Crafting Knowledge, Telling Stones: The Art of Pietre Dure Tables in Early Modern Italy, 1550s-1660s

Wenyi Qian, M.A.

The craft technique of hardstone inlay (pietre dure) developed in parallel to the emergence of new ways of observing, classifying, and conceptualizing matters in natural history in the Cinquecento and the Seicento. The artisanal production of inlaid tables, in particular, became a key site to experiment with this new decorative medium, a process through which knowledge about natural materials was channeled into and articulated through practical skills and labor. This thesis takes a firmly object-based approach and situates the production of this genre of elite furniture within the wider technological, intellectual and social context of a conjoint rise of craft culture, natural knowledge, and collecting in early-modern Italy. It also embeds the production of mid-scale furniture within a profoundly intermedial culture of making and puts the design and crafting of inlaid tables in dialogue with other precincts of making and material culture – jewelry, portable objects, architectural decoration, sculptural display, pictorial practice, and textile. I aim to use inlaid tables as a test case to rearticulate a much less hierarchical structure of artistic knowledge in which cognate techniques and ways of working with materials and tools cut across traditional medial categories and scales of making. As such, my thesis contributes to interdisciplinary debates on material agency, intermediality, and the relationship between discursive and embodied knowledge within the early-modern period. 

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