‘Two tables in red Egyptian granite trimmed with gilt metal frames above their tops and carved, painted and Gilded tops’ are described, in an inventory of property in Palazzo Borghese in Rome drafted in 1812, as being in the Egyptian Room in the apartment on the second floor of that sumptuous residence designed by Antonio Asprucci for Pauline Bonaparte in 1803, soon after the prince’s return from Paris (Colle, loc. cit.). Camillo and Pauline went to live in the family palazzo in the Campo Marzio after they were wed, the prince occupying rooms on the piano nobile while Pauline was assigned the second floor in the wing facing Ripetta (Fumagalli, op. cit., pp. 188–90). Both apartments were renovated and modernized, although in the case of Camillo’s apartment—which his father, Marcantonio, had rearranged only recently—that modernization was restricted to a handful of rooms overlooking Via di Fontanella Borghese and Via Monte d’Oro. The rooms in Pauline’s apartment, on the other hand, were transformed in the Empire style, with the addition of paintings on the walls and ceilings designed to conceal the earlier decoration and with the introduction of new furniture—the only surviving trace of which is found in the inventories drafted at the time, noting a design for a flower pot, chairs now in the Museo di Villa Borghese and this table (whose original ‘red granite’ top was, however, replaced at an unknown later date). It was originally paired with the example formerly owned by Robert Lehman, now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (41.88; fig. 1) and both with their wooden parts painted to imitate granite (Pantazzi, loc. cit.).
Asprucci, whom the princes summoned to oversee the renovation of the apartment, was responsible for designing two fashionable rooms expressly created for Pauline Bonaparte: the Etruscan Room and the Egyptian Room. The ceiling in the Egyptian Room, decorated by the Roman painter Amalia de Angelis in imitation of the far more celebrated Egyptian Room in the Villa Borghese, was adorned with twelve Egyptian idols holding tondos edged in red granite and various hieroglyphs, while the walls were decorated with imitation pilasters, Egyptian capitals, cornices and other inscriptions. The furniture in the room consisted of the above-mentioned wall tables, ‘eight walnut-wood chairs colored in red and carved with Egyptian symbols, a padded cushion under a canvas cover, and a back cushion above in horsehair trimmed with orange velvet with green braid piping around it’, ‘a large Diwan sofa’ and ‘two small double oval olivewood tables for serving a dejouner [sic]’.
The tables, like the chairs also furnishing the room, echoed the wall decorations devised by Asprucci on the basis of designs which he had produced years before—in 1782, to be precise—for the Egyptian Room in the Villa Borghese, reflecting a fashion launched in Rome after Giovanni Battista Piranesi had conceived the decorations of the then celebrated Caffè degli Inglesi that were subsequently engraved in a volume entitled Diverse maniere d’adornare I camini in 1769 (see cat. 23). In fact, it was presumably Piranesi who designed the singular structure of a similar table borne by Egyptian figures that was intended to furnish the room commissioned by the Marchioness Margherita Gentili Boccapaduli for her palazzo in Via Arcione in Rome on Piranesi’s advice ca. 1775 (Colle, 2002, op. cit., no. VIII.12; fig. 2).
Thus, the surviving furniture is the product of an idea devised by Piranesi and intelligently interpreted by Asprucci, who drew his inspiration from the monuments of ancient Egypt while tailoring them to fit the far more functional furniture of the late 18th century and merging them with structural elements in the Neoclassical tradition, for example the legs in the shape of herms. The fashion for monuments, objects, and symbols of Egyptian art rose to a peak in the early years of the 19th century. Obelisks became fireplace ornaments, the pyramids inspired tombs or secluded hideaways set in gardens and sphynxes looked down from buildings or adorned furniture which, as in the case of this table, were richly endowed with an Egyptian repertoire stretching from divine caryatids to hieroglyphs, thus transforming them into sumptuous echoes of a lost civilization brought back to glorious life.❖