Jewelry in the Italian Renaissance Concentrating on 1450-1500s Florence
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A Short History of Jewelry in the Late Middle Ages/Early Renaissance
The Renaissance was a time of extraordinary exploration, but spiritual and religious as well as geographical exploration. Mythological subjects became popular for jewelry, and that geographical exploration meant there were all-new sources for gemstones. As well, techniques of making imitation gems and pearls meant that even the less well-to-do could get jewelry and wear it. For recreationists, this means that authentic jewelry is more within our reach than perhaps one might think. Designs are generally bold and elegantly simple, without the baroque daintiness and detail one sees in the 16th and 17th centuries.
Jacqueline Herald writes in her book, Renaissance Dress in Italy 1400-1500 (Humanities Press: New Jersey, 1981), that "most jewels were umcomplicated in design, because a great deal of importance was attached to the quality of the stones themselves" (p. 171).
Most Renaissance painters, surprisingly, were also goldsmiths, like Botticelli and Donatello. Clare Phillips' book, Jewelry: From Antiquity to Present, attributes the amazingly realistic depiction of jewelry in portraits to exactly this multitasking.
In A History of Jewelry, Joan Evans makes a number of fascinating observations. She credits changing clothes fashions with an increasing wearing of jewelry around the throat and on the clothes themselves. She writes, "Their [13th-century people's] collars and mufflers made necklaces needless and the bodices fastened close with buttons. It is only in the romances that unusual jewels appear, like the earrings that fill two lines in the 'Roman de la Rose'..." (Evans, p. 47).
In the 14th century, Italy broadened its trade with other nations. Suddenly faceted gems, mostly table cut but some round-shaped, made their appearance, by 1407, which naturally greatly expanded the possibilities of jewelry (Evans, p. 68). Craftsmanship using fake gems became good enough that laws began to be passed against falsifying a gem's true nature. Entirely new techniques like enamelling also came into the picture. By the end of the century, the old style of brooch, with a cluster of gems around one central, larger gem, had faded from use, to be replaced by brooches that were more like plaques rimmed in gemstones, depicting things like deer, doves, and (in one very ambitious example) a woman playing the harp (Evans, p. 62). Sometimes the depictions are truly exotic, like one from Florence enamelled with a picture of a camel (Evans, p. 63).
Necklaces from the 14th century onward were very rich and could be very elaborate, such as this one from 1475, of a Medici agent's wife's elaborate necklace of enamelled roses and pearls.
Around 1460, heart-shaped pendants and brooches became very popular. One woman in Brittany owned a heart-shaped gold pendant set with a lozenge-cut diamond and a ruby, while even diamonds themselves were cut into heart shapes (Evans, p. 72). Herald notes a ring bearing a heart-shaped stone in one inventory of the Este holdings, and suggests that it was a "love offering" (p. 173). Another popular love-gift was a ring bearing a representation of clasped hands (Herald, p. 173). These don't sound like the claddagh rings one sees modern girls wearing, but the intent was likely the same.
Herald writes that jewels were frequent wedding gifts, and considered liquid assets. Brides received betrothal rings in a separate ceremony before the wedding (p. 173). Married couples did wear wedding rings, though they don't appear to be plain bands, and they don't always appear on the "right" fingers. Rings were worn wherever possible, and sometimes several on one finger, as one statute in Florence discusses in 1415: "a woman cannot wear on one or more fingers more than a total of 3 rings. And across all the rings and fingers she may not have more than one pearl or another precious stone. These restrictions apply to both hands" (Herald, p. 173).
Other rings were given to pilgrims by religious leaders. These were large, but not usually valuable, being made of crystal or semiprecious stones in a heavy bronze or copper band. Some of these have religious symbols around the stone, such as papal symbols, saint's symbols, or the arms of local religious leaders. Jacqueline Herald, however, doubts that the largest of these were actually worn, due to their awkwardness (p. 174).
As a last note, Herald also mentions a hairnet called a rete made of knotted silk or gold threads that often incorporated pearls and gemstones. I've included a few pictures of these in the discussion of pearls, below. One rete featured 89 rubies and 464 pearls (Herald, p. 177)! Herald thinks that these nets originated in Spain.
Some gemstones even had names. One was called "The Three Brothers" -- a brooch with three large, fine rubies on it. The Duke of Milan had a large diamond with three pearl drops called "Il Lupo", worth an immense amount. Sometimes these pendants were worn on a hat (Evans, p. 73). Brooches, Herald notes, were also worn just about everywhere. One lady wears hers almost on top of her left shoulder, while other women wear them at the top of the front bodice opening or in their hair.
Bracelets begin to make a serious appearance by 1415, in which a French lady's trousseau is described as containing a gold bracelet set with sapphires and pearls. Other bracelets were enamelled with bands of color. Enamel itself became very elaborate; by 1428 one sees a description of a bracelet forming the "figures of two women enamelled white, each holding a flower made of four diamonds, with a jewelled cluster above their heads" (Evans, p. 73). One hesitates to imagine what that'd look like in real life.
For many people, belts were used as ornamentation. Fancy belts made of plaques wired together, or even plain leather with very fancy buckles, were popular (Evans, p. 74). Herald notes that these belts were sometimes given as wedding presents. Sometimes the belt was made entirely of metal, and sometimes it was made of brocaded velvet. Most of the most decorative belts had no function whatsoever except to be pretty (Herald, p. 180).
Earrings, too, were worn by the end of the 1400s. This was a very new fashion for Italian ladies, but it didn't take long for those infamous sumptuary laws to forbid wearing them, as one Sicilian law of 1425 decreed. A few portraits of ladies wearing earrings exist. They appear to be of the pierced variety and generally utilizing hoops with gems and pearls (Herald, p. 181-182). By the middle of the 1500s, earrings were quite normal (Evans, p. 91). Clare Phillips notes that earrings existed long before, even to the 7th century, but just weren't very common (p. 49). Certainly 15th-century Italians weren't sure what to do with them.
Some pendants had useful properties. Perfumed pendants, such as clay birds inundated with scent that were set in metal "cages", likely made life comfortable. Other such pendants included "balls of musk harnessed with gold" and "a ball of ambergris covered with gold wrought in fleur-de-lis and niche work" (Evans, p.73).
By the mid-1300s, the technique called intaglio had come back into vogue from Roman Empire days. Intaglio involves engraving gemstones. Through the Renaissance, this technique proved popular. Cameos were also made, though their subjects varied from the "lady's head in profile" ones modern re-enactors are accustomed to seeing. This portrait, generally attributed to Sandro Botticelli (Young Woman [Simonetta Vespucci?] in Mythological Guise, ca. 1480, hanging in Frankfurt's Städelsches Kunstinstitut, depicts a woman wearing a cameo depicting Apollo and Marsyas, a carnelian duplicate of which was once in the Medici collection. It hangs from many narrow golden strands.
Another popular technique for jewelrysmiths was niello, a technique of rubbing a darkening agent made of metal alloys into the recesses of silver jewelry to bring out the foreground. It made a very stark black-and-white contrast that was much sought after. There is evidence that even less wealthy people could afford this form of jewelry. (Herald, p. 173).
As always, slogans and mottoes were popular ornamentation. Niello was used to bring these out, but that's hardly the only way one sees mottoes on pieces of jewelry. Initials were also put on rings as part of the design. Signet rings for nobles were also in use, using a D-shaped construction with a flat surface on one side that was deeply engraved. These were frequently of gold, with an intaglio'd gem on the surface and the owner's initials, arms, or some other device (Herald, p. 174). Joan Evans notes sometimes belt buckles in Italy were made in niello and inscribed with things like "VIRVS VIN" and "AMORE" (p. 74).
Stones in the Renaissance
Pearls were insanely popular. They were worn in the hair (prompting one city to issue a law restricting how many a woman could wear in her hair), as necklaces, and on brooches and other pieces of jewelry. Even men wore them everywhere. Freshwater pearls were known from centuries before, when an edict in Paris was passed in 1355 forbade jewellers from using "river pearls and oriental pearls" together (Evans, p. 53). Was a similar rule in effect in Italy? It is unlikely. The shapes of pearls were usually round, though larger ones might be vaguely teardrop-shaped, as in this portrait of Barbara Pallavicino, by Alessandro Araldi, done in 1495. Her necklace is obviously of pearls, with dangling stones ending in a clear stone, but the pearl in her hair is not round at all. (The cord around her head is quite common, while the braid-wrap is seen frequently in Milanese portraits.) Another portrait, called Bianca Maria Sforza and painted around 1493 by the Milanese painter Ambrogio de Predis (a court painter to the Duke of Milan, in fact), depicts another head-dress full of pearls, as well as pearls strewn in the braid-wrap.
False pearls, particularly, gave Italian city leaders fits. In 1440, a book came out teaching how to make false pearls using small shells and fish scales to "give them lustre" (Evans, p. 69). Clare Phillips tells how pearls were made by mixing powdered glass, egg white, and snail-slime, then pressing it into moulds and piercing them with holes before they hardened (Phillips, p. 60). Joan Evans speaks of Venice being so upset with the false pearl trade, which threatened their real-pearl trade, that they made it illegal to make them, punishable by the loss of the pearl-maker's right hand and a ten-year-exile (Evans, p. 78)!
The Italians of the 15th century had access to a wide range of stones. From the obvious diamonds, sapphires, rubies, and emeralds, to the less obvious coral (Herald, p. 175), carnelian (Herald, p. 171), agate (Evans, p. 91), chalcedony (Evans, p. 93), lapis lazuli (Evans, p. 93), jet (Evans, p. 93), jacinth (Evans, p. 93), amber (Evans, p. 77), crystal (Evans, p. 77), and from early on, amethyst and carbuncle (Evans, p. 53). Chrysoberyl is also mentioned, but may be fairly late. They came from Brazil, for the most part, and yellow ones were most prized (Phillips, p. 109).
Other stones were thought to have mystic powers. Some, such as diamonds and pearls, were thought to have healing powers. Lorenzo de Medici drank a powdered concoction of these gems before he died in 1492 (Herald, p. 174). Of course, these were enormously expensive medicines.
Other techniques for making artificial gems included "foiling", or placing colored foil behind a semitransparent stone. It was made illegal in France specifically in 1355 (in the same edict forbidding the use of freshwater and saltwater pearls together) to put tinted foil under an amethyst to improve its color. It was a common technique by the 15th century. Earlier in the period, "doublets" were made by putting a layer of glass under a thin veneer of real gemstone. By the 15th century the recipes for gem-making had gotten very complex, with one Italian source suggesting ground alabaster and oil be distilled and then colored with ultramarine azure (for sapphire) or verdigris (for emerald), then fire-hardened, cut to the right shape, boiled in oil, then set out in the sun to harden again (Phillips, p. 59). Diamonds became popular as soon as faceting came into style, and imitation diamonds came into style right with them, using rock crystal, glass, and later on, clear zircon from Portugal (Evans, p. 78).
Frequency of Jewelry in Paintings
But most people do not appear in portraits wearing jewelry. Women, in particular, wear it in their engagement and wedding-day portraits, and then never again (it was thought immodest in many areas for married women to adorn themselves publicly). Men wear jewelry only very rarely.
Herald claims that women wore jewels daily and that men wore them on very important occasions, but in portraits, one sometimes is hard-pressed to find any jewelry at all. What one does find can be very simple in nature -- a simple pearl necklace, sometimes doubled, or a plain cord or chain with a simple pendant. I'm looking now at a portrait of a girl wearing a 3-strand choker necklace of dark seed beads set off by a front-facing clasp of gold depicting a ring between two hands, with a doubled pearl necklace, one loop close around her throat, the other dangling down over her bodice-top. The effect is one any modern viewer would find familiar.
Certainly it is true that men do not generally wear jewelry in portraits at all, though there are a few portraits of hat-gems (particularly one adorable one in which a short plume is affixed to a brooch to stick straight up, as in the portrait of a boy in the painting The Family of Uberto de Sacrati, done in 1490, in which several pearls surround a central table-cut gemstone. It seems that children were more at ease to wear adornment than adults. One portrait of the Duke of Milan depicts his young son wearing a thick necklace of twisted pearls.
And, of course, one's clothing could be sumptuously decorated. Some of the work that went into sleeves alone would stagger the mind. In a way, jewelry almost seems superfluous when one is wearing hundreds of pearls and golden decorative studs on one's dress.
In short, it seems that one should allow one's heart to be one's guide in the matter, be it no jewelry, exceedingly simple jewelry, or fantastically sumptuous jewelry, if one is a woman, and to use extreme moderation if one is a man, or whatever one wishes, if one is a young child.
This page last updated: July 10, 2009
All text copyright Vangelista di Antonio Dellaluna, except where otherwise noted. All portraits are understood to be copyright- free and are presented as research aids only.