Specimen block with butterfly mosaics
probably Giacomo Raffaelli (1753-1836)
Glass micromosaic, malachite, lapis lazuli, marble and gilded bronze
Museum no. Loan:Gilbert.109:1, 2-2008
This hardstone block was made to display a group of early micromosaics. It is unusual to find malachite used outside Russia, its country of origin, before the early 19th century. The Russian nobility, however, were avid collectors of micromosaics, and it may be that a Russian collector commissioned this piece or took the mosaic plaques back to Russia to be mounted in the malachite. You can still see many micromosaic tabletops and plaques by Giacomo Raffaelli in the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. Micromosaics were first made by Raffaelli in Rome in 1775, and he was even asked by the Tsar to found a Russian school of mosaics, though he declined to do this.
Butterflies are a recurring motif in Raffaelli's work, and in this case may derive from Greek and Roman mythology, in which the butterfly symbolised the soul leaving the body at the moment of death. It is also significant in Christian art, as the lifecycle of the butterfly from caterpillar to chrysalis to insect represents life, death and resurrection.