The aurifex and the Goldsmithing techniques in use at the times of the Langobards

Skilfully crafted precious jewellery, pieces of pure craftsmanship and rare goldsmithing have come to us from a long, mysterious past, the Early Middle Ages which for a long time was considered but a period of darkness.

Last week we saw how the Longobards in goldsmithery were able to merge their Germanic tradition with Byzantine and classical influences, creating an autonomous and original artistic language. A style that frequently tends to abstraction and a strong geometric inspiration, featuring ornamental richness and lively chromatism.

The taste for polychromy is found in many jewels made using cloisonné. An artistic decoration technique, already known in ancient Egypt and fully realised in the Byzantine era (also called Byzantium lustre), which consists in welding to the surface of the object to be decorated, usually a gold plate, thin metal sheets of the same material, arranged perpendicularly so as to form a series of cavities or cells which are then filled with enamels or semi-precious stones, pearls and glass paste, recreating almost a precious miniature mosaic. The hard stones, carved and polished, are chosen mainly in their warm colours, ranging from red to orange, such as garnets and almandines.

Another technique used by the Longobards to make objects of great value is filigree. It consists in the interweaving of thin gold and silver threads which, after twisting, are fixed on a support, also made of precious material, in order to create an elegant effect of a pierced structure.

The homogeneous series of disc-shaped, filigreed fibulae coming from the necropolis of Castel Trosino (Ascoli Piceno) and the rich trousseaus found in the necropolis of Nocera Umbra (Perugia) testify to the existence of a rich Longobard aristocracy in the Duchy of Spoleto, which certainly attracted inflows of Byzantine gold from the Adriatic Sea, but also from the deposits located in central-eastern Europe.

Besides, a well known practice is that of reuse, through recovery and fusion on site, of more ancient jewels and Roman and Byzantine coins.

However, not all jewellery was made from precious metals. The use of mercury amalgam gilding is also known. After covering the area to be gilded with a layer of gold filings mixed with quicksilver, the object is brought to mercury’s evaporation temperature, while left covered with a thin layer of gold which is then polished.

Mixed techniques were often used in the production of the precious artefacts. An example of this are the basket earrings from tomb 124 of the necropolis of Castel Trosino. These earrings are the result of assembling at least two elements produced separately and then welded: the suspension ring and the basket which has more or less complex decorations depending on the ductility of the material used. Different techniques could be used for the foil: hammering, embossing with the help of moulds, open filigree.

The techniques used also include mould casting. This technique has its origins in antiquity and consists in the creation of prototypes used to make clay moulds, in which wax casting is carried out. During the process of baking the matrix in the oven, the wax melts, turning the clay into the negative model of the object to be manufactured. At this point the casting of the metal inside the mould begins, which, once cooled, will be broken to recover the object.

The Longobards were extremely talented in the use of the hammer technique in association with repoussage. The best known example is the golden crosses, an element of novelty adopted by the Longobards in Italy after meeting the Mediterranean traditions. The technique consisted in hammering thin bronze foils on a shape, generally made of wood, sometimes using punches with decorations. The small holes along the edges of the crosses suggest that they were sewn onto the funeral veils and shrouds, as they were found in the tombs of both men and women.

The oldest crosses have a naturalistic decoration, with stylized animal figures and an interweaving of vegetal spirals. Subsequently, the decorative motifs include subjects of a Christian religious character, but zoomorphic and geometric decorations of Germanic tradition continue to be found. Sometimes different ornaments may be present at the same time within the same artefact, reflecting the particular process of Christianisation of the Longobard people who followed a non-linear path through phases of cultural syncretism.

Another technique used was damascening and niello technique, but being used to work in particular iron artefacts, we will talk about it later.

Happy Monday with the Longobards!

Pendagli cloisonné

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