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Lapis Lazuli – Ancient Gemstone of Blue Beauty

Lyle Sopel -

Dear Collector Friend,

 

One of the second gemstones I started working on when I expanded my repertoire with jade was lapis lazuli. I have been entranced by its piercing blue presence ever since. From the 1980’s onwards, it has become more and more rare to find the purest colours of lapis, yet my passion for this gem continues to strengthen. Somehow, quite magically and at seemingly opportune times, I tend to come across rough lapis pieces that are perfect for sculpting. Once you take a look at the history of this gemstone you will see how mesmerizing this precious material is….

 

Lapis lazuli has been linked to humans for more than 6,500 years, spanning the ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia, Egypt, China, Greece, and Rome. The stone was and continues to be valued for its stunning deep azure colour, in a very similar way to how other blue gemstones, like sapphire and turquoise, have been treasured throughout time.

 

Lapis cup with gold mountings, from Florence, circa 1600. Credit: Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

Lapis cup with gold mountings, from Florence, circa 1600. Credit: Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

 

Lapis Lazuli is mined in the mountains of Afghanistan, which rise as high as 17,000 feet, boasting a challenging landscape with little vegetation. Humans make the trek into this dauting landscape seeking one treasure only: lapis lazuli. Afghanistan has been producing lapis lazuli as far back as 700 B.C., making it the world’s oldest known commercial gemstone source. In modern times, lapis lazuli can also be been found and mined in both Russia and Chile.

 

With a Moh’s hardness of 5 to 5.5, lapis lazuli is a relatively sensitive (or soft) stone and is primarily composed of the mineral Lazurite, with secondary minerals of white Calcite and sparkling golden specks of Pyrite. Its formal characteristics aside, I am deeply inspired by lapis lazuli’s enduring role in ancient and contemporary fine and decorative art. Its astonishing colour has been the source of pigments found in the paintings of the Middle Ages, Renaissance, and Baroque eras, while the material itself has been admired by nobility throughout the ages.

 

‘‘Angel With Lute’’ by Melozzo da Forlì. Credit: Vatican Museums, Rome

‘‘Angel With Lute’’ by Melozzo da Forlì. Credit: Vatican Museums, Rome

 

On the topic of colour, a scholar named William Gladstone discovered in 1858 that Homer’s epic, “Odyssey”, had unusual references to colour. Gladstone did further investigation into the poet’s work and found these strange colour descriptions to be consistent, from “green honey” to “wine-red oceans” and “violet sheep”. There was no mention, however, of the colour blue. Gladstone researched other cultures and folklore from around the world and found the same result; no one had even described the sky as blue. He found that blue was the last colour to appear in every language of the world, with the exception of ancient Egypt, the only culture to have a word for blue and, as it happens, the only culture to have produced a blue dye at the time.

 
Now, let me take you back to the Renaissance for a moment, where the Medici family, well known for their support of the fine arts, were also prominent collectors of artworks that featured lapis lazuli, from objets d’arts to inlaid pictures and furniture. Such antiquities were exhibited recently at an exhibition titled “Lapis Lazuli: The Magic of Blue,” curated by  Maria Sframeli, Valentina Conticelli, Riccardo Gennaioli, and Gian Carlo Parodi at the Silver Museum (or Museo degli Argenti ) in Florence in 2015. The images in this blog post are from this wonderful exhibition. I hope you will join me throughout my ongoing sculptural explorations of lapis lazuli.

 

‘‘View of the Port of Livorno’’ (1601-1604), a table top by Cristofano Gaffuri with lapis lazuli

‘‘View of the Port of Livorno’’ (1601-1604), a table top by Cristofano Gaffuri from a design by Jacopo Ligozzi. Credit: Uffizi, Florence

 

 

 

Tilmorrow,
Art, Nature, and Beauty Always,

LYLE

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