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Martin-Guillaume Biennais (1764 - 1843) The Borghese Tureen

A French Empire Soup Tureen from the Borghese Service

Paris, 1798-1819,
Maker’s mark Martin-Guillaume Biennais
After a design by Percier and Fontaine

Height: 31.75 cm, 12 ½ in.
Weight: 2,727.5 g, 87 oz 14 dwt


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Prince Camillo Borghese, who married Pauline Bonaparte, the sister of the Emperor Napoleon on 6 November 1803
The Borghese Palace Sale, Giacomini and Capobianchi, Rome, 28 March-9 April 1892
Prince Baucina
Ercole Canessa
Mrs. Edith Rockefeller McCormick, American Art Association/Anderson Galleries Inc., New York, 5 Jan. 1934 (Lot 692, color illustration)
Mr. & Mrs. Charles V. Hickox
Estate of Katrina Hickox Becker


Art Institute of Chicago, 24 June 1924-Nov. 1932
Dion-Tenenbaum. Anne. L'ORFEVRE DE NAPOLEON, MARIN-GUILLAUME BIENNAIS. RMN Dessins Expositions, 2003, p. 43-44 and 57-59

Silversmith Biography

Martin-Guillaume Biennais was born into a modest family in the Orne region (Lower Normandy), in 1764. He was trained as a craftsman and settled in Paris in 1788 as a tablet-maker, i.e., a carver of small wooden or ivory objects. Legend has it that he gave General Bonaparte credit when the latter wanted to set up house on his return from Egypt. In exchange for this trust, his fortune was made since Bonaparte made it possible for him to extend his activities to gold smithery and called upon his services during the Consulate. He commissioned the regalia used at his coronation, in 1804, from Biennais and finally appointed him First Goldsmith. Members of the imperial family and high-ranking court officials became his clientele. Biennais opened shop in the Rue Saint-Honoré, under the sign Au singe violet, where, as his success continued to grow, he employed a large number of workmen. He was a dealer and a brilliant manager and was commissioned to supply the Imperial household with silver to the value of 720,199 francs, in celebration of the birth of Napoleon II. Among the finest of Biennais's necessaires was one made for Napoleon, 1806 (Louvre, Paris). It contains 86 exquisitely wrought silver items, including toiletries, writing equipment and a table service all neatly fitted into a leather box. Biennais's necessaires were also extremely popular among officers serving the Napoleonic Campaigns. Biennais was patronised by other members of the Imperial family, particularly Queen Hortense as well as numerous private clients. In addition, he was much in demand abroad; in 1806 he made the crowns, orb, sceptre, and sword for the coronation of the King of Bavaria. He supplied large dinner services to the Florentine Court as well as the Russian Imperial family. Biennais devised a unique type of service for such clients. Each piece was of a simple, elegant, and neo-Grecian form, plainly decorated but adorned with an engraved or cast ornament which bore symbolic significance to its particular patron. Biennais rarely designed the pieces himself but employed a team of draughtsmen. For the more important pieces of Imperial plate, he used designs by Charles Percier (1764-1838) and Pierre-Fran9ois-Leonard Fontaine (1762-1853) (largely responsible for creating the Empire style).


The cover with figural finial seated on applied anthemion; the tureen leaf-capped handles, seahorses flanking medallions Medusa, raised on pedestal base adorned with acanthus leaves and rosettes, ending on square base with winged lion feet. The arms are those of Borghese for Prince Camillo and Pauline Borghese, engraved on cover and tureen; the liner engraved B with crown; interior of covered engraved: BIENNAIS ORFEVRE DE S. MTES L'EMPEREUR ET ROI A PARIS; tureen and liner dated 1798-1809, and cover 1809-1819; compete French 1st Standard marks and maker's punch on each piece.

The Borghese Service

The magnificent Borghese Service, comprising 500 silver-gilt objects primarily by Martin-Guillaume Biennais (1764-1843) and with over 1,000 other pieces by various makers, is traditionally thought to have been a gift from Napoleon to his second sister Pauline Bonaparte (1780-1825) on the occasion of her marriage to Prince Camillo Borghese (1775-1832) on 6 November, 1803. It is now believed that most of the service postdates 1805, when Napoleon was styled King of Italy. In addition, many articles, such as the present plates, have Paris hallmarks for 1809-1819. The service was added to in the 1820's by Florentine and Roman silversmiths after original Biennais designs, see for example a coffee-pot by Pietro Paolo Spagna, Christie's London, 12 June 2002, lot 10.

Pauline Bonaparte

Pauline Bonaparte was born in 1780 in Ajaccio, Corsica, the second of Napoleon's sisters and considered the most beautiful. In 1797 she married one of her brother's staff officers, General C.-V.-E. Leclerc, and went with him to Santo Domingo. Following his early death from yellow fever, she returned to Paris, met and married Prince Borghese and moved with him to Rome. In 1804, Borghese received the title of a French Prince, and in the following years accompanied the Emperor in the Austrian and Prussian campaigns. Nonetheless, his marriage with Pauline was an unhappy one and they separated fairly quickly. Following the Treaty of Tilsit he was made Governor of Piedmont. He was paid the huge sum of one million francs which, added to his own fortune, allowed him to live in the grandest style. In the meantime, his wife spent most of her time in Paris and with the fall of Napoleon in 1815 she tried to gain permission to join him in exile in Saint Helena. When this was denied she returned to Rome and took up residence in the Borghese Palace. She did however join her husband in Florence shortly before her death in 1825.

It has been suggested that Pauline Borghese was responsible for many of the later additions to the service, but it is at least as likely that Prince Borghese himself ordered the pieces. It is certainly possible that that service was split up between the Roman and Florentine residences and that both the Prince and Pauline added to it. The service remained at the Borghese Palace in Rome until it was sold in the auction of the Palace contents in 1892. The service was listed in its entirety in the auction catalogue entitled 'Catalogue des objets d'art et d'ameublement. Le grand appartement au premier étage du palais du Prince Borghese à Rome.' and was offered as a single lot.

The service appears to have subsequently changed hands at least three times before becoming part of the collection of the American, Edith Rockefeller McCormick, who exhibited the entire service from 1924-1932 at the Chicago Art Institute. On her death in 1934, the service was sold by the American Art Association/Anderson Galleries in New York where it was split into nearly 150 lots. Pieces from the service are now widely scattered, with objects in many private collections and museums.


The Borghese Tureen (1764 - 1843) Reference: DT22.62.1