A Papal workshop gold mounted micro mosaic snuff box by Strachan 1807

Joanes Wenceslaus Peter was a famous animal painter, born in Karlsbad in 1745, he moved to Rome in 1774 where he died in 1829.

On his death eleven of the principal works found in his studio were acquired by Pope Gregory XVI for the Vatican Museum. This group included his famous image of a lion attacking a tiger, and the fight between a leopard and a zebra.

Three other important animal combat paintings from this series seem to have been sold before the death of the artist and they are known from mosaic images: a lion attacking a white billy goat, an owl attacking a white kid and the subject of this essay, a fight between a tiger and a white Italian Chianina bull.

These gladiatorial subjects were first made popular by the English sporting artist George Stubbs using various mediums such as oils, prints, enamels and even clay-based panels specifically produced to his requirements by Wedgwood. Stubbs made at least seventeen versions of a horse being attacked by a lion. The concept is believed to have originated during a visit to Rome in 1754 where Stubbs saw the pre – Hellenistic sculpture of a horse being attacked by a lion now in the Palazzo dei Conservatori. For thirty years Stubbs meditated over this theme of fear and conflict, adopting a four part episodic sequence illustrating this particular subject. It proved both popular and influential and allowed the painter to intimate the nobility of the horse as it’s submits to its inevitable fate, thereby suggesting both heroism and a form of stoical virtue.

Peter may also have been similarly inspired by the ancient Roman mosaic of a tiger hunting a white Chianina Bull in the Capitoline Museum or he may have been commissioned to create a modern version as part of a series, on the evidence of the three known mosaics by the Pope for use in contemporary mosaic illustration in the Papal Workshop. It should be noted that albino or white animals are difficult to colour and outline in shades of grey, more importantly, they can, in a religious context, be symbolic of virtue and innocence under threat from an unspoken enemy. Was the Pope using these scenes as a visual Papal message to his fellow catholics of a Vatican now under siege?

None of the original paintings are in collection at the Vatican, suggesting that once the mosaic copies were made the paintings were sold.

The Chianina are counted as amongst the oldest and largest breeds of cattle in the world, having been raised in Tuscany and Umbria for over 2200 years. A mature bull can stand up to six feet at the shoulder and they have been known to reach over six and a half feet with a weight of some 3, 500lbs or over one and half tonnes. Particular features are their black noses and coloured ears which are carefully delineated in both paint and mosaic.

The fact that Peter painted in Rome, the home of gladiatorial combat, for most of his working life and that the largest buyer of his work was the Vatican, would suggest that there is a connection between the Pope, this mosaic box now under discussion ,the papal Vatican Mosaic Studio and a Vatican under threat from the  French.

Vatican Mosaic Studio was opened by Pope Benedict XIII in 1727 and continues to this day. This skill-set of specialised work in mosaics has, in fact, a much older history, being actually commenced by the Vatican in order to enhance and restore the Gregorian Chapel in 1578 and deal with the rush of archaeological discoveries of original Roman wall and floor mosaics.

Today the Vatican Mosaic Studio consists of some ten artists in white tunics, in a room, cutting and placing their miniscule coloured glass rods to create mosaic pictures in religious silence. In an adjoining room we find the kiln in which the rods are fired and beyond the kiln a room containing hundreds and hundreds of wooden drawers. Each drawer has a number and every number corresponds to a colour, some twenty six thousand in all, with a gradation of individual colour to be found in each straw or rod.

Traditionally many of the gifts made by the Pontiff to heads of state and foreign sovereigns are mosaics created in his Vatican Mosaic Studio.

Starting in the 17th century, as a result of climatic conditions and the effect that the climate was having on the original works, it was decided that many of the great canvases in places of worship would be removed and replaced with mosaic copies. To replace a painting with a mosaic meant being able to acquire coloured glazes covering an infinitely extended chromatic scale in order to copy the effects of a paint brush. From the end of the 17th century, the Vatican promoted research aimed at finding glass compounds suitable for this purpose that would be favourable to the development of specialised kilns in an effort to escape the then Venetian monopoly. A little over half way through the 17th century, Rome was able to produce such glazes and Venice, a city that had lost its principal mosaic artists in the plague of 1630, turned to Rome.

The Roman Alessio Mattioli found a way of producing opaque glazes with an extensive range of tints from a new type of paste derived from metallic limes. Crimson was  a colour that was much appreciated, the vividness of the tint could now be produced in 68 different shades and the art of laying mosaics soon  became established as a proper industry then, as now, run as a business; the maker of mosaic’s had become a painter. It was at this point that the concept of executing copies in mosaics of all the pictorial masterpieces existing in St Peter’s was conceived, thereby protecting paintings on canvas from the damp. These ‘Painters in Mosaic’ underwent an apprenticeship which lasted for up to four years.

But the great adventure of Roman mosaics was yet to come; in about 1770, the first steps were taken by the Vatican Mosaic Studio to create a new type of mosaic using ‘Spun glazes’ for its compositions. The inventors were Giacomo Raffaelli and Cesare Aguatti, who had discovered that by subjecting the glazes to the heat of a flame for a second time they changed the subject matter into a ductile substance that could be drawn. This procedure allowed for the drawing of long and subtle coloured rods of various shades of colour along the length of the stem. These rods could then be cut along their length to obtain the shade of choice from the thinnest of stems, the smallest of tessera could then be used to create and colour almost any shape. From that moment on, micro mosaics cut from a single colour of slightly shaded rod allowed the creation of a picture showing perfection of both colour and gradation.

In 1795 the Vatican Mosaic Studio entered the commercial market, in competition to those who outside its walls had flourished in streets most frequented by tourists. I suggest that it is at this point that Peter was commissioned by the Pope to paint the Chianina bull based on the mosaic in the Capitoline Museum to suit the advanced modern art of mosaics, the studio then created panels as future papal gifts.

This micro mosaic now mounted in an English gold box of 1807 copies Peter’s perfectly proportioned and extremely lifelike painting. Animals are recognisable subjects easily faulted by the human eye whereas in a landscape inaccuracy is hard for the eye to interpret. We all know from experience how a certain breed of dog or bull looks – that look is difficult to convey with accuracy, to give an animal life and anatomical accuracy is the trick of the artist made that much more difficult by this, a most unforgiving, medium..

Mosaicists were considered to be artisans and craftsman, not artists in their own right, and as a result many of the items they made are unsigned. The life of these men during the 18th and 19th century was not easy; they worked long hours doing the arduous and incredibly painstaking work, yet they were paid according to their skills. In the Vatican Mosaic Studio you were paid only a scudo a day and they could be paid up to 4 scudi a day if they could prove their skill and talent at a private workshop where speed was of the essence. A scudo was worth about 4/6 at the beginning of the 19th century, therefore 4 scudi was about 18 shillings per diem, or £5/8 a week, £250 a year, the rate of a senior clerk in a bank. A scudo a day comes in at roughly £60 a year, the wage of a carpenter.

Due to the demand for micro mosaics during the 19th century, there was an influx of non-skilled workers into Rome who made cheap and poor quality pieces in private workshops which, as a result, flooded the market and undermined the reputation of the industry.

Raffaelli was a founding father of the industry of micro mosaics and he left Rome to create his own School of Mosaics in Milan. There he was commissioned by Napoleon in 1809 to create a mosaic copy of Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘Last Supper’. The greatest existing masterpiece of mosaic art, it measures 30 x 14 feet, weighs 20 tons and was finished after Napoleon’s abdication in 1814. It can now be found in the Minoritenkirche in Vienna.

Another mosaicist of note is Clemente Ciuli, a contemporary of Raffaelli. For Pope Pius VII (1742-1823) who attended the Coronation of Napoleon in Paris in 1804, Canova was asked to draw up a list of diplomatic presents that the Pope, who was to crown the Emperor, could take with him. The Vatican workshop under Ciuli produced two micro mosaics now believed to be those in the Gilbert collection.

This poses the question as to the effect of Napoleon on the Holy See after he had marched into Rome in February 1798 and taken Pope Pius VI a prisoner? The sickly pontiff died in August 1799 and his successor, Pius VII, was installed as Pope at the Benedictine Monastery of San Giorgio near Venice on 14 March 1800. A state of hostility was to exist between Napoleon and the Pope for the next 14 years, for Pius VII saw clearly that the central crisis facing his Church was Napoleon.  The Pope accepted Napoleon’s invitation to Paris to crown him Emperor, hoping thereby to win concessions. As no concessions were forthcoming, he said only the Mass during the service and Napoleon crowned himself.

It was traditional for a French ecclesiastic, usually the Archbishop of Reims, to crown a King of France but Napoleon wanted nothing to do with the old regime so invited the Pope to the ceremony. However, this upset the church in France so he decided to crown himself in order to keep the peace. The English took this as the ultimate in hubris and lampooned him – saying that he thought himself to be above the Pope and therefore could not be crowned by a lesser being. In fact, the Pope was happy not to crown him and was far more concerned by the marital status of Napoleon and Josephine, who had been married in 1796 in the spirit of the Revolution by a civil registrar with no cleric present..

Napoleon’s interests were served by his uncle, Cardinal Fesch, also a Corsican by birth whom he made French Ambassador to Rome in 1804. Fesch married Napoleon to Josephine immediately prior to the Coronation service with the approbation of the Pope.  

Napoleon finally occupied Rome in 1808 and imprisoned the Pope, annexing the Papal States, at which point he was excommunicated. The cardinals remained unbending to Napoleon’s wishes, refusing, along with their Pope, to acknowledge Napoleon’s divorce from Josephine so he stripped them of their scarlet robes.

In February 1810, Napoleon officially attached the Papal States to the French Empire as a free imperial city and the Pope was imprisoned in France. With the Napoleon’s defeat by the allies in 1814 and his subsequent exile to Elba, the Pope returned to Rome.

This would suggest that the painting by Peter and the mosaic now in the top of the box were created between 1795 and 1806 – the box is marked for 1807.

I pose the question can we see in this series of mosaics a subtle political allusion where the Pope and the Catholic Church portrayed in white is being attacked by Napoleon? After the coronation of Napoleon, the Pope had declared the Papal States neutral and he wrote to Napoleon in 1806 that no Pope should become involved in wars between states and he concluded:

If our words fail to touch Your Majesty’s heart we shall endure with resignation faithful to the gospel and accept every kind of calamity as coming from God.

The Pope, despite his declared neutrality, needed international supporters. Were these mosaic panels gifts to his closest supporters in countries then at war with the French, the subject matter a hidden but understood code describing the political status quo in a visual form?

The fame of the Vatican Mosaic Works Studio caused Czar Nicholas to ask Michael Angelo Barberi (1787-1867) to come to Russia to create the Imperial Mosaic Studio of St Petersburg. With the patronage of such powerful figures as Napoleon, the Czar of Russia and the Popes from within the Vatican, the production of extremely fine micro mosaics flourished during the late 18th and early 19th century. In terms of subject matter, early examples from this period focused on scenes such as pastoral landscapes, ancient Roman ruins, floral images and animals, particularly the portraits of recumbent dogs.

The creation of this possibly political mosaic from, I suggest, a specially commissioned painting depicting a fight between a lion and an Italian bull based on an ancient Roman mosaic already in the Papal collection, with all its movement, life and vivacity from pieces of glass of minute size was, and is, an extraordinary achievement.

The two panels have been mounted into a box by the finest of English box makers, Alexander James Strachan, who entered his mark at the Goldsmith Hall in 1799. Strachan was referred to in his Sun insurance policy as:  ‘A Jeweller, Engine Turner and an outworker for Rundell, Bridge and Rundell.’ It is indicative of the esteem that this mosaic was held that it has been mounted in a superb and difficult to make cage – work box by the then Royal box maker.

The addition of a further mosaic of a leaping lion to the base is of great interest and rarity and provides a possible pointer as to ownership of the box. It could be suggested that if, as seems likely, the mosaics in this box are a Papal gift, then as they are mounted in an indisputably English box we need an English Catholic recipient.

Bernard the 12th Duke of Norfolk (1765 – 1842) and cousin of Charles, the 11th Duke (1746 – 1815), is a possible recipient. The 12th Duke was the most important supporter of the Catholic faith in England, his predecessor, the 11th Duke, had renounced his faith having had no children: his first wife dying in childbirth; his second wife went insane soon after her marriage and yet out lived him; his three brothers became priests in the Catholic church.

The principal Norfolk/Howard crest of On a Chapeau Gules turned up Ermine a Lion statant Or crowned Argent. A lion with its tail outstretched is the crest of for Thomas de Mowbray 1st Duke of Norfolk a title of the first creation of 1397.  The lion statant of the crest faces the wrong way when compared with the mosaic that is leaping, yet the subject animal with its unusual outstretched tail, provides a close correlation and again may be a visual, political pun as the family leaps to the defence of the faith.

This same crest with minor differences is also that of the Talbots, another ancient Catholic family. Charles Talbot, 15th Earl of Shrewsbury (1753 -1827) who was married in1792, is therefore another possible owner.

The Dukes of Northumberland with again the same crest are not a Catholic family.

What relationship, if any, can be established between the the12th Duke of Norfolk or the15th Earl of Shrewsbury and the Vatican?

The great purpose behind the life and endeavours of the 12th Duke of Norfolk was Catholic Emancipation in Britain a matter he personally underwrote and achieved with the passing of the Roman Catholic Relief Bill in1829. Immediately on George IV’s accession the duke presented at a levee a petition from himself and his fellow Catholics urging a repeal of the penal laws that prevented Catholics from having the vote or sitting in either house of the parliament. His marriage in April 1789 was a disaster for his wife was in love with Lord Lucan and had been forced by her parents into marriage against her will. The Howards separated in 1793 and a divorce was granted in 1794 by Special Act of Parliament.

I have been unable to determine if Papal consent was required or granted in the event the Duke never remarried remaining true to his faith. It would seem unlikely that he never visited Rome he was made a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1799 and a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries in 1812.

Taken from an essay written by John Hawkins for his client.