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by Gloria Chiarini

Jewellery of the past

In the past few months some of the museums in Florence have been used for a curious creative experiment. Various rooms and galleries have been displaying creations by a number of fashion designers who, like real artists of painting and sculpture, have attempted - each in his own way - to produce an immortal work of art. Ephemerality compared to eternity: fashion's challenge has been intriguing but incomplete. It would have been extremely interesting, for example, if we had been able to see what effect these modern objects of fleeting desire would have had when placed beside some of the jewellery that was used by ladies and gentlemen, slaves and emperors, to adorn themselves in the past. We are referring to the engraved precious stones and cameos that have been on display at our Archeological Museum since June; this permanent and extremely suggestive exhibition opened at the same time as the one on the Chalcidese Vases and can be visited during the museum opening hours (from 9am to 2pm, closed on Mondays). Almost three hundred authentic and extremely valuable exhibits are on display and were carried out in two main periods in history: many of them were created in the Classical era (3rd century B.C.-3rd century A.D.), while others date from Renaissance times (15th-17th century), when a series of attendant circumstances led to the rebirth of this art (Glyptic) of precious stone engraving.

Three main factors were involved: the study of antiquity (providing the initial inspiration and copiable subject matter), the resumption of trade with the East (which supplied the stones), and the talent of the engravers, who had become highly skilled after their long experience at working on the coin imprints for the various Mints. Thus we find Florence at the forefront yet again; not only were priceless collections of this type of antique jewellery created, but new examples were also produced which, in their turn, were added to the collections and frequently mistaken for antiques.

Chariot with male figure on pedastal. Chalcedony and gold.

These were miniature masterpieces of sculpture. Cornelians, quarz, agates, amethysts, garnets and aquamarines were trasformed by engravers into the portraits and complex mythological scenes that were to form the so-called "Grand Ducal Collections" in Florence; these were started by Lorenzo the Magnificent and continued by some of his heirs, like Cardinal Leopoldo de' Medici in the mid 17th century, an expert on the subject and the son of Maria Maddalena of Austria who once lived in Palazzo della Crocetta, today the seat of the Museum and Board of Archaeology. Restoration on the corridor built by Giulio Parigi was completed only a few months ago; the architect created it for the Grand Duchess, of Hapsburg extraction, who became the wife of sickly (but prolific) Cosimo II de' Medici de' Medici in 1609 and was left a widow only 11 years later with eight children to bring up. The sovereign used the corridor in order to be able to attend the religious ceremonies in the church of Santissima Annunziata next door without being seen. Now open to the public, it contains the collection of precious jewellery that originated with the Medici, was passed on to the Lorraine family and has survived to our times, though not without various problems, losses, dispersal and thefts (the last of which took place in 1860). In actual fact, very little of the jewellery can be dated back to the original collection, which came into being with the onset of Humanism and had the same cultural ideals based on the rediscovery of Antiquity. One of these is the cameo in chalcedony that opens the exhibition. It represents Minerva, the goddess of Knowledge, and has the letters "LAUR. MED." (Lorenzo the Magnificent), engraved on the helmet. However his uncle Giovanni, the son of Cosimo the Elder, had already started a collection of antique jewellery which included, for example, a engraved cornelian of "Apollo flaying Marsyas", which had been set in gold by Lorenzo Ghiberti (also author of the Baptistery Doors), one of the most famous goldsmiths of the time. We also know that the Medici family commissioned Ghiberti and the great Donatello to carry out copies of many of these engraved precious stones in stone, which were then displayed in the courtyard of their palace. Therefore, from the very start, the collection was linked to the art of the Renaissance, which modelled itself on Antiquity and was inspired by its myths: Hercules (who was supposed to have founded Florence), Bacchus, Psyche, Medusa... The most important carver of precious stones in the late fifteenth century was Giovanni delle Corniole, who learnt his craft here in Florence by studying the collection of Lorenzo the Magnificent.

Bust of Minerva. Chalcedony.

Unfortunately, after the death of Alessandro de' Medici in 1537, much of the jewellery in this first nucleus ended up in the Farnese collections, and then in those of the Bourbons in Naples, when Margherita, his widow, married a member of the Farnese family. It was Cosimo I, a distant cousin of Alessandro and his successor to the government of Tuscany, who renewed the ancient passion of his ancestors for the Glyptic art (which disappeared completely during the Middle Ages), by buying examples of antique jewellery and having new pieces carried out. Some of the works from his collection displayed in the glass cases include the Chariot with a male figure and the Minerva with Hercules as a boy: two splendid works in chalcedony, with their missing parts replaced in gold (we should remember that these are archeological finds). Tradition would have it that Benvenuto Cellini was commissioned to carry out the "restoration" of these two jewels. In his autobiography, the artist mentions that he carried out a great deal of this kind of work in Rome in around 1523; he also confesses to having created several fakes as well as copies of antique rings.

Minerva and Hercules as a boy. Chalcedony and gold.

It was only natural that fakes be carried out of such works and, although some artists like Valerio Belli did not hesitate to sign their creations with pride, others used false names, attempting to copy the style of the old masters: Pirgoteles, who engraved the coinage with the image of Alexander the Great, and Dioscorides, who created the Imperial seal of Augustus. It was in fact Augustus who copied Hellenistic styles by having his portrait engraved on his seal, going against the usual more "modest" Roman customs. Silla, for example, had his most important military exploit, in other words the capture of the King Jugurtha, engraved on his seal, while Maecenas chose the frog as his symbol.

In the past the Julians had used a plain sphinx on their seal but, after Augustus, the effigy of the Emperor became the symbol of his authority. It is therefore hardly surprising that the second founder of the Medici collections, Grand Duke Cosimo I, drew inspiration from the divine Augustus and the Imperial symbology to support his power: this can be seen in the two portraits of Augustus in chalcedony carried out for Cosimo by Domenico di Polo (one of the finest mid sixteenth century engravers). One of them is of Capricorn, Augustus's sign of the zodiac, later adopted by the Medici family: we can also find it on the arches of Ponte a Santa Trinita. We have already mentioned Cardinal Leopold's contribution to the collection in the mid 17th century: his engraved stones can be recognized by their settings, created by a slender thread of gold with two rings at the extremities. A tape was passed through the two rings and used to fix the engraved precious stones onto a cloth; this was considered the most suitable method for their conservation, especially for large collections, and used right through the 18th century.

Cupid on a lion. Chalcedony.

The collection in Florence was huge, the envy of kings like Louis XV, admired by travellers like the Marquis De Sade and studied by experts like Mariette and Ennio Quirino Visconti, who was the first person to write a history of this art in 1829. Certainly times had already changed and, while Visconti obviously greatly appreciated the aesthetic and artistic value of these precious stones, he probably no longer believed that they had any worth as lucky charms, and possibly already had his doubts about the powers of the amethyst against drunkenness and of the madrepore stone against the evil eye or worms...

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