With this exhibition the Gallerie degli Uffizi sets out to shed light on a little known yet nonetheless fascinating episode in the history of silverworking in Italy between the 17th and 18th centuries – an episode occasioned by the feast of St. John the Baptist, which has been solemnly celebrated in Florence every year on 24 June since the city’s earliest days, and by the diplomatic relations of the House of Medici which extended its influence over the Roman Curia. These circumstances permitted the Medici to enrich their collections with an outstanding group of historiated silver plates, or ewers, produced to designs by some of the leading artists working in Rome at the time.
Cardinal Lazzaro Pallavicini, a native of Genoa, who was bent on propelling his family to the very top of Rome’s aristocratic society, successfully negotiated the marriage of his niece Maria Camilla to Giovan Battista Rospigliosi, Pope Clement IX’s nephew. Their marriage was celebrated with the blessing of Cosimo III de’ Medici in 1670. Beholden to Cosimo III for the many favours he had received from him, the Cardinal ordered in his will that his heir offer the Florentine grand duke and, after him, his firstborn son a silver plate worth three hundred scudi each year. And that is exactly what happened, very soon after the cardinal’s death on 20 April 1680. The designated heir was Giovan Battista Rospigliosi’s second son Nicolò, who held aloft the name of the House of Pallavicini, while the first son, Clemente Domenico, was to keep alive the name and legacy of the Rospigliosi.
Starting in 1680 and for fully fifty-eight years thereafter, Cosimo III and his successor, his son Gian Gastone, were to receive each year a precious silver plate decorated with stories illustrating the dynastic glories and triumphs of their House. Only for the first year, 1680, the short time available forced the family to offer Cosimo III an existing ewer bearing a striking similarity to other known ewers, one of which – now in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford and on display in this exhibition – allows us to conjure up an image of the plate offered to the Medici that year. Research specially commissioned for the exhibition has permitted scholars to establish that in the years immediately thereafter, the man who took charge of fulfilling the prelate’s wishes was Cardinal Giacomo Rospigliosi who used the drawings of Carlo Maratti, one of the leading painters working in Rome in the second half of the 17th century. These drawings, now in the Chatsworth collection, are on display in the exhibition. On the death of Cardinal Giacomo in 1684, it fell to Giovan Battista Rospigliosi, acting on his very young son Nicolò’s behalf, to continue the tradition, executing Pallavicini’s will until his own death in 1722.. Over time the composition for the ewers was commissioned from some of the leading painters then working for the Rospigliosi (Ciro Ferri, Pietro Lucatelli, Ludovico Gimignani, Lazzaro Baldi, Filippo Luzi and Giuseppe, Carlo and Tommaso Chiari), while after 1700 it was often the silversmiths themselves who designed the rims. All of the known drawings, from Italian and foreign museums and private collections, are on display in the exhibition. The names of the French and Roman silversmiths who embossed and chased the silver ewers have emerged from documents held in the archives in Rome.
"The St. John’s plates", as Gallerie degli Uffizi Director Eike D. Schmidt stresses, "represented a celebration of the House of Medici, an acknowledgement of – and a tribute to – its immense merits in the governance of Tuscany based on figurative depictions alluding both to immortal values and to concrete deeds. The research conducted on this occasion has prompted a meticulous examination of each individual depiction, both in respect of the allegorical scenes reflecting the most celebrated iconological repertoires and in respect of the historical scenes which reveal an exhaustive knowledge of the family’s history. These enormously talented silversmiths drew their inspiration from the dynastic glories depicted in the frescoes of Palazzo Pitti, ranging from the "room of Giovanni da san Giovanni" where the exhibition itself unfolds under the watchful gaze of Lorenzo the Magnificent – who is celebrated in the "plates" both for his political acumen and diplomatic skills, and as a man of letters for the Platonic Academy – to the apotheoses of Pietro da Cortona and of Ciro Ferri in the rooms of the Galleria Palatina."
In Florence, the silver ewers given to Cosimo III were jealously guarded by Cosimo III in the Wardrobe in Palazzo Vecchio while those given to Gian Gastone remained in the family’s residence in Palazzo Pitti. With the dynasty’s extinction, and despite the Family Pact drafted on 31 October 1737 between the Electress Palatine Anna Maria Luisa de’ Medici and the new Grand Duke of Tuscany Franz Stephan of Lorraine, the St. John’s plates, and indeed all the other silverware in the family collections, were considered a valuable resource for redressing the Tuscan state’s teetering budget and for funding the new sovereign’s military campaigns. The last member of the Medici dynasty defended the family property tooth and nail, as we can see from the correspondence on display in the exhibition referring explicitly to the "St. John’s plates", which she considered to be a celebration of her House. Apart from the first two plates, which we know for sure were melted down by order of the House of Lorraine, the rest were still there in 1789–91 when they were framed to resemble pictures and hung in the medal room in the Galleria degli Uffizi. But a pressing need for space and changing tastes were soon to lead to their disappearance from the scene.
The very memory of the St. John’s plates would have been lost had it not been for the Ginori manufactory in Doccia whose founder, the Marchese Carlo Ginori, commissioned the silversmith Pietro Romolo Bini, a former employee of the Galleria dei Lavori, to make plaster moulds of the silver originals between 1746 and 1748, and it is from those moulds that the plaster casts of the ewers on display in the exhibition have been taken. Ginori’s idea was probably to keep alive the memory of some of the ewers’ magnificence, possibly entertaining the idea of subsequently producing versions of them in porcelain, although in the event the manufactory translated only one plate into porcelain, the first in the series. That plate is now on display in the Museo Duca di Martina in Naples.
The ewers continued to be popular with the Manifattura Ginori well into the 19th century, when some of them were reproduced in porcelain for the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1867, but the Italian National Fair of 1861 had already hosted the first plate in the series, pairing it with a late Baroque acquamanile vase or jug, on display in this exhibition. The idea was probably to echo the "acquereccie" or ornamental water jugs with trays designed by Cellini. At the fair in Turin in 1884 the Ginori stand bowed to changing tastes, yet the ewers continued to figure in its catalogue in the shape of their rims only, paired with plates reproducing paintings and thus performing the function of a frame. Several examples of this output are on display in the exhibition.
Today the plaster casts, which the Marchese Leonardo Ginori Lisci donated to the Gallerie Fiorentine many years ago, are on display in the rooms in Palazzo Pitti that host the Tesoro dei Medici, providing us with the only tangible evidence of the magnificent set of lost silver originals.
A series of electroform reproductions obtained from the ewer moulds were used for scenographic effect in 1999 and they are displayed for the same purpose in this exhibition, thus allowing visitors to imagine the splendour of the tribute offered to the Florentine Grand Dukes, together with a video explaining the complexity of the techniques adopted by the Roman silversmiths and by the Manifattura Ginori di Doccia.
The exhibition is curated – and the catalogue published by Sillabe edited – by Rita Balleri and Maria Sframeli. It is promoted by the Ministero dei beni e delle attività culturali e del turismo in conjunction with the Gallerie degli Uffizi and Firenze Musei.