Italian excavations in the early nineteenth century revealed the ancient treasures of the Etruscans, including extraordinary gold jewelry. Roman goldsmith Fortunato Pio Castellani is credited with discerning these ancient techniques and putting them into practice, making it possible for contemporary and future jewelry makers to mimic the Etruscan style. Characteristic of this style is the application of minute gold granules and scrolling filigree pieces to create a beautiful texture. This ornate look fit right into the Victorian sensibility, and coupled with the archaeological craze of that time, an Etruscan revival was born.
The Etruscan Civilization
The Etruscans themselves are still a mystery to historians, including where they came from. They covered the region of what is now Tuscany in Italy around the seventh to third centuries B.C.E., until they were absorbed by the Roman Empire. Etruscan jewelry was influenced by the Phoenicians, their predecessors, and later on, Greeks who immigrated to the area. However, the Etruscans took these influences and techniques and elevated them to an art form in a way that was entirely their own. The following characteristics typified the Etruscan style:
Granulation - A technique worked in precious metals with a high purity that involves minuscule granules of metal being applied to a larger piece of metal for decoration and textural contrast. This is perhaps the most famous characteristic of Etruscan jewelry.
Filigree - Fine metal wirework, either applied to a base or in an openwork style. The Etruscans employed the use of filigree through finely twisted wires applied to the surface of the jewelry.
Matte finish - Etruscan jewelry had a soft finish to it. The richness of pure gold and the matte quality of these ancient pieces would later be imitated in the Victorian period through a technique called blooming. Blooming involves dipping an alloyed gold piece, such as 14 karat, into an acid bath to burn off the alloy metals from the surface layer. The result is a thin, pure gold outer layer with a soft, brushed sheen.
Faience - Colored ceramic objects used in either jewelry or sculpture. The Etruscans loved color and, along with faience, would use glass beads and colorful semi-precious gemstones.
It was specifically the styles of goldsmithing that would later influence the jewelers of the 19th Century and inspire the Etruscan Revival.
Castellani and the Etruscan Revival
After attending a lecture in 1826, jeweler Fortunato Pio Castellani became enamored with the styles of jewelry from ancient civilizations. He developed a reputation for his archaeologically inspired jewelry, and in 1836 was invited to view newly uncovered Etruscan tombs. Like the Ancient Egyptians, the Etruscans buried their dead with their possessions, meaning their jewelry was well-preserved and easily studied by excavators. Several years later, Castellani was able to view the enormous Campana collection, which included over a thousand pieces of Ancient Greek, Roman, and Etruscan jewelry. This treasure trove wouldn’t be seen by the public until years later, after it was acquired by the Louvre in 1860.
Castellani was deeply interested in unlocking the secrets of Etruscan goldsmithing, but was unable to reverse engineer their techniques. By chance, he happened upon a group of craftsmen in Sant’Angelo in Vado making jewelry using a technique that had been passed down through generations. He hired them to train his own jewelers in this method, and thus was able to successfully reproduce convincing imitations of the ancient styles. He was so successful in fact, that he developed a prestige and respect throughout the jewelry industry for his innovations, and the house of Castellani influenced contemporaries and successors for the remainder of the 19th Century.
The Etruscan Revival style of the Victorian Era transitioned into the Egyptian Revival designs of the early 20th Century. Even to this day, contemporary jewelry designers, such as Maija Neimanis, have been and continue to be influenced by ancient styles of jewelry, proving centuries later how timeless they really are.
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