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The Sixtus Cabinet or the Pope's Cabinet

Category

Furniture

Date

circa 1585

Materials

Ebony, gilt bronze, agate (banded, black and white, brown, grey, grey and white, moss, orange, pink, pink mottled), alabaster (Egyptian, fiorito, green, green Algerian, di Palombara, a pecorella, a tartaruga, white), amethyst (tinted with hematite), aventurine, bianco e nero antico, bloodstone, breccia (various), brocatello (Spanish), carnelian, chalcedony (green chrome, white), chrysoprase, citrine, coral, crystal (rock), emerald, garnet (alamandine), glass (Roman, blue [some fire damage]), jasper (di Barga, brown, dark brown, green, green and red, mottled green and brown, mottled red, mottled yellow, orange, red, red variegated, red and white, Sicilian, yellow, yellow and red), lapis lazuli, mother-of-pearl, onyx, paragone, paste (green, orange, purple, red, yellow), plasma (green), prase (green), quartz (smoky), sealing wax (once!), semesanto (Skyros), serpentine (green and yellow, verde, yellow), serpentinite, smaragdite, turquoise, Verde di Prato

Measurements

210.0 x 130.0 x 64.0 cm

Place of origin

Rome

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Collection

Stourhead, Wiltshire (Accredited Museum)

On show at

Stourhead, Wiltshire, South West, National Trust

NT 731575

Summary

The Sixtus Cabinet or Pope’s Cabinet, made in Rome around 1585, probably for the ‘Iron’ Pope Sixtus V Peretti (1521-1590; Pope from 1585-1590), is the richest and most elaborate of all surviving Roman pietre dure cabinets (or studioli) in Britain. Luxury cabinets, such as this, were conceived with elaborate Mannerist façades of ebony and gilt bronze, which served as a frame to show off the most spectacular and costly products in ‘pietre dure’ (hard stones) inlay – an immensely time-consuming technique of marquetry using different colour pieces of highly polished marble, porphyry, jasper and other rich materials. The cabinets were intended to contain, though not to display, collections of gems, cameos, medals and other precious objects.

Full description

The Sixtus Cabinet or Pope’s Cabinet, made in Rome around 1585, probably for the ‘Iron’ Pope Sixtus V Peretti (1521-1590; Pope from 1585-1590), is the richest and most elaborate of all surviving Roman pietre dure cabinets (or studioli) in Britain. Luxury cabinets, such as this, were conceived with elaborate Mannerist façades of ebony and gilt bronze, which served as a frame to show off the most spectacular and costly products in ‘pietre dure’ (hard stones) inlay – an immensely time-consuming technique of marquetry using different colour pieces of highly polished marble, porphyry, jasper and other rich materials. The cabinets were intended to contain, though not to display, collections of gems, cameos, medals and other precious objects. The story goes that the cabinet once belonged to Pope Sixtus V and the passed to his brother’s family, the Perettis, the last of whom, being a nun, left it to a convent in Rome. Here it was purchased by Henry Hoare II (1705–1785), known as ‘the Magnificent’, complete with a set of Peretti portraits. Since its arrival at Stourhead in 1742, the Pope’s Cabinet has caused a stir among visitors: Walpole described it as ‘magnificent’; for Mrs Lybbe Powys it was the ‘so-much-talked-of cabinet’; and William Beckford of Fonthill, not an admirer of Stourhead, was ecstatic, ‘Sixtus the Fifth’s cabinet is divine, I know – the bronzes are of extreme delicacy and elegance, and those lovely agates, alabasters and cornelians, mingled with the glittering mother-of-pearl, produce a rich effect, agreeable and grateful to the eye. It will be difficult to surpass, but we must try...’ The cabinet’s elevation is very close to that of Roman churches of the late sixteenth century, the two most conspicuous and important examples being the Gesù (‘Santissimo Nome di Gesù all’Argentina’; begun in 1568) and the Chiesa Nuova (‘Santa Maria in Vallicella’; begun in 1575). In their 2015 monograph dedicated to the cabinet’s history, Simon Jervis and Dudley Dodd remarked: ‘What renders the Sixtus Cabinet spectacular is the presence of an overwhelming quantity of pietre dure. This may well reflect Sixtus V’s own taste for rare and/or ancient marbles and precious stones’ (Jervis and Dodd 2015, p. 97). For many years the cabinet was thought to be Florentine and the product of the Ducal Workshops. In reality, however, the pietre dure panels appear to have been made in Rome. Pope Sixtus ‘is notorious for having in 1588 ordered the demolition of the Septizonium, a famous ornamental façade with three orders erected by the Emperor Severus in AD 204 at the foot of the Palatine Hill, and appropriated it materials, including rare marbles, for his own building projects, among them the Cappella Sistina in Santa Maria Maggiore. ... The geometric patterns of the pietre dure on the Sixtus Cabinet have general resemblance to those on the tabernacle in the Cappella Sistina, but the effect is much richer, with a lavish use of lapis lazuli and other precious materials’ (Jervis and Dodd 2015, p. 97). Jervis and Dodd further noted: ‘It was normal for cabinets produced in many European cities to use ornament derived from classical architecture, but surprisingly few follow an architectural model as faithfully as does the church-like façade of the Sixtus Cabinet. ... It may be added that the façade of the Sixtus Cabinet reads consistently and convincingly in both detail and overall design, suggesting that an architect was responsible, in which case the obvious candidates would be Sixtus’s friend and favourite, Domenico Fontana, and/or his nephew, Carlo Maderno, who succeeded to the family business in Rome when his uncle left for Naples in 1594’ (Jervis and Dodd 2015, p. 105-6). Henry Hoare II firmly believed in the papal provenance of the cabinet and commissioned John Boson to make an elaborate mahogany stand with carved reliefs commemorating the Pope’s architectural achievements in Rome (NT 731576). By the same token, his grandson, Sir Richard Colt Hoare (1758-1838), who inherited Stourhead in 1785, commissioned Chippendale to make an ornate gilt cornice for the nice curtain ‘finished in Burnished Gold with the Popes tiara and other insignias’. Partly concealed by the blue velvet curtain (also supplied by Chippendale), the cabinet would then have gleamed in the semi-darkness like some great shrouded reliquary. During the 1902 Stourhead fire, the cabinet and stand were carried to safety, but the gilt cornice perished together with the other fitting the in the same room. The original pedestal, which no longer exists, is listed in 1655 and 1665 as ‘suo piede con figure indorate’ [its foot with gilt figures] and in 1713 as ‘un gran Piedestallo di legni negro e dorato’ [a large pedestal of black and gilt wood]. In the 16th century, pietre dure cabinets usually were place on ordinary tables rather than made-to-measure stands. Therefore, it has been suggested that the gilt wood pedestal described in 1655, 1665 and 1713 was a later Baroque addition. However, the magnificent Roman pietre dure table now at Powis Castle (NT 1181054) has a massive gilt and painted stand, distinctively sixteenth-century in style, which may suggested that the Pope’s cabinet equally had its own sixteenth-century stand. Entry adapted from Dudley Dodd’s original text for the Stourhead guidebooks of 1968-2005.

Provenance

Made in Rome around 1585 for Pope Sixtus V (1521-1590) at the beginning of his papacy and acquired by Henry Hoare II (1705–1785) during his Grand Tour to Italy; in 1946, Stourehead and its collections and grounds were given to the National Trust by Sir Henry Hoare, 6th Bt (1865-1947).

References

Jervis and Dodd 2015 Simon Swynfen Jervis and Dudley Dodd, Roman Splendour, English Arcadia: the English taste for pietre dure and the Sixtus Cabinet at Stourhead, 2015

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