Grand Tour cabinet: 316 red sulphur impressions of engraved gems (also known as intaglios casts or ‘impronte’) depicting art from antiquity, housed in a cabinet veneered with keranji wood. (Part of) the casts by Cristiano Dehn and Francesco & Federico Dolce.
The cabinet with two doors enclosing 12 small drawers (numbered 1-12), and two full-width drawers.
In this collection images from Greek and Roman antiquity have been brought together: mythological representations, gods, emperors, theatre masks and vases. The 14 drawers are lined with blue paper and each cast is set in a yellow cardboard mount with a gilded edge, some of the mounts have a number in black ink on the side.
Collections of intaglio casts are also known as Dactyliotheca. They were brought home as a souvenir of a Grand Tour of Italy and used as study material by scholars. Many connoisseurs acquired complete sets of casts in either plaster, glass or colored sulphur. The impressions were made from antique engraved gems or from contemporary works by engravers such as Nathaniel Marchant or James Tassie.
Most of these intaglio collections were mounted in books or stackable boxes. Custom-made intaglio cabinets like ours are much rarer. Examples of such cabinets can be found in the collections of The Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, the British Museum or the famous Tassie Cabinet in the National Galleries Scotland. Catherine the Great of Russia ordered a -very extensive- intaglio collection in 1781, which was housed in a cabinet designed by the architect James Wyatt.
A Dutch Intaglio Cabinet
Our cabinet can be dated to the last quarter of the 18th century. The cabinet itself was most probably commissioned in the Netherlands. The use of oak wood veneered with Keranji wood is very exceptional and otherwise only known from a single piece of furniture that is part of the permanent collection of the Rijksmuseum (BK-1960-166). This piece of furniture - a Dutch 'klap’ buffet - is dated around 1780-1795. The Keranji wood from Indonesia was rarely traded. It has a special dark pattern in the wood, which the maker of this small cabinet made ingenious use of: the veneer is processed in a way that the dark lines in the wood form rectangles and squares on the doors and on the sides and top of the cabinet.
While the type of wood used in the cabinet helps us to date it and place its maker in Holland, the same cannot be said for its contents. The cabinet must have been made for an existing collection of intaglios belonging to the owner of the cabinet. There were intaglios cast makers active in England, Germany and Italy. Our intaglios are certainly exceptional: most intaglio casts were made in plaster. Our beautiful red specimens are made of sulphur paste. It is very likely that (a part of) our impronte originate from the Rome workshop of Cristiano Dehn and his successors son-in-law Francesco Dolce and grandson Federico Dolce. Several of our casts are identical to those made by Dehn and Dolce, including impronte in the extensive intaglio set of Dehn and Dolce in the collection of the British Museum. Father and son Dolce were very active in the last quarter of the 18th century, which exactly matches the dating of our cabinet.
Cristiano Dehn (1696-1770) initially worked as an assistant to Baron von Stosch as producer of glass and sulphur impressions, first in Rome and then in Florence. In 1739 Dehn returned to Rome, establishing his own business in gem impressions in the Via Condotti. His shop was later in the Via Babuino, then in the Corso. This was precisely the neighbourhood where Grand Tourists did their shopping. Many makers of grand tour souvenirs were located in this part of Rome (also called the English ghetto). Dehn’s casts after gems were mentioned in the letters of Goethe and Winckelman. These casts sold so well that his son-in-law, Francesco Dolce, who had married Dehn's daughter Faustina, joined him in the workshop. Grandson Federico Dolce (1766-1849) continued the business well into the 19th century. Dehn’s collection of casts numbered over 28,000 and was eventually bought by James Tassie. In 1772 Dolce published a catalogue of Dehn’s impressions.
It is possible that the first owner of our cabinet brought together intaglio casts from different makers, not only by Dehn. Not all casts are numbered, nor are they placed in numerical order: the latter is also the case in some other known collections. Some of the impronte occur twice in the set.
Whereas collecting antique carved gemstones goes back to antiquity, collecting casts of them became especially popular in the 18th century. The casts made them accessible to a larger public and they also had an educational function: they could serve as a basis for the study of the arts of classical antiquity, Renaissance or recent works of art. Often cast in plaster, the impronte in our cabinet are made from a sulphur paste. The red colour came much closer to the original carved stones than the white plaster. For the preparation, quantities of sulphur (of yellow colour) and a dye were mixed in a ratio of 2:1. Vermilion or red lead oxide was used for the red impronte, but yellow or green sulphur impressions are also known. The mixture was heated in a metal kettle and poured into moulds, not all at once but in several thin layers so that it could harden and no air bubbles formed. It is much finer in structure than plaster, which due to its granular structure can give less refinement to intaglio casts. Red sulphur paste intaglio casts are also often - incorrectly - referred to as wax impressions.
For a video presentation of this cabinet: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qVWQkoQnG_U&t=9s
The following literature was used for the description:
J.P. Smith: James Tassie 1735-1799 modeler in glass, Mallett 1995
P. & H. Zazoff, ‘Gemmensammler und Gemmenforscher’, Munich 1983
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