumes include vibrant lapis lazuli.

The sky is made of a very thin panel of transparent calcite stone, referred to by ancient stone workshops as ‘alabaster’. The name ‘alabaster’ is commonly used, yet deceptively confusing for its definition differs depending on the field of study and attributed to a group of look-alike stones. For geologists, alabaster is a type of fine-grained massive gypsum. Archaeologists and stone workshops use ‘alabaster’ for both this type of gypsum and a type of fine-grained banded calcite. To complicate further, the calcite type – the material used on this panel – was described by ancient workshops as ‘Egyptian Alabaster’ or ‘Oriental Alabaster’ for its evident provenance from Egypt. On the other hand, modern workshops sometimes call it ‘onyx-marble’ for its banded appearance, which is similar to onyx and marble, even though they are completely distinct.

This calcite panel has been painted on the reverse a bright blue sky and pink clouds, a technique found on several objects such as Loan:Gilbert.1021-2008 (http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O157683/cabinet-grand-ducal-workshops/).

Historical context note

The tomb of Cecilia Metella on the Via Appia in Rome was probably built around 30-20 BC. This prominent location, on one of the most important roads connecting Rome to the south of Italy, became a site for monumental tombs of the ancient Roman elite. The inscription on the tomb, also visible on this hardstone picture, reads as follows: CAECILIAE / Q. CRETICI F. / METELLAE CRASSI, or "To Caecilia Metella, daughter of Quintus Creticus, [and wife] of Crassus". She was the daughter of Quintus Creticus, an important political figure, and the wife of Marcus Licinius Crassus. It is generally agreed that the tomb was likely commissioned by her son. Although little else is known about her, the scale and significance of her tomb suggest she was an established member of the social elite.

The site of this tomb was carefully chosen for its prime location with many passers-by and also its high elevation which ensured the building could be viewed from afar. Due to this advantageous position, the site was much desired by nobility and church alike. In the 1300s, Pope Bonifacio VIII donated it to his family, the Caetani. They strategically used it as a fortress from which they levied a tax on merchants who passed along the road, creating a toll road.

One of the most celebrated Roman archaeological sites, the tomb is also known as the Capo di Bove because of the frieze of stylised ox skulls (called bucrania), running beneath the battlements.

Descriptive line

Pietre dure plaque representing the tomb of Cecilia Metella, Grand Ducal Workshop, Florence, 1795-7.

Bibliographic References (Citation, Note/Abstract, NAL no)

Zobi, Antonio. Notizie storiche sull'origine e progressi dei lavori di commesso in pietre dure nell'I.e R. Stabilimento di Firenze, Stamperia Granducale, Florence, 1853, p.299.
Avery, Charles, assisted by Arthur Emperatori. Mosaics from the Gilbert Collection: summary catalogue. Exhibition catalogue Victoria & Albert Museum. London: H.M.S.O. 1975, cat. no. 22.
Giusti, Mazzoni and M. Pamploni. Il Museo dell'Opificio delle Pietre Dure a Firenze, Milan: Electa, 1978, p. 329.
Gonzalez-Palacios, Alvar and Steffi Röttgen with essays by Steffi Röttgen, Claudia Przyborowski; essays and new catalogue material translated by Alla Theodora Hall. The Art of Mosaics: Selections from the Gilbert Collection. Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1982. 224 p., ill. Cat. no. 18. ISBN 0875871097.
Massinelli, Anna Maria with contributions by Jeanette Hanisee Gabriel. Hardstones: The Gilbert Collection. London: Philip Wilson Publishers Ltd. in association with The Gilbert Collection, 2000. 329 p., ill. Cat. no. 67, pp. 164-165. ISBN 0856675105.
Koeppe, Wolfram and Annamaria Giusti.with contributions by Cristina Acidini ... [et al.] ; edited by Wolfram Koeppe. Art of the Royal Court. Treasures in Pietre Dure from the Palaces of Europe.. New York : Metropolitan Museum of Art ; New Haven ; London : Yale University Press, c2008. pp. 302-303, cat. no. 117.
Brook, Carolina and Valter Curzi, eds. Roma e l'Antico. Realtà e visione nel '700. Exhibition catalogue Rome: Fondazione Roma Museo. Palazzo Sciarra. 30 novembre 2010 - 6 marzo 2011, Geneva-Milan: Skira, 2010. Cat. no. I.10b, pp. 251, 389-390. ill.

Production Note

After a cartoon by Ferdinando Partini, delivered in February 1795.


Marble; Alabaster; Paint; Gilt bronze; Hardstone; Chalcedony; Agate; Jasper; Serpentinite; Gabbro; Chert; Lapis lazuli; Limestone


Pietre dure; Gilding; Mounting

Subjects depicted

Figures; Ruins; Goat; Cows; Tomb


Plaques & Plaquettes; Grand Tour


Metalwork Collection

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