Many museums in Italy are still closed during the pandemic, so I’d like to share one I visited not too long ago in Nuoro, Sardinia (Italy), where I was presently surprised by the impressive Ethnographic Museum, or the Costume Museum of life and popular culture. The collections include around 8,000 artifacts from traditional Sardinian culture including authentic clothing, jewelry, textiles, wooden artifacts, weapons, masks, traditional decorated breads (absolutely amazing!), instruments of popular music, and domestic and work tools, mostly dating from the end of 19th century to the first half of the 20th century. The museum complex was restored in 2015 and is a wonderful place to experience.
Here, I am concentrating only on the Treasure Room, an environment dedicated to popular religiosity, superstition, and propitiatory practices between magic and religion. A large display case houses a reconstruction of a chapel with a niche that contains the statue of the Madonna, with gold and silver ex-votos pinned to the dress. On the walls we find religious objects, mother-of-pearl rosaries, popular reliquaries of different shapes that contain, prayers, fragments of relics, tufts of hair or more frequently, parts of clothing that are believed to have miraculous properties. Other displays include religious-inspired motifs, sacred images, fabrics, furnishings and accessories donated by the faithful, plus silver and gold jewelry created using traditional local techniques.
Much of the vast collection of jewels and amulets of the Museum is from an acquisition of two important sanctuaries of the Bitti area and its surroundings near Nuoro. Many finds are an integral part of popular clothing (buttons, pins, chains), others are objects of ornament for the body (earrings, pendants, rings), and more are amulets, ex-voto and objects of devotion (rosaries, reliquaries, medals, crosses). In silver and in gold, they used the techniques of lost wax, filigree, granulation, fretwork, embossing, engraving, and are made in conjunction with disparate natural materials (coral, shells, fossil stones, fabrics, rock crystal, glass paste, and others).
The text below is from the wall placards in the displays, translated from Italian, and credited to the Museo del Costume of Nuoro:
The earrings are predominately made with gold, silver, coral, and pearls. The expertise jeweler transforms a vast repertoire of precious objects into forms and ornamentation. Of the recurrent models: the earrings with coral cameo mounted in gold in a drop pendant, those of a circle, mostly in gold or figures such as a rooster or a dog, inserted in the center, with coral or vitreous paste; the boat-shape, laminated in gold and worked with filigree, granulation, engraving, pendants in different variations, with coral, stone settings on gold or filigree; the series of symbols of the southern part of the island, generally in filigree or gold lamination, with pendants in the form of lanterns, a sphere, or a berry, and the various symbols of local festivals such as a chalice or bunch of grapes.
The type of necklace most commonly worn in Sardinia is formed by elements of smooth or faceted coral, in spherical, cylindrical, barrel, or bead forms strung on a cord or thread. These elements are often alternated with mother-of-pearl beads or spheres and ovals in gold leaf decorated with granulation and gold filigree. These necklaces are known as gutturadas. Some examples, instead of coral, have black glass paste beads. In the southern part of the island, necklaces (cannaccas) formed by gold foil spheres or ovals, strung on cords or connected by rings of gold chain are particularly popular. The different shapes, techniques, and materials used define different models for denomination and location of use. Equally widespread in this area are long gold or silver chains (cadenazzu, gèttau) made with various types of links. Silver chains, often equipped with a clasp to hold a watch, frequently adorned men’s clothing. Throughout the island, women wore pendants consisting of coral cameos mounted in gold foil or filigree, from pierced gold plates, sometimes set with stones, in the shape of a cross or with representations of animals, or in the shape of of a sun with filigree supports and ornamentation.
In Quartu and Dorgali, composite pendants were used called lasu and zoiga, held by a ribbon tied around the neck. The last is made up of three elements that have a stone or a cameo in the center, set in gold foil and decorated with scaramazze pearls, filigree, and gold foil with different representations; the upper part, in the shape of a bow, holds the second element, from which the third pendant is suspended, which, in addition to the stone or cameo and the ornaments of the upper elements, is distinguished by having three short pendants of scaramaces strung at the base. The zoiga of Dorgali is also made up of an upper part in a bow in gold sheet, green, red or garnet stones set in gold foil, which can hold one or more overlapping rows of three stones framed in gold in the shape of a flower, and finally, a cross pendant suspended from the central flower, also in gold with set stones and filigree.
Nineteenth-century literature has highlighted the wealth of rings that Sardinian women, especially from the Cagliari area, wore on festive occasions. In gold or silver, they can bear generally modest stones set “at night” our of colored glass paste or glass fragments. And for their protective properties, corals, comical, and garnet are used. Some rings constituted the gift of man to woman for the engagement ceremony or on the occasion of the wedding, attested in different countries of Barbagia and characterized by a bezel bearing a stone in the center, decorated with several smaller polychrome stones.
Another engagement ring, widespread throughout the island, was called maninfide, whose bezel was formed by two hands that join together, often with a mobile device; its origin is traced back to the annulus pronubus of the Roman world. For marriages, they also had gold rings with the groom’s initials or “R” (ricordo = souvenir) inscribed in the setting.
ISPULIGADENTES or ISPURGADENTES (toothpicks)
Among the objects classified as amulets, the ispuligadentes are highly valued precious objects which, in the most elaborate forms, requires particular goldsmith expertise. Literature reports the use of silver teeth cleaners since ancient times. The simplest examples are made up of a heart-shaped silver form from which two opposing curved elements spiral off, one with a sharp end and the other a scoop or spoon. The varied catalog of ispuligadentes includes representations of doves, dogs, insects, birds of prey, unicorns, dragons, horses and riders, also in male and female pairs. The more elaborate versions, created with various techniques, including filigree and granulation, while retaining the two opposing appendages, clearly show that the original practical function has been lost in favor of the protective magical one, sometimes reinforced by the application of “eyes of Santa Lucia,” little hands and coral branches, or small display cases with sacred images.
One of the most widespread amulets on the island for the protection of children from the evil eye is the kokko whose etymology refers to its spherical shape, also called pinnadellu or sabegia, the latter denomination that leads to the Catalan adzabeja and the Castilian azabache. The term of Arab origin indicates a small sphere of gagate (jet), which since ancient times in most of Europe was recognized to possess virtues against the evil eye. Probably due to the difficulties in finding and working with jet, it has been progressively replaced with other materials. The kokkos of the museum in Nuoro are mostly in glass paste. Also well documented are kokkos in coral, wood, marble, murrine glass paste, in the shape of pierced spheres for the passage of the metal support that holds two lateral caps in silver foil or filigree, where the suspension chains are attached.
PREDAS DE LATTE / KILIARJOS
A very common amulet on the island is the pedra or preda de latte, the milk stone; these are small objects of opal glass paste in the shape of a sphere or drop, with an appendix in silver leaf, frequently adorned with filigree applications. Women wore it on their breasts during breastfeeding to encourage milk production. With the name of kiliarju it was intended for children to protect against the evil eye, which could be associated with a practical function of teether and pacifier. Similar in function, some amulets consisted of an arched glass bar fixed to chains with silver foil support, sometimes accompanied by silver spheres.
PERFUME HOLDERS and AGORAI
An object that, like the spuligadente, over time has lost its original function in favor of the magical protective one is the nuschera, consisting of a small silver container in the shape of an ampoule, with a chain of variable dimensions connected to the cap or in a tubular case in silver sheet more or less decorated with filigree applications. The presence of these objects on statues of the Madonna and of various thaumaturgic saints seem to date back to the practice of using ceramic or silver bottles to collect holy water from holy places. In various inventories and collections the specimens with a tubular case, rather than a perfume holder, are classified as agorai (needle holder). The two different functions are plausible and compatible; in both cases the purpose of an amulet appears to be paramount, as evidenced by the constant presence of rattles, completely useless in objects such as perfume holders and needle holders.
Glass elements, often clearly fragments of various origins, encapsulated in thin metal and sometimes in silver filigree, and with the application of small rattles, take on the appearance of singular jewels. The prevailing shape is that of a curved glass bar, with a circular or oval section. The hypothesis of the meaning and origin of these amulets, is that they were made of parts of objects used in churches, to which, similarly to the fragments of clothing from statues of the saints and of the sacred vestments used for reliquaries, were attributed protective virtues.
OBJECTS OF DEVOTION
Rosaries are present in numerous variations of both materials and techniques. The grains (beads) of the crown could be made of silver and sometimes gold, mother of pearl, coral, and glass paste. Some particularly elaborate and precious specimens are in gold or silver filigree, with crosses, medallions, and composite reliquaries bearing stones, fabrics, and sacred images in mother-of-pearl engraved or embossed on gold or silver leaf.
RELIQUARIES and AGNUS DEI
Small silver cases of different shapes (round, oval, heart) popularly called nudeus, agnus dei, relicarios are widespread on the island. On two sides protected by glass, they show fragments of fabric, sacred images, prayer cards, tufts of hair, or floral compositions. Sometimes the container bears a cross and ornamental stones. Clearly, these are not reliquaries in the true sense of the term, that is to say, reliquaries containing parts of the body of saints. At best, the Sardinian relicarios or agnus contain small pieces of clothing from the statues of the Madonna and of the saints, fettas de santu, or of worn-out sacred vestments that used to be distributed in blessed fragments at the end of religious ceremonies. Commonly known, the agnus dei was actually a wax medallion with the effigy of the lamb of the resurrection imprinted on it as a sacramental object of devotion blessed by the Pope. The museum of Nuoro has one, contained in an oval case of silver, the wax medallion bears an inscription that attributes its issue to the pontificate of Clement IX and therefore dates between 1667 and 1669.
CROSSES and SACRED MEDALS
For protective purposes, crosses were worn in fused silver, or in coral, in mother-of-pearl, with terminals coated in gold or silver leaf. There were also silver medals with embossed reproductions of the Madonna and saints, sacred images and coral cameos bearing the face of Christ on one side and that of the Madonna (Veronica) on the other, generally framed with a gold support.
Museo del Costume
Via A. Mereu, 56 – Nuoro, Sardinia (Italy)
T 0784 257035 – 0784 242900
Hours: see website for details, call to confirm (museum may be closed during Covid-19 pandemic)
Tickets: 5 euro, free every first Sunday of the month
Gioielli. Storia, linguaggio, religiosità dell’ornamento in Sardegna, Nuoro, Ilisso, 2004.