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Taj Mahal and Florence 04/07/2011

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c. 1890

There is a very interesting episode in the history of inlaid work in precious stones which is, I believe, not generally known. It refers to the supposed Florentine origin of the Indian decoration of temples and palaces at Agra and Delhi in this style. Sig. Zobi author of ‘Notizie Storiche sui lavori di commesso in Pietre dure’, is the discoverer of this link. Hearing a description of the Delhi mosaics and the Taj Mehal at Agra, from Mr. Charles Trevelyan, who was in Florence in 1839 on his return from India, Sig. Zobi, as well as Mr. Trevelyan, was much struck with the similitude in design and workmanship between these Indian mosaics or tarsia and the Florentine ones. It is well known that the Taj Mehal, the interior of which is encrusted with inlaid marbles in designs of flowers, scrolls, and Etruscan vases, was the first specimen of this kind of work in India. In the hall of royal audience at Delhi is a still more remarkable subject, Orpheus playing a violin and surrounded by various beasts and birds; it is in front of the throne.

Now as it is not usual for Indian art to lend itself to the representation of nature as in these flowers; as Etruscan vases are not familiar in that country, and as Mahometans are not allowed to represent animated human figures, Sig. Zobi set himself to discover if any proof of Florentine artists having gone to India existed in the archives. His research was rewarded by two or three significant facts. The Medicean archives possess a document, dated 1608, which proves that Ferdinando I demanded a passport for India from the king of Spain for four of his artists in pietre dure, to the end that they might go to seek and buy Oriental agates and gems, to continue the work of inlaying the interior of the Medici chapel.

Nothing is more natural than that the Mogul to whom they were sent desired to see a specimen of this work which was worth such labour in seeking materials; and nothing more probable than that the art was readily appreciated in a country so rich in materials for it. Whether the four Florentines remained and founded a school there, leaving their designs behind them which in the earlier works are free and natural, and in later ones more set and Oriental in design is not easy to prove. Neither is it known whether the lavish monarch Shah Jehan, when he built the Taj Mehal in 1643, availed himself of the assistance of one or more of these Florentines, or of their native scholars, to encrust the interior. The fact remains that the freedom and nature of the designs are utterly unlike any other native art, which is entirely conventional and religiously traditional.

Mr. Trevelyan spoke of some ancient inscriptions existing in the Christian cemetery at Agra, but he could give no clear account of them. With regard to the tarsia picture which Mr. Trevelyan calls Orpheus, and which is placed in front of the throne at Delhi, Sig. Zobi got the following information from Mr. Matealfe (Metcalfe?), agent of the English Governor-General at Delhi, in 1841. The Hindoos have woven a web of mystery about the picture; the figure is said to be that of Ullan Koora, the mother of the Tartar race, and daughter of the Star of Day (evidently a myth of the generating power of heat); but in that case, what significance would the music and listening animals have? Besides, the figure is not a female, but a man draped classically in a single mantle of blue (lapis lazuli) lined with red (cornelian). Is it not more possible that the Italian workman made the picture of Orpheus, a god familiar to him, as a specimen, and that the Hindoo possessor, the Mogul, adapted it to his own use by giving it a native meaning?

Doctor Bernier, author of ‘Memoires sur 1’Empire du Gran Mogol’ (Paris, 1671), says that he saw the imperial palace at Delhi at that time, and was struck by the resemblance to the Medici chapel in the cupola encrusted with coloured gems and marbles.

Two other documents in the archives attest a connection between Florence and the East. The Sopha (Shah) of Persia required an Italian architect, and the Grand Duke Cosimo II sent Costantino de’ Servi, who was at that time superintendent of the pietre dure works. This may not have had much connection with the Delhi works, especially as Costantino was again in Florence in the end of 1610 (the letters patent from Cosimo are dated Nov I, 1609). But another deed, filza 54, dated in 1697, shows that Cosimo III sent some artists to Goa, with a present of intarsia in pietre dure from the Florentine factory, as a contribution to the tomb of the Jesuit saint, S. Francesco Xaverio, in that city. So that there was without doubt a connection of Florentine mosaic makers with India in that century.

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