Long fascinated by the use of hard stone and polychrome marble in decorative art, I have chosen to present an early 17th century, ebony and hard stone miniature altar; an early 18th century, ebony and hard stone jewellery casket; a first-half 1800s agate intaglio. Prised works, all three are stunning examples of what that era’s finest artists were able to create with astounding mastery as they employed materials notoriously difficult to fashion. The cutting, polishing and engraving of hard stones required a particular set of skills based on techniques that few artists were able to master, fewer still to attain this level of virtuosity. A bit of background: the art of carving hard stones, traceable from the Sumerians to Ancient Egypt, on to Ancient Rome and through the ensuing centuries, arose from a desire to create beauty that would survive the ravages of time. In Ancient Rome, the polychrome marble embellishment of temples, public buildings and noble domūs led to a refinement of inlay technique. The number of artists possessing the mastery to execute such highly specialised works was quite limited and, consequently, their patrons too – a niche for the refined and affluent, society’s privileged few. Closer to today – from the Renaissance to Neoclassicism – it was in Rome and Florence that this art form experienced a rekindling and where it grew to ever-greater sophistication as these two cities became the centre of a flourishing trade. Methods evolved, were perfected; families of master craftsmen handed down workshops, jealously guarded secrets and specialised techniques. Employing materials particularly problematic to fashion, hard stone intaglio rings, polychrome marble inlay, gemstone inlaid jewellery caskets were then, and remain still today, a luxury art form. These presented works find their origins here, where a synergy of artists and artisans gave birth to unparalleled virtuosity. A look behind the curtain: if one imagines deconstructing each of these works into their individual components then reassembling them, the intricacy of fitting them all together, the extraordinary complexity of combining the various artforms involved, becomes apparent. The sum of their parts depends on the virtuoso talent of maestri from diverse sectors seamlessly merging to create sublime beauty. A closer look at these ‘parts’ likewise reveals further difficulties: procuring the material needed, such as lapis lazuli from the then-far flung land of Afghanistan, and polishing. Oft ignored as it appears deceptively simple, polishing a hard stone is an extremely complex and laborious procedure which, depending on the specific gem, might require untold days of patient and careful abrasion employing finer and finer grades of glass paste mixed with other natural elements in order to obtain an optimum level of lustre. While today it is unthinkable to attempt such a task without the help of modern technology, centuries ago raw gemstones, such as amethyst, carnelian and lapis lazuli, were painstakingly polished by hand to a beautiful lustre. Thankfully, even after hundreds of years of neglect, their original splendour can be restored with the help of a bit of wax and a damp cloth. In preparation for this edition of TEFAF Online, I found myself photographing in ever-closer detail these works. As I increased magnification, I marvelled at the capacity of each piece to withstand such intense scrutiny: the portable altar grew to the size of a real-life altar without sacrificing any of its proportional elegance and perfection. The birds in relief decorating the jewellery casket revealed the purity of the materials used without losing any of their natural realism. Similarly, the leaves under enlargement maintained their autumn colours. So close to reality was the effect that I had to refrain from reaching out to touch them. The intaglio agate depicting Diana by Luigi Pichler displays mastery of workmanship by an artist today considered one of the most important gem cutters of Neoclassicism. The concave intaglio presents three layers of the stone, various shades of colour: photographic enlargement revealed details unseen by the unaided eye, bringing to light absolute perfection, the sublime harmony of the piece. The artist’s precision is such that a plaster mould of the intaglio would provide an image of Diana in relief.