Luigi Valadier (1726–1785)
Deser for Jacques-Laure Le Tonnelier, Bailli de Breteuil, ca. 1778
Gilt bronze, enamel, colored marbles, amber, lapis lazuli, amethyst, garnets, ivory, and agate
Patrimonio Nacional, Palacio Real, Madrid and Museo Arqueológico Nacional, Madrid
Desers, or table centerpieces, are Valadier’s best known works. He created a number of such splendid ensembles, but only three of them survive. Two (now at the Hermitage in St. Petersburg and the Louvre in Paris) survive in incomplete and much compromised formats. This is the best preserved of Valadier’s desers and the most complete. The term deser, an Italian phonetic transcription of the French word dessert, comes from the verb desservir, which signifies the clearing or removing of services from the table. These magnificent objects decorated the tables of aristocrats during lavish banquets. The deser on view in the exhibition was the second created for Jacques-Laure Le Tonnelier (1723–1785), Bailli de Breteuil, who was the Knights of Malta’s ambassador to the Holy See from 1758 and, subsequently, to the French court from 1778. Having sold his first Valadier deser to Catherine the Great of Russia in 1777, Breteuil commissioned a second and more magnificent one, decorated with a number of reductions of temples and triumphal arches in precious and semiprecious materials. After the death of Breteuil, the deser was acquired by King Charles IV of Spain, in 1788. Usually divided between two different museums in Spain, all the parts of the deser have been brought back together for the exhibition.