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ITALY, SIXTEENTH CENTURY GREAT ostentation and external splendor were the chief features of the Renaissance. So, if the jewelry of this time appears to us more magnificent than that of any other, this superiority is but an indirect result of the intermediate causes which find a place in all that is included under the term Renaissance.
In enumerating certain characteristics that distinguish sixteenth-century jewelry from that of other epochs, the enormous quantity used may first of all be noted. A general increase in wealth had taken place, but in the comparative rarity of opportunity for investments, it was still customary to keep gold and precious stones secret or, as was more generally done, make them into ornaments of small compass and easily convertible into hard cash.
Coupling this with the magnificent style of living during the Renaissance, we need feel less surprise at the extraordinary abundance of jewelry which we read of in contemporary chronicles, and find represented in the utmost variety on the portraits.
This tendency is as common as ever in the East, particularly among high-class natives of India, on account of the prevailing belief that the only safe way to invest money is to purchase precious stones and similar articles of intrinsic or sterling value.
Men of solid reputation and serious disposition seem, equally with women, to have fallen victims to the reigning passion for jewelry. If we are at first inclined to wonder at the number of jewels that has survived, we can more readily understand that they represent the merest fraction of what formerly existed, when we take into consideration all the risks of destruction such fragile and precious objects have undergone—objects by their nature the very first to disappear.
Monetary pressure caused by war, the division of property, and many other events were fraught with danger to objects in the precious metals. Change of taste, almost as rapid as that in dress, which has caused the last fashion but one to be the least of all desired, necessitated the repeated refashioning of jewelry.
Notwithstanding their perfection, the exquisite productions of the sixteenth century were unable to resist the fatal influence of fashion, and were largely broken up towards the termination of the seventeenth century, when brilliant enamels and artistically wrought gold were less in request, and the precious metals became entirely subservient to the stones, for which they acted simply as settings.
On the other hand, their small size, which has rendered them easy to conceal, accounts for the preservation of some examples, while mere chance, or perhaps an historical association, oft-times solely traditional, has saved others from destruction.
The finest productions of the artificers of antiquity transcend in abstract beauty of design everything, perhaps, that has since been produced. Those of the medieval craftsmen possess a charm and beauty impossible to deny, and a peculiar na’ivetd and ingenuousness of their own, to be looked for in vain elsewhere.
It must be acknowledged, however, that the jewels of the Renaissance, the receptacle of every variety of adornment by way of precious stones, pearls, and enamels that the goldsmith could devise in order to enrich them, are in their own manner incomparable. It may be that some err so far on the side of over-elaboration that they lose the balance and dignity of harmonious design, but the majority possess qualities rarely found in combination save at this remarkable period—a richness of form, boldness of conception, and extraordinary refinement of technique.
There is no species of technical work, whether it was a case of hammering, chasing, or casting, or, above all, enameling, that was not then brought to perfection. But the splendors of the Renaissance must not blind us to the efforts of the preceding age; for thorough though the change was from the style of Gothic art, the jewelers of the Renaissance were deeply indebted to the medieval traditions which they had by their side to aid them in developing their artistic conceptions.
Another noticeable point with regard to the jewelry of this period is its astonishing variety. Its decline, and reduction to a monotonous repetition of design, coincides with the disappearance of those artists who possessed the universality of a man like Cellini, and with the division of labor characteristic of modern art and industry. In addition to the enormous quantity used, a distinctive feature of Renaissance ornaments is the preference shown for color. The placing together of bright – colored gems with delicately worked gold invariably enriched with poly chrome enamels is the fundamental motive of the jewelry of the period.
So admirable was the craftsman’s taste that each jewel forms in itself a scheme perfect in design and color, and the rubies, emeralds, and sapphires introduced for the sake of their color values, serve the composition as a whole without overwhelming it; while the diamond, which comprised almost the sole material of the jewelry of later times, was used only for purposes of contrast.
It cannot be said that precious stones had entirely forfeited their medieval reputation at the period of the revival; but as jewelry was beginning to assume generally the character of mere ornament, the stones which enriched it were naturally chosen rather with an eye to their decorative qualities than for any fancied virtues they might be considered to possess.
One of the charms of this old jewelry lies in the setting of its stones, which are mostly table-cut, and fixed in square pyramidal collets. The usual process of setting was to rub the upper edges of the closed and box-like collet over the setting edge of the stone, and occasionally to lay over this an additional ornament in imitation of claws. This manner of beating up or pressing the edges of the collet over the faceted sides of the stone is extremely pleasing, for the stone, with its color thrown up by a foil or paillon, harmonizes admirably with the somewhat irregular frame of gold that surrounds it.
The art of enameling, especially where figures are represented in full relief, attains the highest point of perfection. Even when enamels cover the various parts of jewels in a wondrous harmony of color, the artists of the period contrived with extraordinary tact to leave small portions in gold : the hair of the figures, manes of horses, Armour, weapons—glittering points that enhance the beauty of the whole.
Translucent and opaque enamels are found side by side employed in different modes with astounding assurance. Extensive use was made of opaque white enamel, always by way of contrast; a favorite device being to enrich with it the edges of tendrils in the form of minute beads, each no larger than a pin’s head. It is the desire for harmony and beauty of execution, rather than for display of wealth, that characterizes the best productions of the Renaissance, whose true value lies not in their intrinsic, but in their real artistic worth. The whole of every jewel, back as well as front, is finished and enameled with the same exquisite care.
What little material value these jewels possessed when their form and design was
destroyed and their beautiful devices obliterated is well illustrated by Brantome’s story of the jewels of the Countess of Chateaubriand. This lady had been supplanted in the affections of Francis I by another—the future Duchess of Estampes—who persuaded the King to claim all the fine jewels he had bestowed on his former mistress. The value of these lay chiefly in their beautiful designs and devices, so on receiving the demand, she melted them all down, and returned them to him converted into golden ingots.
The splendid love of life which finds expression in every production of Renaissance art exercises a pervading influence over its jewelry, and determines the subjects to be represented. All the larger objects, and indeed every object which is not of a purely decorative pattern, is given to the depicting of a subject.
Throughout the finest period of jewelry, goldsmith’s work was closely associated with sculpture; and the human figure, or figures of animals either real or imaginary, wrought in relief or executed in the round, find a place on almost every jeweled composition. The subjects, largely chosen from among the new circle of ideas opened up by the literature of the Renaissance, reveal wide knowledge of classical mythology, romance, and poetic legends, as well as remarkable adaptive genius. Nor are subjects from the Old and New Testaments excluded ; though fanciful groups—in one case a representation of some theological virtue, and in another some sacred allegory—are more popular. The symbolical figures of the Middle Ages, as the unicorn and the ” pelican in her piety,” with sea monsters and fantastic men and beasts, are of frequent occurrence.
Subjects such as these, and many others suggested by the fertile mind of the Renaissance jeweler and the artist who drew his designs, are so numerous that space would fail were one to attempt to enumerate even a tithe of those met with on jewels of the Cinque-cento. Notwithstanding its subjects, we find in the jewelry of the Renaissance, beyond what tradition had preserved, no direct influence resulting from the study of the ornaments of the ancients, though the awakened interest of Italy in the antique cannot but have been accompanied by some acquaintance with the productions of her early goldsmiths.
There appears, however, to have been no attempt to base the jewels of the period on the forms of ancient ornaments, to imitate the beaded work of the Etruscans. Yet Renaissance design of the sixteenth century, with its arabesques and scroll work (best represented by Raphael’s famous arabesques in the Loggie of the Vatican) seems to have been in the main inspired by antique designs, such as the frescoes discovered at Rome in 1506, in the Baths of Petus—the so-called grottos, from which was derived, as Cellini explains, the term grotesque.
The newly developed design, a combination of figures, masks, flowers, fruits, – and various other details, applicable as it was to every branch of art, was peculiarly adapted to jewelry, and was quickly seized upon by the jewelers, who employed it for ornaments of a purely decorative formation, or for the frame work or backgrounds of the exquisite figured compositions then so much in vogue.
The real difficulty that confronts one in dealing with the jewelry of the sixteenth century lies not in the inability to obtain the necessary material examples, but in expressing a definite opinion as to their nationality and origin; and this difficulty the best informed and most experienced connoisseurs are the first to confess.
The utmost, therefore, that one can hope to do, without attempting in every case to arrive at accurate conclusions, is to indicate, as far as possible, such means as may be of assistance in ascribing a nationality, not to all, but to at least the majority of Renaissance ornaments. Italian jewelry of the sixteenth century presents what is probably one of the most difficult problems in the whole history of the art.
In the fifteenth century the almost complete absence of examples necessitates recourse mainly to pictures, but Italian pictures of the sixteenth century are of comparatively small assistance, from the fact that Italian painters of that period mostly neglected the preciosity of style and delicacy of perception that studied the gleam and shimmer on jewels and such-like objects.
The bright blending of beautiful colors had to give way to strong shadows and skillful effects of perspective. There exists, on the other hand, an abundance of material in the form of actual specimens of Cinque-cento jewelry, but owing to the far-reaching influence of the Renaissance style of ornament a decision as to their precise provenance is a matter of the utmost difficulty. The great popularity of one of the central figures of the late Renaissance—Benvenuto Cellini (1500-1572)— has for many years caused the finest examples to be attributed to him or to his school, often with complete disregard of their design, which can be traced in many cases to another source.
It is unnecessary to give a biographical account of the famous Florentine goldsmith, for his life may best be studied in his own memoirs. More to the present purpose is it to attempt to estimate the real position that Cellini should occupy, especially with regard to such examples of jewelry as have come down to the present day.
Upon the question of Cellini the artistic world has long been divided into two camps. The majority of those who have previously dealt with the subject have considered it sufficient to sum up the whole history of the jeweler’s art of the sixteenth century under the name of this one artist, and to attribute
everything important to him. The lively and singularly attractive narrative of his own life and adventures contains such candid glorification of himself and his work, that the temptation is strong to follow the majority, and, unmindful of his contemporaries, to associate with him, as he himself has done, the finest jewelry of the whole Renaissance.
Eugene Plon, for example, Cellini’s chief exponent, in his magnificent work, Bowenuto Cellini, Orfdvre, Mddailleur, Scitlpteny (1883), though eminently just, and on the whole fair in his attributions, cannot disguise an evident desire to ascribe to the Florentine goldsmith, or at any rate to his school, not only several jewels which might conceivably be associated with Cellini, but also several others of more doubtful origin. Among these is the important group of jewels in the Rothschild Collection in the British Museum, known- as the Waddesdon Bequest, the real origin of all of which is held by those best entitled to judge to be incontestably German.
Cellini’s critics, on the other hand, skeptical, and in the main dispassionate, have placed him under a more searching light, and despoiled him of the halo with which his own memoirs have encircled him. He remains, however, an excellent and many-sided artist, thoroughly versed in all the technicalities of his craft, and one who without doubt strongly influenced his contemporaries. Admirable goldsmith and jeweler as he certainly was, he is entitled to the highest distinction, but not so much on account of the references in his Vita and own productions, as for his lucid treatment of technical questions.
“Artists,” says Mr. Symonds, “who aspire to immortality should shun the precious metals.” Despite all that has been said respecting such jewels as the Swan at Vienna, the Chariot of Apollo at Chantilly, and the mountings of the two cameos at Paris, which have, with some degree of likelihood, been attributed to Cellini, the only quite authenticated example of his work as a goldsmith is the famous golden salt-cellar at Vienna.
This object when looked at from the goldsmith’s point of view, in the matter of fineness of workmanship and skill in execution, is seen to possess particular characteristics which should be sufficient to prevent the attribution to Cellini of other contemporary work, created by jewelers who clearly drew their inspiration from entirely different sources.
In endeavoring to affix a nationality to existing jewels, the only really serviceable landmarks are those furnished by the collections of engraved designs by German and French masters of ornament; and when these are compared with the contemporary work just spoken of, the common origin of nearly all becomes at once evident. Bearing in mind the skill and fame of the Italian goldsmiths, not only of Cellini, but of his contemporaries the reason why the vast majority of extant jewels should follow German designs is difficult to understand. An authority no less reliable than Sir A. W. Franks has expressed an opinion that the designs of Durer, Aldegrever, and other German artists were extensively used in Italy.
Italian goldsmiths did not produce any such examples of engraved ornament for jewelry as did their confreres in Germany, France, and Flanders; but the current knowledge we possess of the art of the period renders it at least unlikely that the individuality which is the key-note of all the productions of the Italian Renaissance would have countenanced there, in Italy, the use of extraneous ready-made designs. Certainly artists of the stamp of Cellini would not have used them. One is forced nevertheless to acknowledge the possibility of minor Italian craftsmen having executed jewels from German engravings.
The international character visible on so many art objects of the time must be attributed in no small degree to the circulation of such designs in almost all the workshops of Europe. A reason for the many difficulties that arise in connection with this particular question seems to lie in the fact that for causes unexplained the jewelry of the first half of the sixteenth century, whether Italian, German, or of other nationality, has almost all vanished, and that examples met with at the present day belong chiefly to the second half of that century.
While acknowledging the existence of a fair number of jewels whose authorship cannot be otherwise than Italian, and without denying the possibility of the survival of examples of jewelry even from the hand of Cellini himself, a protest must be raised against the practice, hitherto so common, of describing every jewel of the sixteenth century as Italian, and of coupling every high-class object of this description with the magic name of Cellini.
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