The Art of Opening a Museum or the Malachite Table of the Stibbert Museum

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Alexandre Claude  is a first-year PhD History researcher at the EUI. His research concerns the knowledge of stones during the early modern period. He focuses on cabinets and collections of stones between the end of the sixteenth century and the first half of the seventeenth century, mainly in the Holy Roman Empire and the Italian peninsula. He reassesses the history of the understanding of stones made out of treaties and great scholars, to underline how the outdoors and indoors worked together, how artists contributed to shape knowledge and how eyesight played a key role. His research fosters interdisciplinary perspectives and material studies. His previous training included art history at the École du Louvre, mineralogy at the Sorbonne University and material culture history at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales. 

 

 

If the Stibbert Museum was a music box, bringing to life ancient costumes, armours, and portraits, its keyhole would be the stupendous green table in the very first room (fig. I). This piece works as a colourful introduction to the taste and ambition of Frederick Stibbert (1838–1906), original owner of the collection. By walking around, the visitor understands that its visual and material strength makes it outstanding among the other pieces, and rightfully so.

The piece of furniture we observe is qualified as a table, but the visitor quickly remarks that the top-table is too high, the gilt bronze edge is unusual and uncomfortable for a dinner table: there is no space for the guests’ legs and the central sculpture does not allow to easily communicate from side to side. So, the table might have never been used as a table, possibly as a display stand, considering that the shape reminds one of a pyramidal stand or “serviteur muet” (literally “mute waiter”). Thus, we understand that the table is not a dining table, as the room is not a dining room, as the house is not a common Florentine palazzo, but a particular place of display. F. Stibbert opened the mansion a few times to the public during his lifetime; after his death it became permanent. If the house was thought of as a kind of museum and nothing has been moved since, as expressed in his will, then why did he display a huge non-usable table as the first item of the collection to be seen?

The answer rests on the gilt bronze and the stone, the malachite. When the table was first presented in 1806 at the fourth Exhibition of Products of French in Paris, the applause was general, even without the expected malachite but a green velvet instead. The size of the bronze, the quality of the production and the variety of antique motifs made it a masterpiece. The curator at the Ermitage Museum Juna Zek found letters between the Russian patron, Nikolaj Demidov (1773–1828), and his agent in Paris, who supplicated him to pay as promised the goldsmith Henri August (1759–1816). However, as seen in the faces and the general aspect of the figures, the techniques are very similar to the ones of another successful Parisian bronze-smith, Pierre-Philippe Thomire (1751–1843). He presented at the same exhibition a malachite mantelpiece and two candelabras, also commended by N. Demidov, that are now next to the table (fig. II). P.-P. Thomire, who made plenty of works of such a size, or with similar features, or a black bronze backing, might have had an influence on the process, at an earlier or later stage. This technical and material proximity between two different hands is a good source of complementary interpretations to the written document giving the name of the artist; it allows to grasp the process of the production of this table.

The malachite slides for the table finally arrived in Paris in 1807 and completed it. The European continent knew of the malachite for centuries; the pieces mined in the Russian Empire by young men under serfdom had a unique vivid colour and an exceptional great size for a mineral, given that the malachite is not a rock but a mineral. With the help of the Demidov family, who owned the major mines in the Ural Mountains, the tsars Alexander I (r.1801–1825) and Nicholas I (r.1825–1855) offered malachite presents to several European political figures and made it the central attraction of the Russian pavilion at the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations in London in 1851. Objects inlayed with the green mineral were produced for the European market and palaces across the continent started to furnish and decorate a “malachite room.” Anatolij Demidov (1812–1870), third son of Nikolaj, planed such a room in the late 1850s, in his Florentine villa of San Donato, where his father had chosen to settle thirty years before. The room was a showcase of the family business as an allusion to the Malachite room in the Winter Palace in Saint Petersburg. The reference to the Romanov’s in the display was understood A. by Demidov as an eloquent way to situate oneself amongst the elite.

When F. Stibbert displayed his collection, he knew that the green malachite was a well identified Russian symbol (fig.III) and that the first visitors of the museum would have instantly made the link with the Demidov’s collection by just looking at the table. This is why the malachite is in the very first room. The link between the two collections is not just visual, but also concrete, since F. Stibbert bought the table, the mantelpiece, and the candelabras at the sales of the villa San Donato, after the death of A. Demidov in 1870. His collection was renowned in Europe at the time when F. Stibbert was just beginning his. Both collectors were decorative art, historical costumes and Napoleon’s life enthusiasts. For instance, F. Stibbert bought the costume worn by Napoleon for his coronation as king of Italy, that A. Demidov showed in the short-lived museum of San Martino on the isle of Elba that he created himself in 1851. We do not know if F. Stibbert visited the museum, but certainly the villa San Donato, whose prestige was international. F. Stibbert partly captured this thanks to the malachite. By displaying it at the beginning of the museum itinerary he wanted to prove the standard of his collection among the flourishing house-museums in Europe, such as the museum Poldi-Pezzoli in Milan, inaugurated in 1881, or the Condé Museum in the castle of Chantilly in 1898. In a word, he captured the fame of the Demidov, at least partially. Therefore, it becomes evident that the house was not turned into a museum after the death of F. Stibbert but he had already conceived his house thoroughly as a museum during his lifetime. He did not gatherworks of arts, but curated them in a new way to create something that was emerging at that time: the museum as a private institution. That is the core difference between a formerly occupied house turned afterwards into a museum and a house already thought of as a museum by its owner. The malachite table, by its symbolic value and its display, appears to be a great piece of the collection, but also a part of its genealogy and an introduction to the story that F. Stibbert wanted the visitor to discover.

 

 

Useful literature on the topic:

 

Ludmila Budrina, head of the Decorative Arts Department of Ekaterinburg Museum of Fine Arts, does research on the history of the Demidov and the malachite, see for instance:

  • 2022, “Малахитовые залы» виллы Сан-Донато: реконструкция ансамблей и атрибуция их составляющих” [‘Malachite Rooms’ of Villa San Donato: The Reconstruction of the Ensembles and the Attribution of the Pieces], p.525-537, Vestnik of Saint Petersburg University, Arts, Vol.12 (3).
  • 2021, “Malachite as material and symbol in diplomatic relations between the Russian Empire and the Holy See in the 19th Century,” p.129-135, in Marco Cappolaro, Giuslia Murace, Gianluca Petrone (ed.), Le arti e gli artisti nella rete della diplomazia pontificia, Rome, Gangemi Editore spa.
  • 2020, Малахитовая дипломатия [Malachite diplomacy], Moscow/Ekaterinburg, Armchair Scientist.
  • 2013, “La produzione in malachite dei Demidov: sulle tracce degli oggetti alla prima esposizione universale,” p.151-176, in Lucia Tonini, I Demidov fra Russia e Italia: Gusto e prestigio di una grande famiglia in Europa dal XVIII al XX secolo, Florence, L. S. Olschki.

 

I used for this blog piece the articles of Juna Zek, “Tre commissioni di Nikolaj Demidoff ad artigiani parigini,” p.165-180, and Dominique Charles Fuchs “Acquisti di provenienza Demidoff nelle raccolte Stibbert,” p.239-249, in Lucia Tonini, I Demidov a Firenze e in Toscana, Florence, L. S. Olschki, 1996, and I used the biography of Frederick Stibbert, Frederick Stibbert 1838–1906: Vita di un collezionista, by Simona di Marco, 2008, Turin, Umberto Allemandi & C.