The Power of Beauty

Imagine visiting Rome and coming back home with a micromosaic tabletop as a souvenir; being sister, wife, and mother to three different emperors; or an average woman going about her daily handwork with a ”globustisch” as your workstation.

Nothing average about the objects.

Micromosaic Tabletop with Nine Views of Rome, ca. 1830-1850
Glass tesserae with marble, lapis lazuli and malachite

Marble tables with elaborate decorations of inlaid precious stones and micro-mosaic pictures were among the most prized souvenirs available to 19th-century tourists. This table-top features nine vignettes of Rome’s chief attractions: the Pantheon, Tomb of Cecilia Metella, Temple of Vesta, Forum, Coliseum, Arch of Titus, Castel Sant’Angelo, and Capitoline Hill, with St. Peter’s Basilica in the center. 

Each micro-mosaic vignette is composed of remarkably thin rods of brightly colored glass (smalti filati) cut into tiny pieces (tesserae), and arranged with as many as 1,400 tesserae per inch. Greek patterns and borders of malachite and lapis lazuli complete the composition. This table top was probably made in the mosaic studio at St. Peter’s Basilica, which had been in operation since the late 16th century. Tourists would purchase the table top in Italy, then commission a local furniture-maker to construct an appropriate base after returning from their travels.

Portrait of Agrippina the Younger, ca. 40 CE
Marble (from Paros) heaed, 18th-century coloured marble bust

Agrippina the Younger (AD 15 – 59) was a powerful woman: the sister, wife, and mother to three different emperors. According to ancient authors, Agrippina’s brother Caligula sent her into exile for involvement in a conspiracy in AD 39. Her uncle Claudius recalled her from banishment and married her in AD 49. Agrippina is said to have poisoned Claudius so that her son Nero might become emperor. The empress ruled in Nero’s name while he was young, but he eventually turned against her, ordering assassins to murder her. While Agrippina is said to have written an autobiography, it has not survived. Her portraits provide the only remaining clues as to how she wished to be represented during her lifetime. These depict her with a slightly protruding upper lip and chin that are reminiscent of Caligula’s portraits. Of the RISD version, only the head is ancient.

Globe Table (Globustisch), 1810-1820
Mahogany, burl mahogany, oak, ebony and boxwood with brass, mirror, ivory, mother of pearl, pewter, tortoiseshell, painted faux tortoiseshell, engravings and velvet

Fashioned from a profusion of costly materials, this table spotlights the virtuosic skills of its makers. Designed to provide a space for sewing and other handwork, the upper half of the burled mahogany globe rotates into the lower half to reveal ivory bobbins and compartments for materials.

Neoclassical style is seen in the three curved legs topped with ram heads, as well as the interior replica of a Greek temple with a geometric inlaid floor. Engravings of the Roman goddesses Minerva and Flora flank the mirrored back, reflecting the owner’s education and appreciation of the ancient world.

RISD Museum, Providence, RI

November 23rd, 2018

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