Jewelry Making Demonstration in Florence

Jewelry_demonstrationBy far one of my favorite activities we enjoy during the summer is a visit to the gorgeous studio of Paolo Penko, a goldsmith in Florence. Paolo still uses the old Renaissance techniques and is inspired by traditional Renaissance designs – some drawn directly from famous works of Renaissance art. Along with jewels in gold and religious icons worked in silver, he also knows a thing or two about making the famous florin (florino d’oro), Florence’s original currency, a gold coin first struck in 1252. Paolo introduces us to the tools, the trade, and the tradition while immersed in the beautiful works of art found in every imaginable corner of his gorgeous studio.Artist_deskLook at the treasure trove found just on the surface of Paolo’s workbench! A little bit of everything is represented here: elaborate gold broaches, rings being set with stones, and small works in silver that are breathtakingly detailed. One of the first items Paolo shows us is a small silver altarpiece of a religious scene (below, right). In this case (and not too surprising in the city of Florence), the scene depicted is the Annunciation. On the left the Angel Gabriel bows to Mary who is about to receive some exciting news. The event is set within an elaborate architectural space with columns, arches, and various Renaissance furnishings. Every detail is engraved by hand. Using sharp-pointed picks of various sizes, called burins, incisions are made in the silver, slowly and painstakingly revealing the artist’s design.Florence_jewelrySomething this precious and time consuming to make would have warranted a frame of its own in the Renaissance. So while small in scale, this work would have been given the proper pomp and presentation when finally placed in a chapel or domestic devotional space.
Now, how would a Renaissance artisan approach a complicated gold broach like those decked out in pearls and gems on Paolo’s workbench? These jewels were often made from hundreds of individual pieces that then had to be soldered together. Today, this work would be done by a fine tipped soldering iron or a jewelry torch (basically a miniature blowtorch). As it turns out, not much has changed.Renaissance_jewelry_makingUsing a small oil lamp and long metal tube, Paolo is able to use his breath to guide the flame directly onto the piece of jewelry just as a modern torch would. In the image above, notice how the side of the piece of metal he is targeting is bright red, soon it will be ready to be worked while the rest of the item remains untouched. You can imagine how much breath and lamp oil you would require for an enormous soldered necklace or crown, but it is still amazing to see how much control the artisan retains even with such simple tools that, to boot, require no electricity.Botticelli_jewelry Now, how does one begin designing? A font of inspiration, for those wishing to revive the past, are Renaissance paintings. The status associated with pieces of jewelry required that they be described with the utmost detail. As an example, Paolo shows us an image of an elaborate broach worn by one of the three graces in Botticelli’s Primavera. Using this design and the traditional tools and techniques, he is able to replicate the work exactly. So just open any Art History textbook and start designing! Florentine_coinsFinally, we got the chance not only to see how Florentine coins were made, but also had a hand at making them ourselves! In the era of Botticelli, the production of florins was highly regulated as their strength in the market depended on their trusted and consistent gold content. The practice of making the coins was handed down from father to son. For almost 300 years, the florin never changed its gold content (even with inflation) and was one of the most respected forms of currency in Europe. It was an integral piece in Florence’s role as one of the most important banking centers in the world.
The technique involved heating gold into individual drops of liquid gold in the required quantity. One drop at a time is placed in a mold imprinted with the two sides of the florin (as seen above). On one side was the lily, symbol of the city of Florence, and on the other side, Saint John the Baptist, Florence’s patron saint. After the liquid gold was in place, a large mallet was used to force the metal into a flat coin imprinted with the symbols of the city of Florence. Getting that imprint just right was much harder than you would think. Sadly, our florins were made of tin, so no, no post-minting shopping spree for us.Making_Italian_moneyNaturally, before leaving we took advantage of the photo op. Oh and the Penko mascot, Florino (get it?), jumped in too. Group_shot

Address: Via Ferdinando Zannetti, 14/16/r 50123 Firenze
Hours: Monday 3:30–7:30 pm; Tuesday – Saturday 9:30 am – 1:30 pm, 3:30–7:30 pm; Closed Sundays

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