If the city of Limoges is universally renowned for its porcelain, it also enjoys the distinguished privilege of being represented in museums throughout the world for the delicate testimonies of another art of fire, practised within its walls almost without interruption for almost a millennium: enamelling.
True enamel collectors, along with other art objects and curiosities, have been known to exist since the 17th or 18th century... But it was mainly during the 19th century that the taste for these objects developed, along with the commitment to study them. Large collections were formed, works changed hands, were presented at exhibitions, most often in Paris and London, and were published in catalogues. It is important to note that medieval champlevé enamels, although no one is unaware that they were produced in Limoges, are then called Byzantine enamels; only Renaissance painted enamels are clearly identified as Limousin. This semantic ambiguity, revealing a transversal approach to the regional history of enamel, will be fraught with consequences: By neglecting part of their roots and abandoning champlevé enamel to the art industry - represented particularly by the Barbedienne or Poussielgue-Rusand houses - the enamelling craftsmen of Limoges would, from the mid-19th to mid-20th century, set aside their practice and devote themselves to the rediscovery and mastery of painted enamel, which they would end up considering as their exclusive reference in matters of technique and tradition, at the risk of severely and durably contracting their inspiration.
The first volume of the catalogue of the Francesco Gonzaga Museum.The rediscovery of 'Limoges enamel' or 'painters' enamel' towards the middle of the 19th century took place in parallel in Limoges, in small independent workshops, and in Paris, where most of the enamellers gravitated around the Sèvres factory. The latter enjoyed real success. They participated in exhibitions with creations or copies, and their skills were equally engaged in restoring antique pieces that were increasingly appreciated by collectors. It is difficult today to judge their intentions. but it is clear that their production, of an often dazzling quality, could not fail to encourage the emergence of a fraudulent market. Enthusiasts of the time were able to be fooled by virtuous copies or deliberate forgeries; today's enthusiasts benefit from greater critical distance and have access to laboratory expertise. These were in fact requested by museums some 20 years ago, in order to better understand the phenomenon of degradation of certain enamels and to attempt, in the impossibility of remedying it, to limit its causes. It was in this context that the first bases of data concerning the composition of painted enamels were established, which are now rich enough to identify many elements characteristic of 19th century enamels and offer scientific support to the visual analysis of works, which is subjective in nature.
For the most part, collections of Limousin painted enamels around the world include a few modern pieces with a Renaissance flavour. But rare are the collections that, like that of the Francesco Gonzaga diocesan museum in Mantua, offer in such large numbers, to the visitor and the researcher, cornerstones of identification relating to painted enamel of the 19th century, thus fostering an authentic education of the eye and at the same time a profound delight. The catalogue raisonné of this internationally remarkable collection therefore constitutes a reference work that all enthusiasts will appreciate.