A Visionary Commode by Italian Cabinetmaker Piffetti Joins the Collection of the Met
Acquired by a collector from antiques dealer BURZIO. at TEFAF, the commode by Pietro Piffetti is now on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
An Italian commode, executed around 1760 by the grand cabinetmaker Pietro Piffetti, was acquired by a private collector during TEFAF New York Fall 2018. Last year, the commode found its way into the prestigious collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. TEFAF speaks to art dealer Luca Burzio and Met curator Wolfram Koeppe about the commode's importance, its acquisition during the fair, and the piece's new place within the museum collection.
For Luca Burzio, owner of BURZIO. Fine Antiques and Works of Art together with his wife Laura, the label “Made in Italy” has a long tradition of indicating best-quality Italian craftsmanship. Proud of Italy’s patrimony, for Burzio, no artist could do better justice to the country’s reputation other than Pietro Piffetti (1701-1777). Born in Piedmont, the Italian master trained in Rome in the 1720s and was shortly thereafter appointed royal cabinetmaker to King Carlo Emanuele III of Sardinia. Burzio recalls seeing a similar commode, attributed to a Roman maker, on a black-and-white photograph in a book featuring Italy’s best antiques dealers at age 18: “[The commode] took my heart.” Captivated by its unique design, the image stuck in the passionate antiques dealer’s mind. So when he found “his” commode in a Turin-based private collection years later, he realized there was a very strong resemblance: “It was like a twin brother.” The commodes were indeed related, and research pursued by Burzio and Laura in the Italian Royal archives led to Piffetti as their maker. The commodes–a pair–furnished the celebrated cabinetmaker’s private apartment on the first floor of the royal university in Turin. They were sold during a lottery of 14 pieces from Piffetti’s collection following his death.
What sets this commode apart from the work of other cabinetmakers, but also within Piffetti’s oeuvre, is its visionary design on an aesthetic and technical level. The commode is proof of a design that seems to give hints of future aesthetics. “The look of the commode is, although not very large in size, monumental–it’s very bold and very strong,” says Burzio. “The chain of marquetry c-scrolls, which decorate the commode’s third drawer and along its sides, look like Art Deco features, not from the late Baroque and Rococo era. To me, that is a real masterpiece: pure creativity, and something really spectacular.” Wolfram Koeppe, Marina Kellen French Senior Curator in the department of European Sculpture and Decorative Arts at the Met, recognizes the foresight of Piffetti’s design: “Its serpentine form references the established Rococo style, while the stripes in the back corners and the mounts offer a tiny touch of quietness at the dawn of neoclassicism.” The commode has many details, from the oval rings coming out from lion mask handles likely contributed by Italian sculptor Francesco Ladatte (1706-1787), to a lavish marquetry flower bouquet on the serpentine-shaped top, a fashion that became popular in France and Holland at the end of the 17th century. However, they do not overwhelm but create a harmonious picture.
"To me, that is a real masterpiece: pure creativity, and something really spectacular." — Luca Burzio
The commode’s ingenious form and construction equally contribute to its specialty. Most of the commode is covered in walnut briar veneer and peppered with dots of a darker-colored wood, which are wooden nails: “Instead of using a more traditional method of gluing the veneer in place, Piffetti used wooden peg nails to adhere the walnut briar to the commode’s core. While glue would not be strong enough to adhere a veneer to a serpentine form, the nails prevent the veneer from lifting off the dramatic curves. This commode is the earliest example of this technique, invented by Piffetti. In an ingenious mélange of function and ornamentation, these wooden peg nails are also an aesthetic embellishment,” explains Koeppe. For the curator, the commode is not only a superior example of its maker’s skill, but also a testament of his personal preferences in decorative art: “Given the likely placement of the commode in Piffetti’s home, the lavish floral marquetry panel adorning its top may be an indication of his personal taste.”
"The exuberant commode was just the perfect addition." — Wolfram Koeppe
Burzio presented the commode during TEFAF New York Fall in 2016, where the piece caught the eyes of curators from the Met for the first time. However, the museum did not have sufficient funds to purchase the commode. It was the late private collector Errol Rudman who acquired the commode when exhibited by Burzio at the fair in the fall of 2018. The art dealer recalls the acquisition process, describing the collector as “a very curious, clever, and charming man.” Mr Rudman was drawn to the commode immediately. During a second visit to the fair, the collector asked to see the flower bouquet on the commode’s top that he had noticed in a catalogue. Usually a collector of still-life paintings, perhaps this detail made all the difference. He acquired the commode and placed it–on plinths specifically created by Burzio for the collector–in his modern apartment, where “it looked wonderfully eccentric,” shares Koeppe.
After Mr Rudman’s passing in 2020, the Met learned of his bequest of important Old Master paintings and the commode to the museum, an honor for both the institution and Burzio. For the passionate Italian art dealer, this marks a milestone in his career and is a touching personal achievement. As the Met's collection lacked a significant piece of 18th-century Italian marquetry furniture such as those produced by Piffetti, Koeppe states that "the exuberant commode was just the perfect addition." He shares that it is a showstopper and of utmost importance for the galleries, and that it reflects "the New York philanthropic spirit and their [collectors'] generous enthusiasm to step in." For the curator, an object by Piffetti specifically had been on his wish list for thirty years: “sometimes even the dreams of a curator come true.”