Italian handcrafts: Florentine Goldsmithery
- WTI Magazine #123 Jan 19, 2020
The art of the Florentine goldsmiths dates back to the 12th-13th century and covers a range of techniques, such as open work, burin engraving, chasing, “niello”, damascening, “cesoro”, soldering, cuttlebone casting, crucible casting, and foil and wire lamination. Over the centuries, the techniques have been applied to both the manufacture of jewellery and gold sculptures, and to sacred gold work, with the production of crosses, chalices, reliquaries and missal covers.
The Florentine goldsmiths’ art is the legacy of the Renaissance workshop: internationally renowned artists, such as Brunelleschi, Ghiberti, Donatello and Luca della Robbia, were born as artisans and trained in goldsmiths’ shops, as this was one of the most prosperous activities in medieval and renaissance Florence.
The works of these artists, who progressed from working in gold to sculpture and architecture with great ease, were mainly focussed on the subjects of sacred art. For this reason, in 2012 the world’s first and only Sacred Art School was established in Florence, with the aim of reviving contemporary sacred art production in harmony with centuries of Florentine handicraft and artistic production.
The history of Florentine goldsmithery is also the history of its economy: the Republic began minting gold coins in the mid-13th century, and thus the gold florin was born, as a sign of its economic power. Florence was powerful indeed, considering that, aside from the Byzantine and Islamic Empires, no other state had minted its own coins since the fall of the Roman Empire.
The florin first appeared in 1252 and marked a genuine watershed in the city’s economic history, acquiring an importance in the middle ages similar to that of the US dollar today. From this period, gold work spread in unimaginable ways, from gold leaf in paintings and frames to the production of precious silk fabrics with metallic gold yarn.
The local area
Florence has been a production centre for hand-crafted jewellery since the middle ages. Still today, the charming, narrow streets of this Renaissance city surprise visitors with their artisans’ workshops and studios, which produce artistic and refined gold work with unmistakable Florentine skill.
Despite times of crisis, the artisans are still busy in numerous small workshops, where the work is done by hand using old Florentine techniques.
The Ponte Vecchio is a symbol of Florentine gold jewellery: goldsmiths have been forging, engraving, boring and chasing here since 1593, when Ferdinando I de ‘ Medici decreed the transfer of the gold, silvers and jewel merchants’ shops.
Since the sixteenth century, Florentine goldsmiths have excelled in three different types of work: the first, produced in the Grand-Ducal workshops with continuous court commissions, was experimental and lavish, open to foreign influences and very refined. The second, equally refined and experimental, with a wealth of references, symbols and spirituality, was sacred gold work, commissioned by both the Catholic Church and the Grand Ducal Court.
In the workshops on the Ponte Vecchio, however, a more traditional production developed, aimed at satisfying a more commonplace demand and the needs of the growing bourgeoisie.
By Camera di Commercio di Firenze with Unioncamere