Fri, 22 Jul 2005

Jewelry in Renaissant Art

one explores art galleries of Rome and of Florence, it is difficult to
not become immersed in the literally brilliant use of jewelry in
Italian Renaissant paintings. Considering the curious fact that many
masters, most famously Botticelli, of the time were goldsmiths
themselves, it is not surprising that the rebirth did not limit itself
to classical genres, language, and philosophy, but also science and
beauty as a sign of virtue. The styles of jewelry are depicted, aside
from the fascinating use of light and shadow to illustrate the detailed
appearance of the objects, to, not simply decorate the sitter or the
painting itself, but to mark the amusing changes in fashion and, at
times, their symbolic use.
Rings in Renaissant Art

Figure 1. Portrait of a Jeweller (1516) by Franciabigio (1484-1525)

Figure 2. Portrait of a Jeweller (detail) (1516).

are two very interesting things one must notice about rings illustrated
in Italian Renaissant art, which differ very much from the styles of
today’s conventions. Firstly, whereas ring designs are now, usually,
made as elaborate as possible with, often, less importance placed on
the purity of the compositions themselves, women and men, from around
the 14th to the 17th century saw the matter strictly the other way

Franciabigio (1484-1525) created Portrait of a Jeweller
(1516) (Fig. 1) of a man who is supposed by most experts to be
Michelangelo di Viviano (1455-1526.) Michelangelo di Viviano was the
household jeweler to the Medici family, a family that held religious,
cultural, and political power from the 13th to the 17th century in
Italy. Viviano was the most celebrated Florentine goldsmith because of
his skill at setting gemstones and creating precious objects for the
Medici. The painting portrays him testing one of several gold rings
that he displays on a black touchstone, a pietra di paragone (Fig. 2.)
The color of the streaks that are left on the touchstone would indicate
the purity of the gold. There is a steep hill on the left background of
the painting, with a narrow path winding up. The sitter’s diagonal
placement of the shoulders makes a direct compositional link with the
path, and it is thought that this “may thus be an allusion to the
tangible rewards he had obtained through his skill as a setter of
jewels and maker of precious objects for the ruling Medici family”
(Waldman, 2005, 165.) Each ring he displays, however, is surprisingly
simple, with one small gem set in a thin gold band. It is very rare
that one sees a jeweler, part of the working class, sitting for a
picture by a great master, whether it were commissioned by the Medici
family or by the sitter himself. This shows that Viviano must have
indeed been very famous at his work and, being considered one of the
greatest setters of gemstones, it is evident that little importance was
placed on the design of the gemstones or ring itself, but more
necessary was the purity of the gold and the stone.

where citizens of Renaissant Italy may have not cared much for fancy
design of their rings, they certainly were not satisfied with a limited
amount of them. Though wedding rings were worn by both the man and the
woman, they were often worn on the wrong fingers, and, in actuality, it
did not matter to anyone, not only which finger held which ring, but
even what part of the finger held it. This may be hard to believe, but
is inevitably accepted when one examines Raphael’s La Fornarina (1520)
(Fig. 3) and Portraits of Agnolo and Maddalena Doni (1505-1506) (Fig.
4.) (On the upper left corner of Figure 3, the myrtle and quince bushes
are highlighted.)

Figure 3. La Fornarina (1520) by Raphael (1483-1520).

Figure 4. Portraits of Agnolo and Maddalena Doni (1505-1506) by Raphael (1483-1520).


Figure 5. Ring. La Fornarina (detail) (1520) by Raphael.

women in each picture wear without discomfort a ring on the second
phalange. One may speculate that there are two separate reasons for
this. For La Fornarina, if one cannot help but believe the romantic
rumors surrounding the relationship between Raphael (1483-1520) and the
baker’s daughter he painted, perhaps he had painted her ring so faintly
and so close to the edge of the painting (Fig. 5) because he knew that
this affair would cause a great scandal. As he was publicly engaged to
Cardinal Bibbiena’s niece Maria Bibbiena, who died before their
wedding, Raphael’s school hastily covered up the ring and the quince
and myrtle bushes in the background of the painting (representing
fidelity and fertility) in order to get a commission from the Vatican
over Michelangelo. From this, one may guess that, unless wearing a ring
on the second phalange was not as awkward as it seems it would be,
Raphael may have painted it this way to make it easy to cover up.

regard to the portrait of Maddalena Doni, in accordance with her
obvious obsession with jewelry, one might suppose she was contented
with placing her rings wherever she could (Fig. 6.) In fact, women of
the time wore as many rings as possible, the placement irrelevant, and,
in consequence of this fixation, a law in Florence had to passed in
1415, stating that “a woman cannot wear on one or more fingers more
than a total of 3 rings. And across all the rings and fingers she may
not have more than one pearl or another precious stone. These
restrictions apply to both hands” (Herald, 1981, 173).

Figure 6. Hands with the rings. Portraits of Agnolo and Maddalena Doni (1505-1506). (Detail)

Figure 7. Pearl Pendant. Portraits of Agnolo
and Maddalena Doni (detail) (1505-1506).

Figure 8. Pearl. La Fornarina (detail) (1520) by Raphael

Figure 9. Eleonora di Toledo and Child
of Cosimo I di’ Medici by Bronzino (1503-1572).

sumptuary laws of this sort had to be passed during this period in
Italy, one stemming from an even greater obsession with pearls. The
Venetian senate passed a regulation of pearls on October 15th, 1562,
which stated that “those pearls, duly registered and sealed, may be
worn round the neck on a tight string only by the wives of those in
whose name they are registered, for a period of ten years and no more,
which shall be reckoned from the day of their marriage” (De Stoc,
2002.) Let us explore the reasons for such strict regulation; does it
not seem unnecessary?

When one looks back at the painting of
Maddalena Doni by Raphael, the enormous (is it not horrifying to think
how heavy it would be to wear?) pearl necklace she is wearing (see Fig.
7,) leaps out at the viewer before the multitude of the rings does. La
Fornarina exhibits only one small pearl that hangs from her turban (see
Fig 8,) and experts have recently deciphered its message to be proof
that she is not the Maria Raphael intended to marry, but Margherita,
since that the Latin word for pearl

The symbolism is repeated,
though less subtly, in Bronzino’s (1503-1572) portrait of the wife
(Eleonora di Toledo) and child of Cosimo I di’ Medici (Fig. 9.)
Eleonora shows off her position in the world by wearing pearls wherever
possible (see Fig. 10): as two necklaces, as a net in her hair, as
earrings, as part of her dress, and, even, as a cluster of strings of
pearls dangling off her finger (Fig. 11.)

In 1440, a book was
released, describing how to make fake pearls, driving Italian leaders
crazy. Venice became so upset with the false pearl trade, which
threatened their real-pearl trade, that they made it illegal to make
them, punishable by the loss of the pearl-maker’s right hand and a
ten-year-exile (Evans, 1990, 78.) Diamonds and pearls were thought to
have healing powers. Lorenzo de Medici drank a powdered concoction of
these gems before he died in 1492 (Herald, 1981, 174). Of course, these
were enormously expensive medicines (Dellaluna, 2004.)

Figure 10. Pearl Necklaces.
Eleonora di Toledo (detail)




Figure 11. Cluster of Pearls.
Eleonora di Toledo and Child
of Cosimo I di’ Medici (detail)
the Impressionists changed the view of art to be open to
interpretation, paintings were meant to be read like books, with many
allegories and symbols used to convey a certain meaning. Jewelry was
effectively used as such symbols.

Figure 12. Portrait of Duke Cosimo I de’ Medici, after Baccio Bandinelli (1544) by Niccolo Della Casa.

Figure 13. Diamond Ring.
Portrait of Duke Cosimo I de’ Medici (detail),
after Baccio Bandinelli (1544)

Della Casa’s engraving Portrait of Duke Cosimo I de’ Medici, after
Baccio Bandinelli (1544) (Fig. 12) may well catch one’s eye because it
is a very detailed, elaborate mixture of the three conventional genres
of engraving: the portrait, the battle-print, and the ornament print.
Although the portrait seems at first to be a warning to rival families
of the Medicean strength in battle, the symbolism engraved in Duke
Cosimo I’s armor, shield, helmet, and so on, actually mean to reflect
that of the dynasty. The Albizzi family was one of the oldest and
noblest families in Florence and had led the Republican government for
two generations. However, their love for war took a toll on the taxes
and encouraged pacifists to favor Cosimo de’ Medici (not to be mistaken
with Cosimo I de’ Medici) instead, and, so, this engraving would appeal
to both the violent and peaceful minds. At the upper right (Fig. 13,) a
diamond ring “was a Medicean symbol dating back to the time of Piero
the Gouty, its hardness connoting the durability of the dynasty”
(Waldman, 2005, 276.) This symbol reflected perfectly the state of this
dynasty, as the family ruled from the 13th to the 17th century.



Figure 14. Portrait of a Man (The Goldsmith)
(1515) by Ridolfo Ghirlandaio (1483-1561)

Figure 15. Brooch.
Portrait of a Man (The Goldsmith) (detail) (1515)



Ghirlandaio (1483-1561) had painted Portrait of a Man (The Goldsmith)
(see Fig. 14) in 1515. Though the conventional interpretation of this
painting holds that the sitter is a goldsmith, “the young man’s
expression of fixed concentration, and the fact that he holds the jewel
so that the viewer can see only its back, suggest that the object may
have had a sentimental value, rather than functioning as an allusion to
the sitter’s trade” (Padovani, 2005, 110.) What is very interesting, is
that, as mentioned earlier, it would have been very rare for a
goldsmith to be painted by a great master, unless he were truly
celebrated and, maybe, the painting were commissioned by one of his
wealthy, grateful customers. However, no one has yet suggested a famous
identity for the youth, and so, perhaps, Ghirlandaio had wished,
simply, to play around with light and shadow as it would exhibit the
brooch and the sitter’s bittersweet expression.

If so, the
former has been achieved wonderfully, as the brooch (see Fig. 15)
stands out on the painting, the gems at the bottom shining, and the
details of a dove on the top are emphasized. Possibly, if one knows
more about the fashion or symbolism behind brooches of the time, it
would give him a hint about the sitter’s expression. As it turns out,
by the end of the 14th century, the old style of brooch, with a cluster
of gems around one central, larger gem, had faded from use, to be
replaced by brooches that were more like plaques rimmed in gemstones,
depicting things like deer, doves, and (in one very ambitious example)
a woman playing the harp (Evans, 1990, 62). Also, around 1460,
heart-shaped brooches, as well as pendants, became very popular, often
featuring heart-shaped diamonds and clasped hands. However, this brooch
does not seem to be heart shaped, although it, possibly, is in the
front, where one cannot see it. One can take the symbol of the dove

the top to mean almost any romantic representation, so, perhaps, the
painting is left, as the best art, to individual interpretation.


1400 to 1650, a movement called Humanism took over intellectual and
social thought. Individual mortal experience became more important than
the thoughts of afterlife, and the distinction between this world and
the next became vaguer. “Beauty was believed to afford at least some
glimpse of a transcendental existence. This goes far to explain the
humanist cult of beauty and makes plain that humanism was, above
everything else, fundamentally an aesthetic movement. Human experience,
man himself, tended to become the practical measure of all things. The
ideal life was no longer a monastic escape from society, but a full
participation in rich and varied human relationships” (Kreis, 2000.)

encompasses this rebirth of science, social relations, and pure beauty
and, so, it should not be surprising that, not only would many masters
be fascinated with painting jewelry for multiple purposes, but become
goldsmiths themselves. George Eliot once said: “these gems have life in
them: their colors speak, say what words fail of,” and it seems quite
true; there seems to be no limit to what one can learn from the history
and portrayal of jewelry.


Dellaluna, Vangelista di Antonio. 2004. “Jewelry in the Italian Renaissance.” Retrieved July 4, 2005 from

De Stoc, Anton, Lord. 2002. “Pearls – An Example Sumptuary Law.” Retrieved June 20, 2005 from

McMahon, Barbara. 2005. “Art sleuth uncovers clue to secret Raphael marriage” from,11711,1509189,00.html

Evans, Joan. 1990. A History of Jewellery. London: Dover Publications.

Hardy, Justin. Medici: Godfathers of the Renaissance. Italy: PBS and Devillier Donegan Enterprises, 2004. Videorecording.

Herald, Jacqueline. 1981. Renaissance Dress in Italy 1400-1500. Humanities Press: New Jersey.

Kreis, Steven. 2000. “Renaissance Humanism.” Retrieved July 9, 2005 from

Serena. 2005. “Ridolfo Ghirlandaio: Portrait of a Man (The Goldsmith).”
Leonardo Da Vinci, Michelangelo, and the Renaissance in Florence.
London: Yale University Press.

Phillips, Clare. 1996. Jewelry: From Antiquity to Present. London: Thames & Hudson.

Louis A. 2005. “Franciabigio: Portrait of a Jeweller.” Leonardo Da
Vinci, Michelangelo, and the Renaissance in Florence. London: Yale
University Press.