The arts have long flourished in Florence — the so-called “cradle of the Renaissance.” Hundreds of years ago, there were tens of thousands of artisans in the city, each dedicated to everything from leather goods and hand-decorated paper to jewelry making. Over time, the number of workshops has declined. Nevertheless, Florence still has a sizable amount of artisans and craftspeople, including several master mosaicists who specialize in Florentine marquetry — also sometimes called pietra dura or Florentine mosaics.
What is Florentine Marquetry?
Florentine marquetry in semi-precious stones (Italian: Commesso Fiorentino in pietre dure) is a type of mosaic. However, Florentine marquetry differs from the ancient Greek, Roman, or Byzantine mosaics you might have seen in pictures or in museums.
Both types of art are formed by assembling individual pieces or tiles (tesserae) to create a complete picture. With ancient mosaics, the individual pieces tend to be somewhat uniform in size and shape. You can see the spaces between the tiles, and grout is used to join them together.
Florentine marquetry, in contrast, is a decorative inlay technique in which stone pieces of varying sizes and shapes are used. And since they’re so finely assembled, the joints appear virtually invisible.
In 1588, the influential Medici family established a workshop dedicated to stone pieces of art made via the Florentine marquetry technique. For a time, this workshop was located inside the Uffizi (which housed government offices long before it became the world-famous art gallery it is today). Mosaicists at this Florentine marquetry workshop produced the grandiose works that you can still see inside the Medici Chapels, for example. These master artisans also crafted furniture, reproductions of famous paintings, and gifts for European leaders. Eventually, the workshop moved into another building and evolved into a world-renowned conservation center, as well as a museum. Today, it’s known as the Opificio delle Pietre Dure (Semi-Precious Stones Workshop & Museum). It’s a museum I highly recommend!
Between the 16th and 19th centuries, Florence became the exclusive hub for the production of art objects made via the stone marquetry technique. Eventually, the technique came to be known as Commesso Fiorentino. (The word commesso is the past participle of the Italian word commettere, which means “to put together.” So you could also translate it as a composition. Fiorentino means Florentine.) Soon, monarchs throughout Europe wanted to emulate this decorative art. Workshops similar to the one started by the Medici were also established by the Habsburgs in Prague, and by Louis XIV in France.
Florence’s stone marquetry might have even influenced members of the Mughal Dynasty in what is now India. The Taj Mahal is a brilliant example of how 17th-century century artists in India reinterpreted this art form and made it their own. (When I went to the Taj Mahal and visited Agra more than a decade ago, I stopped by a few inlaid-stone shops to marvel at their handcrafted tables and jewelry boxes crafted via the technique, which is called Parchin Kari. At the time, I didn’t know the art’s origins.)
Watch a Video of This Experience
A Travel Rebirth in the Cradle of the Renaissance
Last summer, Shawn and I were fortunate to spend one fantastic month in Florence, Italy’s artistic and cultural powerhouse. For the previous 14 months, we’d been taking pandemic precautions in a lovely part of coastal Croatia, where we’d unexpectedly gotten “stuck” when the Covid pandemic began.
Eventually, we learned that we wouldn’t be eligible to receive our Covid vaccinations in Croatia. So, we reluctantly boarded an overnight ferry, crossed the Adriatic Sea, and traveled to Italy to get our vaccines at an American Air Force base. It was complicated traveling to Italy during a pandemic, but we’ll always be grateful to the service members there for taking care of us.
Once we were fully vaccinated, we headed to Florence. There, we had a travel rebirth of sorts — albeit prudently — in the birthplace of the Renaissance. For four weeks, we visited Florence’s celebrated museums and gardens. We also decided to learn more about some of Florence’s artistic traditions, including its magnificent stone artwork.
Reflecting on my childhood, I can now see why I was drawn to learn more about Florence’s stone masterpieces. When I was growing up, I loved stones and rocks! I spent hours exploring the woods behind my home and even found some fossil samples. As a kid, rather amusingly, I was convinced those fossils contained samples of dinosaur skin or eggs. I also made a few visits to a local shop, where there were highly polished stone samples for sale. I’m grateful that my parents helped satisfy my curiosity by taking me to that shop — as well as to our local university — to identify my fossils and tiny stones. I still have a small box of them.
In recent years, I’ve gone on to observe apprentices sculpting dazzling white limestone at the Stonemasonry School on the Croatian island of Brač. However, this was the first time I’ve watched artisans working with puzzle-sized pieces to create this type of stone mosaic art.
Where to See Semi-Precious Stonework and Florentine Marquetry (Commesso Fiorentino) in Florence
- Semi-Precious Stones Workshop & Museum (Opificio delle Pietre Dure & Museo) Note that if you buy a ticket to the Uffizi, you can use the same ticket to enter the Semi-Precious Stones Museum for free. See the details here.
- Medici Chapels (Cappelle Medicee)
- Pitti Palace (Palazzo Pitti)
- Tribuna, in the Uffizi Gallery (Le Gallerie degli Uffizi)
- Private workshops (botteghe) — There are several in Florence, but we visited Scarpelli Mosaici (more details about our visit to this marvelous workshop are below).
A Visit to Scarpelli Mosaici Boutique & Workshop
Scarpelli Mosaici is a family-run workshop (bottega) and boutique where master artisans Renzo and Leonardo Scarpelli make, showcase, and sell their Florentine marquetry masterpieces. This father-and-son duo is supported by Renzo’s wife, Gabriella (a jewelry artist herself), and daughter Catia (who is in charge of the business and marketing strategies). A handful of other talented mosaicists and shop assistants also round out this friendly, tight-knit team.
The effect achieved via Florentine marquetry has been likened to “painting with stones,” something Catia Scarpelli alluded to during our summertime visit to the family’s workshop.
“You have to ‘paint’ with a material that’s one of the hardest there is while also achieving softness and movement with the stones,” Catia explained.
Because of its everlasting nature, a 15th-century painter named Domenico Ghirlandaio described Commesso Fiorentino as “painting for eternity” (pittura per l’eternità).
The Scarpellis make a variety of handmade luxury items. With their paintings, subjects include Florentine and Tuscan landscapes, seascapes, flowers, still lifes, animals and children, portraits, and contemporary pieces inspired by the cosmos. They also craft jewelry and extraordinary table tops, which often feature a black background that is adorned with flowers, birds, and perhaps even pomegranates. Some of these works have taken months — even many years — to produce.
Collectors from six continents have purchased their work, and Renzo and Leonardo have even collaborated with iconic brands like Dolce & Gabbana to make a clutch bag.
How Florentine Marquetry is Made, Step by Step
- Sourcing the stones: Master mosaicists like Renzo and Leonardo head to the Tuscan countryside to collect stones that are appropriate for a project. In nature, the quality stones they’re seeking can look deceptively plain — like nondescript rocks. For this reason, it can take years for a master to develop an eagle eye for just the right stone specimens. When a mosaicist can’t find a stone locally, they supplement their supply by purchasing stones like lapis lazuli, malachite, and turquoise from specialists abroad. The Scarpellis prefer to personally go to shows so that they can meet the importers and ensure the stones are just the right color and tone. Eventually, the stones are sawed into thin “slices” that are 3 millimeters (about 1/8 of an inch) thick.
- Sketching out the artwork: The mosaicists draw the artwork on a kind of sticky paper. From there, they cut out the drawing’s individual shapes and attach these “cartoons” to the section of the stone that has just the right variegation to make the artwork come alive.
- Selecting the stone — macchiatura: During the macchiatura (coloring) phase, the mosaicist chooses which stones to use for every individual piece of the composition. To achieve a brilliant chromatic effect with the finished work, he takes into account the desired colors, his experience, and personal tastes.
- Cutting the stone and filing it: The semi-precious stone is glued to a slate board, which offers more structural support. Then, using a wooden bow saw that’s outfitted with a piece of iron wire, the mosaicists meticulously cut out the various shapes into puzzle-like pieces (tessera). Later, the mosaicist uses a diamond file to smooth the fragments’ edges to ensure there will be a fit so perfect that the joints are essentially invisible.
- Assembling and gluing the pieces together: The mosaicists painstakingly assemble the stone pieces to create the composition they sketched out earlier in the process. Then, using a traditional glue recipe that’s made with beeswax and pine resin, they glue the pieces together. Later, the Scarpellis apply a synthetic adhesive (mastic gum) that’s even more robust since it doesn’t deteriorate.
- Smoothing and polishing: The mosaicists smooth and polish the work to accentuate the stones’ brilliant natural characteristics.
- Commesso Fiorentino, an article with photos and video on the Google Arts & Culture website.
- Commesso, a brief entry on Wikipedia.
- Gemstones in the Era of the Taj Mahal and the Mughals, an article on the website of GIA (Gemological Institute of America), a nonprofit organization.
- Opificio delle Pietre Dure, website for the Workshop of Semi-Precious Stones. Based in Florence, it’s a public institute that’s part of the Italian Ministry for Cultural Heritage.
- Historic Centre of Florence, Florence’s World Heritage List description on UNESCO’s website.
- Homo Faber Guide, The Scarpellis are included in the Homo Faber Guide, which is produced by the Michelangelo Foundation, a non-profit organization. Since 2018, the foundation has held Homo Faber, an international exhibition in Venice that promotes fine craftsmanship.
- Noi Scarpelli, Una Storia a Firenze, a 400+ page book about the Scarpelli family’s story and the art of Commesso Fiorentino. Written in both English and Italian, the book features extraordinary images of the Scarpellis and their team creating Florentine marquetry masterpieces. If you visit the family’s workshop, ask if you can peruse a copy of this fabulous book.
- The Pietra Dura Maker: “Everyone Else in Florence Was Looking at the Paintings, But I Was Looking at the Pietra-Dura Floor,” an interview in Country Life Magazine featuring the UK’s only pietra dura artist.
- Pietre Dure: The Art of Semi-Precious Stonework, a 2006 book by Anna Maria Giusti. You can borrow it for free at Archive.org (a non-profit digital library).
- The Role of the Workshop in Italian Renaissance Art, an entry discussing the importance of the workshop (bottega) on the Khan Academy website.
- Scarpelli Mosaici: The Art of “Commesso Fiorentino,” an article on the Fondazione Cologni dei Mestieri d’Arte website. The Cologni Foundation for the Métiers d’Art is a private non profit organization based in Milan.
Where in the World?
How to Visit Scarpelli Mosaici:
The Scarpelli Mosaici workshop is located in a fabulous 16th-century building with red-brick vaulted ceilings. The shop is about halfway between two of Florence’s most celebrated sights — the Galleria dell’Accademia (home to Michelangelo’s statue of David), and the Duomo. This central location makes it convenient to visit and observe the Scarpelli masters at work as they keep this marvelous Florentine tradition alive.
Visiting is free and you don’t need to make an appointment. If you stop by, someone in the shop will be happy to explain the technique and share the family’s story.
To organize a private tour, contact someone at the shop in advance. The Scarpellis even offer art and wine tasting experiences.
- Scarpelli Mosaici Address: Via Ricasoli 59/r, Florence
- Telephone: +39 055 21 25 87
- Social Media: Facebook | Instagram
- Website: Scarpelli Mosaici
Accommodation in Florence:
Shawn and I spent one month in Florence and stayed in Giotto, an Airbnb apartment. It was located in the San Frediano neighborhood, about 20 minutes’ walking distance from the Uffizi Gallery and the Santa Maria Novella Train Station.
The apartment had a living room/kitchen, bedroom, and bathroom and it offered a lovely mix of old and new. The interior was recently renovated and had a brand-new washing machine, dishwasher, refrigerator, and two air conditioners. Like most Italian apartments, the Giotto also had an espresso maker, in this case a Bialetti Venus moka. We loved the sleek design and functionality so much that we later bought one.
Since we had a fair amount of luggage with us, we also liked that the apartment had lots of storage space. What’s more, the ceilings above our bedroom and the kitchen were a work of art themselves! They were painted in the early-20th century. After a long day of sightseeing in the sweltering June and July heat, we loved coming “home,” lying in bed, and looking at the scenes of birds and nature above our bedroom.
The apartment overlooked a courtyard that doubled as a small parking lot for the other residents. Since we weren’t facing the street (with all the scooters whizzing by), the apartment was blissfully quiet. We also enjoyed chatting with the apartment’s thoughtful and helpful owners, Paola and Roberto.
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Photography & text © Tricia A. Mitchell. All Rights Reserved.