The workshops have their origins in the Italian renaissance. They were established in 1588 at the behest of Ferdinando I de' Medici to provide the elaborate, inlaid precious and semi-precious stonework, in the Cappella dei Principi (Chapel of Princes) in the Basilica di San Lorenzo di Firenze. The technique, which originated from Byzantine mosaic, was perfected by the workshops and the artworks they produced became known as "opere di commessi Medici" ("Works of the Medici commisariat") and later as pietre dure.
The artisans, known as commessi, performed the exceptionally skilled and delicate task of inlaying thin veneers of semi-precious stones especially selected for their colour, opacity, brilliance and grain to create elaborate decorative and pictorial effects. Items of extraordinary refinement were created in this way, from furnishings to all manner of artworks. Today, artisans trained at the Opificio assist many of the world's museums in their restoration programmes.
The workshops were originally located in the Casino Mediceo, then in the Uffizi and were finally moved to their present location in Via Alfani in 1796. After the end of the 19th Century the insitute's activities moved away from the production of works of art and towards its restoration. At first specialising in lapidary, in which the workshops were a world authority, and then later expanding into other fields.
In 1975, the Cultural Heritage Ministry consolidated all of the restorative workshops in Florence under the control of the Opificio.
Today, the institute is organised in departments that correspond to the various types of artworks. It also has a school of restoration, a museum and a library. The principal workshops are located at 78 Via Alfani in the historic centre of Florence with two additional workshops, one located in the Fortezza da Basso which accommodates large works, and the other, near the Palazzo Vecchio where work on tapestries and textiles is carried out. All work is carried out under the supervision of Dr. Cristina Acidini.
The small museum in the Via Alfani displays examples of pietra dure work, including cabinets, table tops and plates, demonstrating an immense repertoire of decoration, usually either flowers, fruits and animals, but also sometimes other picturesque scenes, including a famous view of the Piazza della Signoria. There is also a large baroque fireplace entirely covered in malachite, a dazzling and brilliant green stone as well as copies of painting executed in inlaid stone. Some of the exhibition space is dedicated to particular types of stone, such as the paesina, extracted near Florence, the grain and colour of which can be used to create vivid landscapes.
An exhibition of the the technical processes of pietra dura work through history, can be found on the first floor as well as a large range of finished works dating back to the time of the Medici. There are vases and furnishings decorated with Art Nouveau designs of the late 19th and early 20th century, including a tabletop with a harp and garland by Emilio Zocchi (1849) and another decorated with flowers and birds by Niccolò Betti (1855).