Author and scholar Laura Morelli holds a PhD in art history from Yale University, where she was a Bass Writing Fellow and Mellon Doctoral Fellow. She authored a column for National Geographic Traveler called “The Genuine Article” and contributes pieces about authentic travel to international publications. Laura Morelli is the author of the Made in… and the Laura Morelli’s Authentic Arts guidebook series. The Gondola Maker, an award-winning historical novel about the heir to a gondola boatyard in 16th-century Venice, is her first work of fiction. To learn more about Laura Morelli as well as the subject of authenticity in the arts, you can visit Laura Morelli’s web site and blog at www.lauramorelli.com.
Many Italians visit their local silversmith when they become engaged to be married or when they want to have their grandparents’ silver restored, knowing their beloved heirlooms stand in good hands. International travelers, on the other hand, may not think of selecting a hand-wrought bronze doorknocker or a silver candelabrum as a souvenir from Italy. Makers of fine bronze, silver, copper, and gold objects go unjustly overlooked, when the truth is that Italian metalsmiths are some of the most accomplished in the world. These masters know how to raise a simple, everyday object like a doorknob, a spoon, or a teapot to a work of timeless beauty and quality. And the subject of Italian jewelry, a special subcategory of metalworking, is so rich that it deserves attention in a separate article altogether.
Metalsmiths have mined and worked bronze, silver, iron, and other metals on the Italian peninsula since ancient times. Over the course of the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance, metalworking became important to interior decoration, used to craft door locks and trims, drawer pulls, and window dressings. A visit to the Silver Museum (the Museo degli Argenti) at the Pitti Palace in Florence bears witness to the technical excellence of which Florentine metalsmiths were capable at that time. It is impossible to convey in words the intricacy, opulence, and technical mastery of metalworking represented by this fascinating private collection of the Medici family. The large holding of vases, implements, tableware, and ceremonial objects made of bronze, gold, silver, and semiprecious stones is staggering, a feast for the eyes.
Italian metalsmithing encompasses a wide variety of techniques and refinements. Hammered metal involves using various tools to shape an ingot—a block of metal—into the desired shape. In the technique of raising, a silversmith hammers a flat sheet of silver over an iron bar to create a hollow vessel. Beyond this basic method stands a long list of specialized techniques to add handles and spouts, decorate the piece with surface effects such as repoussé or chasing, or even gild the entire surface to give an impression of solid gold.
Silver, bronze, and gold may also be cast using the lost-wax process, a technique that has remained essentially unchanged since ancient times. The lost wax process requires extensive experience with wax, pottery, and metal. The metalsmith begins with crafting a wax model that is an exact representation of the final piece including any intricate details. A layer of clay is spread over the model. When fired, the wax melts, leaving a ceramic mold that becomes a vessel for molten metal. After the metal cools, the artisan breaks the mold, revealing the metal piece beneath. This basic technique might include many refinements. For example, to create a hollow bronze object requires creating two nested ceramic pieces with a small channel between for the wax. Complex or ornate objects like chandeliers may be composed of many pieces later fused together.
Today Italy is home to many excellent metalsmithing workshops, often counting multiple generations of expertise as well as molds, patterns, tools, and prototypes passed down from parents to children. Most of these fine craftspeople are accustomed to working on commission and can design something one-of-a-kind for you, whether door handles, frames, clocks, candlesticks, and tableware. The intrinsic value of the natural materials paired with the skills involved in working them makes these masterpieces of metal among the most special of Italian craftsmanship.
© Laura Morelli