Monumental vase

Maker: pedestal and mounts by Pierre Philippe Thomire (French, Paris 1751–1843 Paris)

Date: lapidary work: early 19th century; pedestal and mounts: 1819

Culture: Probably Italian, Florence and French, Paris

Medium: Russian malachite, composite filling material; gilt-bronze mounts; bronze pedestal

Dimensions: Overall: H. with pedestal 109 1/4 in., Wt. 1575lb. (277.5 cm, 714.4153kg); Vase: H. without pedestal 63 3/4 x Circum. at top 54 x Circum. at bottom 30 (161.9 x 137.2 x 76.2 cm); Pedestal: H. 45 1/2 x W. 37 1/2 x D. 37 1/2 in. (115.6 x 95.3 x 95.3 cm)

Classification: Natural Substances

Credit Line: Purchase, Admiral Frederic R. Harris Gift, 1944

Accession Number: 44.152a, b


Malachite is a carbonate mineral often associated with copper ores. As explained by Jeffrey Post, it "grows in layers of tiny crystals, and its colors correlate with different crystal sizes: smaller crystals form light green bands and larger crystals make darker ones."[1] In the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, most malachite came from mines in Russia owned by the noble Demidov family, who exploited hardstone quarries and metal deposits on their estates in the remote Ural Mountains. One of the great discoveries in the history of semiprecious stones occurred in the 1820s, when an enormous boulder of malachite weighing about five hundred tons was unearthed in the Urals.[2] A schistose material, malachite is extremely brittle, and only small display objects can be cut from single blocks of this rock. Large objects require a core structure, to which the malachite can be attached in thin pieces. Russian craftsmen perfected a way of utilizing the stone’s natural pattern and a precision cutting technique to form a continuing or, on the round body of a vase, an "endless" ornament. This type of veneer, called "Russian mosaic," looks almost seamless.[3]

The Demidovs used the showy appearance of malachite to increase their social status. They filled their palaces and decorated a whole room in one of them with the green stone, inspiring Czar Nicolas I to commission the famous Malachite Room in the Winter Palace in Saint Petersburg.[4]

The Metropolitan Museum’s vase is modeled on one type of ancient Roman bell-shaped krater, the most famous example of which is the first-century Medici Vase, now in the Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence. The form was much admired in the early nineteenth century.[5] Count Nikolai Demidov commissioned this monumental example for his villa at San Donato, near Florence. From a distance, the malachite veneer seems to be of the Russian mosaic type. Closer inspection reveals an uneven use of the stone that differs considerably from Russian work; moreover, large areas of the surface are composed of small malachite particles mixed with filling substance in the manner of modern terrazzo. Demidov probably had the raw malachite transported from one of his mines to Florence. There it would have been shaped and finished by local artists, who were not trained in the specialized Russian technique, and afterwards sent on to Paris to be fitted with its mounts and pedestal. In an essay on the vase by this author published in 2006, the Italian, perhaps Florentine, origin of the lapidary work was suggested for the first time.[6] Although it initiated a spirited discussion, this new attribution has not—to the author’s knowledge—been questioned in a written review. The presence in this exhibition of an undisputed masterwork of Russian mosaic in malachite, the Stroganov Tazza (The State Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg, E 6721), offers an opportunity to compare the veneer on these two closely related objects and, it is hoped, to resolve any lingering questions about their manufacture.

The winged female figures in gilded bronze mounted on the body of the vase represent Fame. Their trumpets are shaped like handles—something of a paradox, since the object is far too heavy to be lifted like a loving cup. A gilded bronze garland of laurel runs under the lip mount. This evergreen plant, Laurus nobilis, had been adopted by Lorenzo de’ Medici, who was also a lavish patron of the arts,[7] as an emblem of his house, together with the motto "Ita ut virtus," or "Thus is virtue"— that is to say, virtue is evergreen. Evergreen too, is the precious stone that embellishes this vase. It seems that Coutn Demidov wished for his own family both virtue and an "evergreen" fortune. Pierre-Philippe Thomire (1751–1843), who made the mounts and bronze pedestal and signed the latter, was known throughout Europe for his bronze decorations and ornamental sculpture. Before the French Revolution, he established a reputation with his beautiful mounts for Sèvres porcelain vases. In 1804 he founded a workshop that produced furniture as well as luxury bronzes.[8]

[Wolfram Koeppe 2008]

[1] Jeffrey E. Post. The National Gem Collection. National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution. New York, 1997, pp. 132–33.

[2] Natalya Guseva. "Kunsthandwerk und Manufakturen in Russland um 1800." In St. Petersburg um 1800 1990, p. 90.

[3] Ibid.; see also Audrey Kennett. The Palaces of Leningrad. New York, 1973, p. 41.

[4] Audrey Kennett. The Palaces of Leningrad. New York, 1973, p. 41.

[5] Louis-Étienne-François Héricart de Thury. Rapport du Jury d'Admission des Produits de l'Industrie du Département de la Seine, à l'Exposition du Louvre, comprenant une notice statistique sur ces produits. [France], 1819, p. 80, no. 1; Hans Ottomeyer. "The Metamorphosis of the Neoclassical Vase." In McCormick and Ottomeyer 2004, p. 16.

[6] Wolfram Koeppe in Daniëlle O. Kisluk-Grosheide, Wolfram Koeppe, and William Rieder. European Furniture in The Metropolitan Museum of Art: Highlights of the Collection. New York, 2006, pp. 224–26, no. 94.

[7] James Hall. Dictionary of Subjects and Symbols in Art. Rev. ed. New York, 1979, p. 190.

[8] This entry is largely based on Wolfram Koeppe in Daniëlle O. Kisluk-Grosheide, Wolfram Koeppe, and William Rieder. European Furniture in The Metropolitan Museum of Art: Highlights of the Collection. New York, 2006, pp. 224–26, no. 94. As always, I am grateful to Marina Nudel, Senior Research Associate, Department of European Sculpture and Decorative Arts, Metropolitan Museum, for her advice.