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  • Writer's pictureMary Gray

A Brief History of Opificio delle Pietre Dure in Florence

What is Opificio delle Pietre Dure?

Opificio delle Pietre Dure is a public institute that has long provided semi-precious stone decorations for important churches, buildings and monuments in Florence and throughout Italy.

Opificio delle Pietre Dure

Sailko, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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Opificio delle Pietre Dure History

No one would ever accuse Florence of being short of churches. From the opulent Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore to its twin sister Santa Maria Novella to the ‘Temple of the Italian Glories’ itself, Santa Croce, churches have long played a key role in both the religious and civic life of the city.

Spend any time in them on a crowded day, however, and you might wonder how these sites and their masterworks continue to look so pristine. Enter the Opificio delle Pietre Dure, which translates to ‘Workshop of Semi-precious Stones’. The world-famous Opificio is more than another museum: it’s also the place to which any decorative element, painting or sculpture you see around Florence or in its buildings could be moved at any time, when it starts to look a little shabby. The rehabilitation of priceless Renaissance treasures is the sole purpose of this venerable institution.

The Opificio dates back to 1588, when Grand Duke Ferdinando I de’ Medici established a court workshop charged with producing semi-precious mosaics. The Opificio as we know it today was established at the end of the 19th century and devoted itself exclusively to the preservation and conservation of artworks. It’s divided into two main branches: the restoration workshop, usually closed to visitors except on very special occasions, and the museum.

The permanent collection is divided into seven general areas that take you through both the history of the institution and the evolution of the art of restoration. You’ll find archaeological marbles from Cosimo de’ Medici’s private collection in the initial section, alongside paintings, sculpture and pieces of furniture decorated with semi-precious stones. Thematic elements include natural landscapes and architectural views while an entire section is devoted to floral works, which grew increasingly popular during the 17th and the 18th centuries; often juxtaposed with fruits and birds, these stone flowers were used to decorate tables and chests. Cameo jewellery, small picture frames, Baroque furniture and sculpture enliven the other rooms of this relatively small but sumptuous museum.

If you want to discover more about the Opificio’s heritage, pay a visit to the extraordinary Medici Chapels to see the Chapel of the Princes, a Medici family mausoleum beautifully decorated with marble panels and ornaments produced here.

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