guilds of florence & the future of contemporary jewelry in italy

Saint Eligius in his workshop by the Master of Balaam (c.1450)
Saint Eligius in his workshop by the Master of Balaam (c.1450)

In Medieval Europe, merchant, trade, and craft guilds were being formed to protect artisans and related commerce against the feudal government. These associations became extremely powerful and dominant in their local goverenments and professional trades. Rules and guidelines were strictly controlled, as was the quality of the craft, apprenticeship training, materials used, and the way in which trade and commerce were conducted. The guilds protected their members and regulated perhaps the first “quality control” workmanship stipulations, standards and protection against fraud based on local production, political influence and interaction with weathly patrons of the arts.

By the early 14th century, the guilds of Florence were divided into 7 major guilds called Arti Maggiori and 14 minor guilds called Arti Minori. The Arti Maggiori included some of the wealthiest and most powerful Florentines, as well as some important artists. The guild structure promoted a society proud of its intellectual culture and art. These guilds were comprised of:

  1. Arte di Calimala (guild of workers in cloth)
  2. Arte della Seta (guild of silk weavers & merchants)
  3. Arte della Lana (guild of wool manufacturers & merchants)
  4. Arte dei Giudici e Notai (guild of judges, lawyers, and notaries)
  5. Arte del Cambio (guild of bankers and money lenders)
  6. Arte dei Medici e Speziali (guild of physicians and pharmacists)
  7. Arte dei Vaiai e Pellicciai (guild of skinners & furriers)
Ghiberti's Gates of Paradise on Florence's Baptistry
Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise on Florence’s Baptistry

By the late 14th century, thread made of gold and weaving gold cloth was introduced within the silk guild by artisans who travelled to the East. Because of the workmanship involved in working with precious metal and gold thread, the Arte della Seta incorporated goldsmiths and metalworkers into their guild and under it, formed the Guild of Goldsmiths (Arte delgi Orafi) in the 16th century.¹

Goldsmiths were above all artists, engravers, and sculptors. A high level of quality and originality of design was established in Florence. In fact, many great artists of the Renaissance were trained as goldsmiths and belonged to the guild. Some of these included Lorenzo Ghiberti, Benvenuto Cellini (who also wrote treaties on goldsmithing and sculpture), Paolo Uccello, Filippo Brunelleschi, and Donatello — most becoming more known for their sculpture, painting, or architecture, however, masters in various forms of creative techniques, hence the descriptive term Renaissance Man.

Saint Eligius (the patron saint of goldsmiths) by Petrus Christus, 1449
Saint Eligius (the patron saint of goldsmiths) by Petrus Christus, 1449

In the 15th century, Lorenzo the Magnificent greatly influenced and promoted the goldsmith trade in Florence. Goldsmith workshops primarily populated Via Por Santa Maria before moving to the Ponte Vecchio in 1593 — a move initiated by the Medici Duke, Ferdinando I, to replace the smelly butcher shops that originally occupied the bridge. This was a conscious move toward raising the aesthetic of beauty and higher-end commerce.

To this day, Florence is internationally famous for its gold and jewelry making tradition with its renown gold shops draping the Ponte Vecchio. Italy in general, is one of the top producers of fine gold jewelry in the world with important gold procuding centers in Valenza, Vicenza, Padua, and in Arezzo, where the gold work tradition dates back to the city’s ancient Etruscan origins.

On a daily basis, especially in the warmer season, tourists, students, and other travellers pound Florence’s Renaissance pavement in search of what they read about in art history books, saw on a National Geographic special, or are simply curious about the importance of Renaissance creativity and advancement that has attributed to what science and culture is today, impossible to recreate such an equivalent rebirth in any other era.

The Goldsmith of Florence, 1929 (Author unknown)
The Goldsmith of Florence, 1929 (Author unknown)

With such a grand history of artisan craft tradition and merchant regulation in Europe, Italy, and in Florence, the modern day question is how do we retain these high standards of quality in today’s global and economic cultural market? How can this tradition and artisan craft be brought into the future while at times it risks to be lost completely? One way to do this is to invest in the future with training and education shared between generations and cultures.

Because I am a jewelry artist living and working in Italy, I choose to briefly focus on what has come of contemporary Italian goldsmiths and jewerly designers. Italy, famous for fashion and accessory design, can boast jewelry houses such as Bulgari and Pomellato reaching the high-end mass markets, but pureness of goldsmith work is found at the artisan level with a concentration on traditional techniques, coupled with the contemporary work of jewelry-artists and “research jewerly” or “author jewelry”, known as gioilleria di ricerca or gioielli d’autore.

Giampaolo Babetto: "From Pontormo" Brooch, white gold & pigment, 1999
Giampaolo Babetto: “From Pontormo” Brooch, white gold & pigment, 1999

The art-jewelry movement, based on innovation, personal expression, and concept design first appeared in Italy in the 1950s, although more important European centers also emerged in Germany and Holland. It became a trend with famous artists such as Calder, Dalì, and Tanguy creating jewelry as works of art. Well known Italian artists to mention from this genre include: Afro Basaldella, Lucio Fontana, Arnaldo & Giò Pomodoro, as well as some contemporary jewelers: Giampaolo Babetto, Bruno Martinazzi, and Alberto Zorzi.

Jewerly in this perspective functions more than just a fashion accessory, but also as a form of individual expression, an unexpected object, an experiment with material, and as a piece of art. It is a continuously updated aesthetic and renewed interpretation based on the knowledge of traditional artisan craft, design, contemporary values, and personal research.

In Florence, jewelry and goldsmith traditions continue to be successful and can be verified with the presence of numerous jewelry design schools and studios teaching both traditional techniques as well as more contemporary conceptual methods which stretch the boundaries of experimentation with less precious materials and may combine the use of computer-aided design and production. All of these forms of concentration are important in order to conserve traditional craft and artisanry while bringing it forward to next generations.

Students from all over the world come to Florence to study traditional techniques of metalwork, and they bring this knowledge home with them, perhaps commercializing their trade as Italian craft, but none-the-less raising the visibilty and familiarity of what makes it a unique treasure: Made in Italy. Education and knowledge are some of the best cultural assets to support locally and promote internationally. How can we best continue efforts to offer a solid educational platform based on historical tradition while spring-boarding into the future with new ideas and technologies — preserving the past while maintaining a strong local identity presented to a global market and competing with economic changes and diverse cultural values?

Florens 2012This type of cultural subject matter could be discussed during Cultural and Environmental Heritage Week (November 3 – 11, 2012) in Florence, Italy, during the Florens Foundation event which will be focusing on the theme: From the Grand Tour to the Global Tour. Find out more about the Florens 2012 international forum here.

This post is a submission to be part of Team Florens as a theme/topic that will potentially be debated at Florens 2012. Comments and discussions on this posting are encouraged.

¹ ( Noted source: The Guilds of Florence, Edgumbe Staley, 1906.)

3 thoughts on “guilds of florence & the future of contemporary jewelry in italy

  1. My ancestor was a jewellery maker called Maestracci. He would have operated c. 1800 before moving to Alexandria in Egypt as jeweller to the ruler. He was involved in making the ruler’s gifts to Empress Eugenie on the occasion of the opening of the Suez Canal.
    Any information regarding his time in Italy (Genoa or Florence) would be greatly appreciated.

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