Many visitors to Florence (sometimes described as the world’s best open-air museum) are so overwhelmed by the ‘bigger picture’ – the town itself with its Renaissance architecture, bridges, galleries, the Duomo with its gorgeous Campanile (bell tower) and sculptures in the elegant town squares – that they forget to squeeze the Opificio delle Pietre Dure (Museum of Semi-Precious Stone mosaics) into their crowded schedule. This is a pity, because this quiet building, once a busy workshop, is truly a house of wonders. Most visitors simply can’t believe that the exhibits are actually pictures in stone, and not painted. The great cabinets made for the Dukes of Tuscany, adorned with perhaps a dozen pietra dura panels of exquisite detail and beauty, is enough to take your breath away. Coats of arms, scenes from nature and mythology, flower sprays, fruits, and birds about to take flight all seem to be alive. One exquisite table top for a music room is so life-like that you feel you could pick up and play the instruments depicted on it. The natural marking of the stone has been brilliantly chosen to imitate the wood of the mandolin and its strings. White (marble) sheets of music are curved so delicately and inlaid with tiny black notes (in agate)to give it depth. The use of coral-coloured agate for the neck cord, and precious lapis lazuli for the player’s carelessly discarded blue ‘silk’ scarf shows the maker’s sheer exuberance at his own skill. The luminous, three-dimensional qualities of pieces such as these are the highest expressions of mastery in this medium, and they are priceless in that no one can match them today.
Don’t miss it. I would have, but for a tip-off from a Florentine student friend. Head for the Piazza delle Belle Arte and look for it on left down the Via degli Alfani – and be amazed.