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The Poldi Pezzoli Collection of clocks and watches

The Poldi Pezzoli Collection of clocks and watches

Thursday, 15 November 2012
By Lavinia Galli
Lavinia Galli

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6 min read

The Poldi Pezzoli Museum, Milano, is a world-renowned house-museum. It was created in the 19th century by Gian Giacomo Poldi Pezzoli (1822-1879) and hosts paintings, sculptures and a unique collection of decorative arts: porcelain, glass, textiles, arms and armour, jewellery, clocks and watches.

In 1973 a very precious collection of 129 clocks and watches came to the Museum as a donation by Bruno Falck, a Milanese collector. As a result of this generous gift, the small but significant collection of fourteen items which had belonged to Gian Giacomo Poldi Pezzoli became the most important private collection of clocks and watches opened to the public in Italy. Other pieces were added in 1980 and 1982, donated by Alberto Vaghi and Emilio Faraggiana, and by Roberto Manfredini in 1987.

The clocks and watches, dating from the 16th to the 19th century, are displayed in seventeen showcases in an especially dedicated room which was completely renovated in 1986. Another room hosts the collection of more than 200 sundials donated in 1978 by Piero Portaluppi (1888-1967).

The collection includes also a small group of scientific instruments; among them we can highlight the gilt brass armillary sphere dated 1568 and signed by Gualterus Arsenius, member of the famous 16th century mathematical and geographical instruments makers and engravers family.

A beautiful series of Renaissance clocks made in South Germany, at the time the most technologically advanced region, includes square, hexagonal and round table-clocks, others shaped as altars or bell towers, clocks with peculiar shapes among which one in the form of a breviary, dated 1595. An important Calvary type clock with a rotating globe and the index showing the hours at the top of the cross is part of the collection and is displayed with one of the earliest pocket watches in a delicate silver filigree case, dating to the 16th century, along with other watches whose cases are embellished with rock crystal lids.

Enamelled watches, an important part of the collection

Two exceptional time-pieces, for their size and significance, are both dating from the 17th century. The first is the tall altar clock signed by Giovan Pietro Callin, a German master working in Genoa in the late 17th century. Its case in ebonized wood is shaped as an altar and the dial is decorated with an allegorical scene by the painter Giovanni Battista Gaulli, called Baciccio: Time winged and robed in red discovers the naked figure of Truth, and expels Falsehood. Though at a first glance it may look like a “nocturnal clock”, it is not fitted for indicating time at night. The second object is a “nocturnal clock” from ca.1680 and signed “Johannes Wendelinus Hessler fecit Romae”: it has the unusual shape of a monstrance and a candle placed inside the case allowed for the time to be read in the dark as well as to project the hour onto a wall.

Enamelled watches are an important part of the collection. The technique of enamel miniature painting, used to embellish luxury timepieces, developed in the 17th century mainly in France. The earliest (c. 1650) and most valuable item of this group is a “David Bouquet Londini” signed watch, decorated with Venus and Mars, Narcissus and the Four Seasons.

Another showcase hosts coach-clocks/ carriage clocks: big and stout, they could be hanged almost everywhere thanks to a hoop. Among them, the one signed “Louis Baronneau à Paris”, dating about 1655. Its silver case is chiselled and the silver dial is decorated with an engraving of a landscape with a medieval castle and a fisherman.

This chronometer could be used during navigation.
Among the highlights of the collection: a pocket chronometer Breguet 

More recent are the small 19th century fancy watches, a typical Swiss production of most unusual pieces in the most curious forms such as insects, animals, musical instruments or embedded in objects such as pens and rings. The Museum has a rich collection of these watches. Other expensive and refined timepieces are quarter repeaters and musical pocket watches, some of which are fitted with automata, almost refined toy timepieces for adults which were in fashion and much sought after.

Among the highlights of the Museum’s collection is a pocket chronometer by the Swiss watchmaker Abraham-Louis Breguet (Neuchâtel 1747- Paris 1823), perhaps the greatest figure in modern clock-making for the brilliance of his inventions and the elegance of his designs. This item incorporates the “tourbillon”, a refined device which Breguet patented in 1801 which prevents inaccuracies due to changes in the position of the chronometer. Housed in its ebony box fitted with screws, which enabled it to be fixed in position aboard a ship, this chronometer could be used during navigation. The item was a gift of the Accademia delle Scienze of Turin in 1975.

Another significant gift was the pocket watch signed “Edward Prior London” and dating about 1900, donated by Zaira Roncoroni in 1990. This watch, made for the Turkish market, has a gold case, is decorated with refined translucent enamels and is encrusted with small diamonds. On the front lid it has a view of Constantinople (Istanbul) with the Galata Bridge. The white enamel dial indicates hours and minutes in Turkish numerals. George and Edward Prior, father and son, and their heirs in London worked extensively for the Turkish market from the late 18th century on.

Triumphal-Chariot Clock with Automata

Southern Germany, c. 1610
Ebony, bronze, silver, 305 x 410 x 170 mm
Gian Giacomo Poldi Pezzoli Collection, inv. 1149

The case of this clock, known as The Chariot of Diana, has the form of a triumphal chariot. It is made of ebony, with gilt bronze wheels and silver friezes. Diana, the goddess of the hunt, is seated on a throne in the act of shooting an arrow. Two panthers draw the cart and a monkey is seated behind.

Two silver dials are set at the sides of the throne, one for the hours and one for the sounding mechanism. They are decorated with polychrome enamels of flowers and birds. As an inner spring drives the wheels of the chariot, the two panthers rise and fall, simulating a bounding movement, and their heads rotate, as do Diana’s eyes and the monkey’s head.

> www.museopoldipezzoli.it

The ancient art of time measurement
The art of time measurement is one of the great advances of humankind. This centuries-old heritage is rightfully conserved in numerous, though often little-known, museums. So as to bring these riches to life, HH Magazine presents some of the most exceptional pieces, chosen for their technical significance, historical importance, or for their beauty. This regular feature trains the spotlight on a timepiece which has been chosen and described by the curator of the horological collection of one of the approximately two hundred public or private museums which conserve clocks and watches in their collections.

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