Cats lounge on the doorstep of my favorite goldsmith’s studio, a stone’s throw from the gentle rushing of the Tiber. A shaft of sunlight streaks across the closet-size space, capturing air heavy with the flavor of the ancient world. On this artisan’s rustic workbench, I discovered what is now one of my most treasured possessions: a gold ring I indulged myself in after a summer spent teaching in the Eternal City.
What captured my imagination was the sight of a modern goldsmith holding an ancient Roman seal—carved by an artisan predecessor some two thousand years ago—and stamping an impression into the molten gold. When I wear my ring, I admire the miniscule mythological figures and the accompanying cryptic inscription, and I feel a powerful, palatable connection to the past.
The ancient Romans inherited an already rich tradition of goldsmithing from the Greeks and Etruscans, who occupied settlements across central and southern Italy. Specialized metalsmiths passed their trades from father to son, master to apprentice. In small workshops, they turned out gold necklaces, earrings, bracelets, and other finery. Fashion-, status-, and wealth-conscious Romans had themselves immortalized in sculpted and painted portraits wearing elaborate baubles. During the Renaissance, noble families like the Medici amassed collections of these golden treasures, and had them copied and restored. Today, Italians still covet gold jewelry, and wear it with everything from evening gowns to swimsuits. It is estimated that there is a jewelry shop for every 2,200 Italians, nearly three times as many as in France or Germany.
In ancient Roman times, goldsmiths began with ingots, or blocks of gold, that they hammered into sheets. The raw gold was more pure—that is, less adulterated with copper and alloys than the gold we use today—and it was therefore much softer and more malleable. This purity accounts for the remarkable brilliance—and fragility—of the ancient pieces displayed in today’s museum collections. Gems were rare, but many artisans used semi-precious stones and colored glass in their designs. Today, high-tech methods have replaced the open fire that once stood at the heart of the goldsmith’s studio. However, many of the tools today’s artisan jeweler uses remain more or less unchanged: small metal hammers, anvils, tongs, chisels, molds, dies, stamps, abrasives, and engraving tools.
Today, Italy is the world’s largest exporter of gold jewelry, shipping many thousands of pieces abroad, from Asia to the Americas. Most of this large-scale jewelry production takes place in the industrial north. Valenza, in Piedmont, boasts nearly a thousand jewelry manufacturers in a town that measures little more than one square mile. Vicenza, in the Veneto region, hosts the gold jewelry industry’s most important annual world trade show. To a lesser degree, Arezzo, in Tuscany, and Torre del Greco, outside Naples, are important jewelry centers. Although many of these town’s enterprises are multigenerational family businesses, those crafting pieces entirely by hand, according to ancient techniques, remain few.
To truly appreciate the heritage of Italian gold, visit a museum with a good collection of ancient pieces. In Rome, the Musei Capitolini and the Museo Etrusco Gregoriano, part of the Vatican Museums, carry impressive collections of Etruscan and
Roman jewelry. The Museo Etrusco Guarnacci in Volterra and the Museo archeologico nazionale, in Tarquinia, both hold important repositories of Etruscan gold, and can help develop your eye for classical forms and styles.
Across Italy, glitzy jewelry shops are common, and the choices are endless. If you can bear it, look past the beautiful shop windows; a good artisan goldsmith will have a workbench set up inside the studio, where you may be lucky enough to watch him work. In Rome, a few of the country’s finest practitioners of this trade are clustered between the Colosseum and Vatican City (try the Via del Clementino, the Campo Marzio, and surrounding streets).
If you’re serious about coming home with an authentic piece of Roman gold, make an appointment with an artisan goldsmith, and collaborate on the design of your dreams. It’s in custom work that you’ll witness their skills and passion truly shine. Best of all, you’ll go home with a tiny treasure you will value as much for its superb craftsmanship as for its connection to the ancient past.
This piece originally appeared in my column, “The Genuine Article,” for National Geographic Traveler. Read more at National Geographic Traveler Online…
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