Musing of the Muses

Imagine a world before screens, when all images depended on reflected rather than penetrant light (OK, OK, except those in stained-glass windows). Go back earlier and imagine a world before photography, when all illustrations were drawn, painted etc, and the best depictions of flowers were the astonishing – but undeniably flat and matte – water-coloured lithographs of Curtis Botanical magazine.

Then in that environment, imagine stumbling across ‘The Table of the Muses’ (in the Palatine Gallery, Florence, and made by the Opificio delle Pietre Dure between 1837 and 1851), in which all detail (as above and below) is created of thin slivers of semi-precious stone, inlaid into a background of lapis lazuli.


Shading within each petal is created by choosing an individual piece of stone in which the colour naturally varies.

Unlike any other depiction of flowers of the time, it’s as if light penetrates deep into the surface, lingers there for a while, and re-emerges saturated in colour. There’s a pearlescent transparency to every piece. You would have been held, totally spellbound.

The image to the left is of Anemone pavonina, which, by some happy coincidence, happened to be in full bloom in my garden upon my return (right). Thanks to Marcus Harvey for confirming ID


  1. Oh my word!! I haven’t seen those in all my visits to Florence. Oh well need to go back again!

    Back to our world…… for me digital still doesn’t have the luminosity of 35ml transparencies.However nothing surpasses the luminous work of Anita Barley.

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