Italian crafting supremacy: Naples and the art of Piqué

Gold and mother-of-pearl in the workshops across the Royal Palace: a touch of humor, obelisks, baroque and chinoiserie, ancient ruins and everyday objects

Naples in the 1700s

The Marquis de Sade wrote in his Voyage d’Italie in 1775-76 that the Naples of Ferdinand IV and Maria Carolina of Austria, where he stayed from January to June 1776, was a ‘superbe ville’, whose natural wonders exceeded even that of Roman monuments. Donatien-Alphonse, hiding under the name of Count de Mazan, admired Via Toledo, despite the filth and the stench produced by the shops, particularly the butchers’. He recognized a vibrancy there that reminded him of Paris and which stood out in the lights produced by the flambeaux. The mild climate, he believed, fed the local backwardness and bad manners. According to the ‘divine marquis’, not yet fallen into his erotic literary fantasies but already libertine in his sexual preferences, what lacked in the capital of the Bourbon Kingdom was luxury, French style. There was not that ‘aisance qui fait le charme de la vie’, aristocratic opulence being restricted to horse shows and the splendor of the reception rooms in the noble palazzi, while the residential apartments were generally damp and unheated, squalid and untidy.

The balls would languish, he underlined, because time was spent at gaming tables, and the conversation was bland and lacking in souper. Once the servants turned out the lights, you had to go to some local dive for a plate of steaming maccheroni to pick yourself up. Fashion, adds D.A.F. de Sade, was French, but its poor, tasteless cousin. The city was in the grip of prostitution and ignored any form of libertine conduct, the emblem of the Enlightenment and of the exaggerated life of our century. Even the royal couple was dull. D.A.F. described the queen from Vienna as a woman dominated by a superiority complex, ‘jalouse et galante’ like her sister Marie-Antoinette, but unlike her she loved her children like a common bourgeois. As regards her husband Ferdinand, attached to his possessions like a farmer and lacking in any ambition for greatness, the author of Justine and Filosofia nel boudoir concluded that it was enough just to look at him to see what a prince without manners really is. A judgement, by de Sade, that cast discredit on the political, administrative artistic and modern-style legacy passed down to the son of what was the first Bourbon on the Neapolitan throne, Charles III. A recollection that seems to overlook the splendor of eighteenth-century Naples, Siglo de oro which saw the flowering of musical, architectural, philosophical, literary and artistic works. Until the curtain dropped on the revolutionary wave of 1799, extinguished in the bloodshed of the Bourbon reaction.

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The art of Piqué in Naples

Naples, in the eighteenth century, embodied the douceur de vivre. The Naples of Charles III, which saw the erection of royal palaces like Caserta and Reggia di Portici or of the Albergo dei Poveri and the Teatro di San Carlo, while excavations began in Pompeii and Herculaneum and, in 1743, related to the palazzo of the same name, the Capodimonte porcelain factory opened, echoed in an exhibition open at the Kugel Gallery in Paris until the early months of 2019, and devoted to an artistic specialty linked to the court of Charles and his consort Maria Amalia of Saxony. Complètement Piqué, le fol art de l’écaille à la cour de Naples, curated by Alexis Kugel, told the story of this technique, through a group of objects made between 1720 and 1760. An artistic expression which for the amateurs – especially members of the royal families or the great bankers and Jewish businessmen from France, Britain or Middle Europe in the 19th century, from Sir Julian Goldsmid to all of the European branches of the Rothschilds – were still mainly linked to the reign of Charles III, crowned in 1734. The garden of objects brought together by the Kugel brothers in their palace-Schatzkammer facing the Seine at the 25 quai Anatole France, caressed by the light, revealed the gold damascening and the shimmering mother-of-pearl, penetrating the translucent consistency of tortoiseshell. This is the trio of materials that mark Neapolitan Piqué, the virtuoso art of the local ‘tartarugari’ who, captained by the the most famous among them, Maestro Giuseppe Sarao, had their workshops in the clearing in front of the royal palace. The relationship between the ‘tartarugari’ and the monarchy and the nobility serving the court is deep-rooted. They fine-tuned the mysteries of soldering and of moulage, using boiling water and adding olive oil to model the tortoiseshell, inserting gold inlay and nacre which looks like lacework, into the still-wet material, elastic and malleable like plastic. They were able, through that semi-transparent and vibratile texture, to create figurations and fantastical forms, dreamlike landscapes and romantic scenes, masks, rural celebrations and obelisks, mythical or baroque theatrical representations, chinoiserie, and evocative ruins. They combined inventiveness, creative flair, and a touch of humor, to decorate furniture tops and personal, everyday objects.

Piqué’s Chinoiserie

Objets d’art were thus born to delight the existence of those who could afford them, using them on the table, in the bedroom, in the ladies’ boudoir. Jugs and dressing table mirrors, plates and trays, chests, caves à liqueurs, cutlery and spinning wheels, glove boxes and games boxes or vanity cases. Not to mention also dance cards, candlesticks and writing sets, dresser valets, nécessaires à parfum, fairy-tale centerpieces held aloft by darting dolphins, cane handles, tobacco boxes, chess boards and frames, containers of every shape and kind – or there were small pieces of furniture worthy of emperors and princesses. Cabinets of different sizes – including the on-stand cabinet from the royal English collections, with rounded top – and the table known as ‘dell’Ermitage’, a masterpiece which Giuseppe Sarao completed around 1730 and which he signed, with the monogram ‘SfN’, standing for ‘Sarao fecit Napoli’. The chinoiseries are a constant. A menagerie of animals, of humanized, mocking monkeys and of the singerie invented by Huet al Castello di Chantilly, a whirl of exotic birds and dragons, one hundred or so knights and coquettish Mandarins on a swing and four gold vases that symbolize the seasons. The dessous is decorated by the arms of the Hapsburgs of Spain, showing that the work was created before Charles III, son of Philip V of Spain, took the throne, and before the Bourbons settled in the Kingdom of Naples. Purchased by Baron Stieglitz in Frankfurt, from Goldschmidt antiques, one of the main suppliers of Mayer Carl de Rothschild, he took a piqué collector, the table left the private museum of Stieglitz in 1924 to join the Hermitage collection in Saint Petersburg, where it remains today.

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Piqué movement throughout Europe

The art of piqué is not unique to Naples. There are records of tobacco boxes produced in Paris, in gold and light tortoiseshell, decorated with hunting scenes or the application of à la Berain ornamental motifs on similar materials – the same that gained popularity in similar Neapolitan collections – dating back to the years between 1715 and 1722. A cosmopolitan decorative movement, piqué, found right throughout Europe, from Germany to Spain, from the Netherlands to England and which takes inspiration from the same models published in illustrated books. In primis from the style lessons of Jean Bérain, royal designer of ornament in the age of Louis XIV and inventor of a mélange of grotesques inspired by the high Renaissance, mixed with arabesques filled with minute figures, animals and monsters. The way was also led by the experience of Paul Decker the Elder in Nuremburg and Bayreuth – where Decker died, as superintendent for the Margravio constructions, in 1713 –, the example of Johann Christoph Weigel and the engraver Martin Engelbrecht in Augsburg. In Naples, the use of ècaille piquée, which combines the three main materials, sometimes even including forays into coral and lapis lazuli and involves cabinets, gaine, small tables and objects, began in the mid-17th century. The first, according to local historians, was a certain Laurenzini, identified as Antonio de Laurentii or Laurenzii. A rather direct relationship can be established, through the style similarities between the Neapolitan milieu and the craft of the French cabinet-maker André-Charles Boulle, who gained fame in the court of the Sun King. Giuseppe Sarao, who appears in documents dating to 1735 as ‘well established’ – which points to a career going back at least fifteen years before, with his son Gennaro, of whom there are records from 1741 – was the leading artist in the genre. His undisputed fame is flanked by other figures, including the goldsmith Nicola Starace – documented between 1697 and 1736 – and Giovanni or Juan Tagliaferro, ‘master of tortoiseshell tobacco boxes’, with his relative Antonio.

A rifle belonging to Madrid-based gunsmith Diego Ventura who, in 1722, passed through Naples on his journey to Vienna, where it was offered to him as a tribute to the emperor Charles VI, to be embellished with gold and mother-of-pearl piqué tortoiseshell with cameos, in the style of Antonio de Laurentii. A decorative epic got underway, triumphant until reaching Giuseppe Alessio, one of the suppliers of the gifts for the Ottoman embassy sent to Naples by the Sultan Mahmud I, in October 1741, and to Gennaro Savino, mentioned in 1768-72 and, again, in 1797, at which point the prevailing neoclassical taste did not have a natural propensity for this melodramatic language of baroque imprinting. Alvar Gonzáles-Palacios found one of the first records of the existence of piqué in Naples in the archives, dating back to 1683, when the Duke of Gravina paid three ducats to Matteo de Turris for an encrusted tortoiseshell tobacco box. The evolution of style in Neapolitan piqué passed through different phases. It first took shape with an initial orthodoxy of Louis XIV décor, borrowed from typical Boulle metal and tortoiseshell marqueterie, and went on to become more streamlined, following the stylistic evolution imparted by the Regent Philippe d’Orleans between 1715 and 1730, in the Régence aéré. Due to its inherent ornamental horror vacui, the intermediate phase is known as the Régence chargé and features central piqué islands, framed by engraved mother-of-pearl motifs.

Piqué – the age of pleasure

A transition represented by the tray by Mentmore and the games box that belonged to King Farouk of Egypt and, later, to Jackie Kennedy Onassis. The use of a trio of materials, each considered and already used as a precious element in almost all civilizations since ancient times, reached expressive heights in this eighteenth-century setting. The pure white mother-of-pearl, mineral and organic, associated with the Virgin Mary, came from the Indian Ocean. It went well with the tortoiseshell, an exotic contribution omnipresent in the princely Wunderkammers straddling mannerism and baroque, but which boasted ancestry dating back to Roman times, as evidenced by the writings of Pliny and Martial. Gold, sometimes replaced by silver – as explained in the Encyclopédie by Diderot and d’Alembert – could be interpreted according to four distinct techniques. Piqué is like the favorite child of the last Baroque generation, a mold with an inherent excess of decoration and proportions. The gradual formal rarefaction that took over with the advent of rocaille and then with neoclassicism, which in Naples began rearing its head from the middle of the eighteenth century, after the first archaeological excavation campaigns in the fourth decade of the eighteenth century, soon decreed the end of the golden age of this art, experienced only for a few decades in the age of the Enlightenment and of pleasure.



is a decorative technique, usually employed on tortoiseshell, in which inlaid designs are created by means of small gold or silver pins. The art reached its highest point in 17th- and 18th-century France, particularly for the decoration of small tortoiseshell articles such as combs, patch boxes, and snuff boxes. By an adroit arrangement of the gold and silver pins, by placing them in small or large clusters, effects of light and shade could be created in the design. In the finest French work, the pins are placed so close to each other and with such accuracy that they appear to form a continuous line. Decorative motifs include chinoiserie scenes, geometric designs, and arabesques.

The writer does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article.