Texts Review: Patrizia Naldini, Cristian Spadoni
Translations: Eurotrad Snc.
Graphics: Andrea Biotti
Photos Francesco del Vecchio e Roberto Palermo
Please note: each image in this virtual tour may be enlarged for more detailed viewing.
This itinerary unwinds through the paintings of the Uffizi, from the start of the 15th century to the beginning of the 18th, in pursuit of jewels, not only to observe them more carefully and learn about their shapes, materials and styles, but also to try and reconstruct the semantic function within each individual work.
Due to their very nature, as objects made with precious, rare and exotic materials, jewels are complex items. Not only do they respond to man’s instinctive love of anything sparkling or mysterious, or to the need to embellish and adorn the body, but they also respond to the urgent need to ‘reinforce it’, in line with their perception as magical objects, a theory that survived at least until the origin of experimental science. A wealth of lapidary literature, which spans from the Alexandrian age to the 17th century, hands down descriptions of the physical characteristics and presumed therapeutic virtues of precious materials, in a series of texts known to have been diffused throughout Europe in the late medieval period, and during the Renaissance. These include the thirty-seventh book of the Naturalis Historia, which Pliny the Elder dedicated entirely to gems (77 A.D.). The Roman polygraph includes, alongside the morphological descriptions, a wealth of anecdotal evidence regarding mirabilia derived from eastern imagery. He traces back the therapeutic power of gems to a principle of ‘sympathy and antipathy’ among the stars which, reverberating on the minerals, were said to invest them with every magical virtue. Pliny’s work strongly influenced the medieval lapidaries and met with great success in the erudite Renaissance, as one of the classics most favoured by the humanists. In the 15th century, other popular works included De Mineralibus, by medieval mystic Albert the Great (1206-1280) and De gemmis by Marbode of Rennes (1035c.-1128). The latter, dating to the end of the eleventh century, formally originated from the pretext of attributing the right meaning to the gems mentioned in the descriptions of the heavenly Jerusalem (Revelation 21:21) and of Aaron’s breastplate in the Holy Scriptures (Ex. 28:15-20), but was essentially pagan in terms of its tone and contents. The book by Marbode of Rennes is a fundamental vehicle for the mineralogical culture of in the late medieval and Renaissance age, due to its widespread diffusion within Europe, and its many translations. The 14th century short poem L’Acerba by heretic Cecco d’Ascoli (who died in 1327) also found favour with the humanists. In it, each gem, whose therapeutic virtues the author reaffirms, is perceived as being associated with a planet.
A topos of very ancient origin, the association of gems with the planets, which had already figured in the Alexandrian texts, the works of Pliny and in late medieval lapidaries, assumes an essential role in the Renaissance texts of medical astrology by Florentine philosopher Marsile Ficin (De vita coelitus comparanda) and by Camillo Leonardi (Speculum Lapidum), humanist doctor from Pesaro, in which both still assign to precious stones a power determined by the sympathies and antipathies of the planets, and by the association of minerals with the elements.
The vocabulary of precious materials, built based on the literary documents in use, assumes an importance that cannot be ignored in the language of jewellery. The unique persistence of the contents of the sources leads us to believe that the gemological knowledge may, over the centuries have “descended” from the empyrean of erudition to real society, informing those who chose, assembled, purchased and wore precious stones. Indeed, it is thanks to the sources that the jewels in paintings take on an ability to communicate which, going beyond the habits of custom, pushes past the desire of the customer, and even that of the artist himself, into the sphere of moral values and desires that could not otherwise have been expressed. This occurs above all in the works created between the beginning of the 15th century and the early 16th century, when the generally precious international Gothic style gave way to the growing realist urgency of the Renaissance artists.
In this phase, jewels rendered tangible and contextualised in the pictorial depiction, together with bearing testimony through their shapes and materials to their epoch, taste and geographical location acquired new semantic values, beyond the mere ostentation of wealth and power.
The first documents that can be used to analyse painted jewels can be found in the international Gothic field, in which a passion for beautiful materials was conducive to the characteristic courtly tone of the period. In the Adoration, painted for Palla Strozzi, Gentile highlights the crowns of the Magi, making them three-dimensional using the gilded pastiglia, or pastework, technique and he describes the vases containing the gifts to the Child Jesus in great detail. The intense and updated dialogue between the Marche-born artist’s painting and European Gothic goldsmithery originated when he attended the court of Gian Galeazzo Visconti in Pavia, and when working on the site of Milan Cathedral, where he would forge his figurative culture in the 1390s. Gold, which eternally remains the same and is incorruptible because it cannot be damaged by the elements, is the material chosen for the crown, the ultimate regal ornament, used to express the moral superiority of the king by physically increasing his height. In the Adoration of the Magi, the presence of the crowns is justified by the subject: in the Gospel according to Matthew (2:2-12) the Magi are described as mysterious wise men from the east, capable of interpreting the signs of the sky, with no reference to the fact that they may be kings. Instead, their status as sovereigns had been presumed by Psalms (72: 10 and 11), and this had then a strong impact on the iconography of the episode.
The golden vases brought by the Magi for the Messiah, containing, gold, frankincense and myrrh, are three liturgical containers, or more precisely, three pyxes, used for storing the Eucharist, but also scents and anointing oils. In the foreground, the vase offered by the Mago who is kneeling down is already in the hands of the female attendants. Curious, they have opened it, possibly to find out what it contains: an expedient which, by drawing the attention to the object itself, would appear to indicate that the gift of the kneeling Mago is indeed the gold it is made out of. Additionally, according to exegetic sources, the presence of this fine metal is a symbolic tribute to Christ the King, and this appears to be confirmed by the position of the Mago, who has lain his own crown down at the Child’s feet, implicitly acknowledging the latter’s superior kingship. The other two pyxes, still in the hands of the other Magi, are of different shapes: one is cylindrical and identical to the previous one, and could contain frankincense, a tribute to Christ’s divinity, whereas the second one, decorated with Gothic elements borrowed from architecture, and raised on a stand, is thought to be the container holding myrrh, since similar vases feature in the myrrh-bearing Magdalenes painted by the same artist in both the Valle Romita Polyptych in the Brera Picture Gallery and the Quaratesi Polyptych in the Uffizi. This substance, used in embalming practices, was intended to be interpreted, in line with the exegesis, as a tribute to the humanity of Jesus, the theological significance of which in the painting is believed to be underlined by the centrality of the vase.
The portrait of the duchess in pendant with that of Federico, Duke of Urbino, dates to the period when Piero was serving in the court of Urbino, in the 1460s. The meticulous attention to detail of Battista’s jewellery, unequivocal proof of the painter’s proximity to Flemish art, makes it easy to identify its shapes and materials.
The hairstyle is decorated with a jewel in the middle, a ruby surrounded by pearls, and one on the side, with a cabochon sapphire, a table-cut diamond, and another ruby. The necklace is composed of two strings of pearls, including a sequence of enamelled settings with alternate sapphires and rubies: these are accompanied by a gold chain, on which a large, jewelled pendant hangs. The ruby in the centre, quintessence of fire in lapidary literature is, like fire, the symbol of love and charity, virtues that return in the form of allegories in the female figures around the duchess in the triumph on the back of the painting. The idea that gems, as the concentration of light and colour, were symbols of virtue, originated in the medieval literature, but also informs the Renaissance painting. Colour and light, the expression of divine brightness, are the characteristics most conducive to the allegorical interpretation of the biblical exegetes: from Isidore of Seville (560/570-650 c.) to Rabanus Maurus (780-856) and Hugh of Saint Victor (who died in 1141).
Charity and Faith, who are easy recognisable, sitting on the carriage, are joined by Chastity in a white robe and Temperance, dressed in light blue/grey, a different sequence from the triad of the theological Virtues, which shows the artist’s intention not to present the duchessin the usual, celebratory code.
With their symbolism, the gems decorating the Duchess’ jewels mirror the Virtues depicted in her Triumph on the other side of the portrait: in fact, the pearls, with their pure white colour correspond to Chastity, the sapphires are a reference to modesty (by no coincidence they are the same colour as the Virgin’s mantle), emblems of wise men who, despite turning to the sky for inspiration, manage to keep their feet on the ground (St Ambrose). The small diamond in her hair, a gem that shines in the darkness and resists iron and fire, is probably a reference to faith, as affirmed by exegete Hugh of Saint Victor. In the scene featuring the Triumph of the Duchess, the absence of Hope among the virtues, and therefore of the emerald, its gem, is notable. Instead, Federico on the triumphal carriage is surrounded by the traditional set of the cardinal virtues: Justice, Prudence, Fortitude and Temperance. This detail could indicate that Hope had died with the protagonist in 1472, as she had fulfilled the hope of providing the duke with an heir. This indication confirms the now widely accepted theory that the portrait was painted after the death of Battista Sforza.
The panel, painted as a work of personal devotion, portrays a Madonna with a beautiful, delicate face, emphasised by her elaborate veiled hairstyle, decorated with white pearls painted in Flemish style. The same gems reappear on the dress and on the brocade cushion, as the only form of decoration. This detail is coherent with the iconography of the Virgin.
Symbols of natural perfection, the gems of the sea intuitively represent natural beauty due to their spherical shape, and chastity, due to their whiteness, which in the case of the Madonna, takes on a fundamental value in the Christian doctrine. An Indian story, reported by Pliny the Elder (IX, 107) related how, in a certain period of the year, the oyster rose from the bottom of the sea to the surface, and, opening its shell, collected the heavenly dew. The gestation of the pearl was believed to be the consequence of this fertilisation, and medieval exegetes drew close analogies between this and the pregnancy of the Virgin and the birth of Christ. In his De bestiis et aliis rebus, Hugh of Saint Victor interprets the heavenly dew as the Holy Spirit and the shell as Mary who welcomed it, into her womb to conceive Jesus Christ, the pearl.
Charity is considered the starting point of the series commissioned by the Tribunale della Mercanzia, in 1470, to the workshop of the Pollaiolo brothers, a multi-art atelier producing works of painting, sculpture and goldsmithery. Acknowledged as Piero’s work, this Virtue, - a queen enthroned, depicted as a nursing Madonna - is dressed in red and wears a brocade cloak, held fast by a large ruby, surrounded by four pearls set in a cross formation, two small rubies and two diamonds.
The royal figure wears a crown with diamonds, pearls, and vermilion gems, from which real flames are rising. The analogy between the ruby and fire, suggested by the crown, is one of the topoi of lapidary literature. The stone was not only of the same colour as its corresponding element, but also possessed its same heat and behaved in the same way. In fact, Pliny the Elder (XXXVII, 92-94) notes how the ruby is incombustible yet, once engraved and used as a seal, it is capable of printing the wax thanks to a magical autonomous heat. The fact that the most resplendent rubies are found where the sun is at its hottest, reinforces the alleged bond between fire and the gem, according to which, heat is infused by the eastern sun. Instead, the association between the ruby and Charity appears in the biblical interpretation, where it represents the virtue of martyrdom, a link that would also be repeated by Camillo Leonardi in his Speculum lapidum in 1502.
In the workshop of brothers Antonio and Piero del Pollaiolo, painters and expert goldsmiths, and creators of excellent pieces of holy goldsmithery, knowledge about the symbolism of the precious stones and especially their mystical meanings, would have been a requisite for ensuring the eloquence of their work. In the painting, a true identity is created by associating virtue and precious stone, which explains the frequent presence of pendants with rubies in the female portraits of the Renaissance.
The work painted for the Cardinal of Portugal's Chapel, attributed to Piero del Pollaiolo, depicts Saints Vincent, James and Eustace, all figures connected to that of James of Portugal, the cardinal archbishop of Lisbon who died in Florence in 1459 and was buried in the church of San Miniato al Monte. The choice of the saints follows a precise line of reasoning: St Vincent is the patron saint of Lisbon, the cardinal’s city, St James, homonym of the prelate, is the owner of the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, while Eustace is a reference to the Roman church in which he had been ordained cardinal.
The first protomartyr, Vincent, as a reminder of his apostolic appointment as archdeacon, is wearing a dalmatic in a heavy red material, the colour of martyrdom, with embroidered hems and sparkling motifs featuring rubies, diamonds/sapphires, and pearls, depicted with Flemish precision.
The same gems reappear in the ‘modern’ clothing of Eustace, a converted Roman soldier: the first two on the collar, worn in the style of a chivalric decoration, liken the Saint to a knight, decorated by his own martyrdom (rubies) and the strength (diamonds, traditional symbols of resistance) he showed when honourably meeting the challenge.
The pearls decorate the sleeve of the arm holding the palm, at the shoulder, but also the belt, making even more explicit the symbolism of chastity and self-restraint linked both to the pearl and to the belt.
The third saint, James, only wears one gem: a pearl in the centre of the neckline of his robe, probably a reference to Christ, defined as a “beautiful pearl” in the evangelist parable of Matthew (13:45). The pecten jacobaeus, the Saint’s attribute, a shell, emblem of his Cathedral, decorates the hat at his feet.
The unidentified lady, depicted in profile, is of a similar type to another three paintings by the same painter, created between 1470 and 1480, probably en pendant with three male portraits. In this type of painting, often executed when a couple were to be married, the jewels, which were either a gift from husband to wife, or part of the dowry, served to describe the material and spiritual virtues of the bride. The “hornets’ nest” hairstyle, embellished by a jewelled headpiece with a ruby, gives the woman an erect posture, the string of pearls decorates her with the symbol of chastity, whereas the pendant, with pearls and rubies, reiterates the concepts of purity (the pearls) and generosity (the ruby), a virtue considered necessary for procreation.
The most interesting piece of jewellery is the pin in the centre of her breast, the place that hosts the beating heart, the organ of the sentiments and of life itself. It features an angel, crafted with the lost wax casting technique then enamelled, whose body hosts a ruby surrounded by another, smaller red stone, a sapphire, an emerald and some pearls, a fashionable type of jewel at that time in Milan. Similarly to the cross and other Christian symbols, the angel, the ultimate custodian, in this case has an openly protective function, as do the gems that embellish it. According to the medical astrology of Marsile Ficin and Camillo Leonardi, the ruby, with its solar characteristics, capable of comforting the heart and instilling vitality, was the gem of good health; the sapphire, bearer of the virtues of Jupiter, brought prosperity and the emerald, the stone of Venus, brought beauty and fertility. Surrounded by the wings of the angel, probably the announcing Gabriel, the three stones, symbolising health, wealth and fertility, are visually protected by the angel, so transforming the jewel into a powerful talisman for the wearer’s future married life, and the continuation of the family line.
Painted in 1471, when the Duke of Milan was staying in Florence, and commissioned by Lorenzo de’ Medici to seal the diplomatic occasion, the portrait reveals a Flemish influence in the fact that the figure is cut to three quarters, which was innovative for the period. However, this influence does not extend to the depiction of the jewel, which is not so accurate, although it is plainly visible in the centre of the duke’s chest.
The pendant, in the form of a shield, contains a red gem, a rare occurrence in male portraits, a ruby or possibly a garnet, at the time both ascribed by Pliny to the same category of “fiery gems”. The astrological lapidaries of the late medieval and the Renaissance agreed that the ruby was full of powers, as the result of its relationship with the planet Mars and the Sun star. And its connection with the Sun led to the ruby being acknowledged as having the powers to boost the vital energy, protect the body from harm, and bring joy, openness and alacrity to those who wore it. Based on these indications, the solar talisman in the painting would appear to say: ‘Long live Galeazzo! May the ruby preserve him as the lively, courageous ally of Florence’.
The gem could, however, also provide a more specific indication, since we know from the documents that, in the same year in which the portrait was painted, Galeazzo had bought a large balasso (a kind of ruby) shaped like a heart. Although it seems that the gem was meant for a woman, Pollaiolo might have borrowed it temporarily to enrich the effigy of the captain with a timely historical reference.
In the context of the Pollaiolo series of the Virtues, the association of gem and virtue returns in Fortitude, maybe painted by Botticelli courtesy of Tommaso Soderini’s intercession at the Tribunale della Mercanzia. Painted around 1470, the work is the first of Botticelli’s important works, but shows the artist’s already mature style, both in his depiction of female beauty and grace and in the freedom with which he interprets the iconography of the allegorical figure.
Of Fortitude’s traditional attributes, the painter conserves the column with Corinthian capital, the iron mace and the metal breastplate, coherent with her warrior identity, but also adds an imaginative touch: two diamonds set on her breasts. We do not know whether, at the time, Botticelli regularly worked in the workshop of the Pollaiolo brothers, expert goldsmiths and painters, but Sandro, like many other artists, had probably begun his training at a goldsmith’s workshop and was already knowledgeable about gems through personal experience.
Diamonds, defined by Pliny as ‘untameable’ (XXXVII, 55-60), were renowned to the gems cutters for their resistance: in fact, back then, the faceting technique, which transforms the natural stone into a sparkling gem, was not yet in use, and there were only two possible shapes: spearhead and table-cut. The extremely hard diamond tip was irreplaceable for cutting other gems and as such, it was a natural emblem of strength. Added to the armour of Fortitude, the pointed stones present her as the virtue that cuts but cannot be cut by others. The round, white pearls painted into the hairstyle and on the neckline, were references to the absolute purity of the Virtue.
In this portrait, the presence of the medal has not succeeded in solving the enigma of the subject’s identity. Since his features are similar to those of the painter himself, some theories identify him as Botticelli’s brother, goldsmith Antonio Filipepi, who may be the creator of the medal he is showing off so proudly.
The protagonist’s two rings trace a sort of moral identikit: one is set with a ruby and the other, less visible, with an emerald, both cut à cabochon. Worn on the pinky, the two rings do not appear to indicate sentimental bonds, which are usually delegated to the ring finger, but this does not mean that they tell us nothing about the wearer! The ring is the jewel that most reflects the identity of its wearer, a value derived from the Greek and Roman use of the signet ring, where an inscription or an emblem, engraved on metal or on the gem, was used to initial the wax that sealed official documents. As an expression of identity, the ring is eloquent and speaks of its wearer using the symbolism of its gems, in this case a ruby and an emerald.
The former, the gem of the sun and the quintessence of fire (see Piero del Pollaiolo’s Charity), signals the generosity of the character, whereas the water-coloured emerald evokes the value of beauty. Pliny had already highlighted the fact that the most beautiful emeralds came from Cyprus, the island of Venus, and he had been the first person to indicate the link between the goddess of beauty and the gem (XXXVII, 65-66), an association that would later be confirmed again in Marsile Ficin’s De vita coelitus comparanda. Botticelli had certainly been familiar with the passage from L’Acerba, widely read in Florence since as early as the 14th century, in which Cecco d’Ascoli affirms that the emerald: “conserves the face so that does not lose virtue”.
Pliny the Elder (XXXII, 26) highlights that wearing costly, precious stones on the pinky is rather snobbish, an ostentation of a hardly credible nonchalance regarding their preciousness. And that’s not all: since the pinky was often the finger on which the signet ring was worn, the presence of another ring there hinted that the wearer kept much more locked away than that small but precious jewel.
It definitely seems that the character portrayed is saying: “I am a good person (the ruby) and I am handsome (the emerald) but I don’t assign much importance to these virtues of mine because what counts most of all is being good at what I do” as demonstrated by the overt ostentation of the medal bearing the effigies of Cosimo “pater patriae”.
Although the identity of the man portrayed remains uncertain, - as does his profession – it is clear, in any case, that he is on the side of the Medici(or a supporter of the Medici) on a par with that of the artist, in view of the principle that “every painter paints himself”.
Here the same detail of the diamonds painted by the artist in Fortitude’s breast plate reappears, but here the pointed gems, set in gold, are directly applied to the lightweight fabric of Pallas’ robe in a way that is technically impracticable. However, this imaginative detail of his costume confirms that the painter’s choice of decoration and its iconographic value was intentional. The diamonds rendered Pallas even more invincible: she is holding a halberd (a defence weapon), also enhanced by a table-cut diamond. The same pointed gem returns in the Medici heraldic motif featuring three or four rings of diamonds woven on his flowing “ancient-style’ robe.
The emblem and the diamonds set on the breasts and in the jewelled headpiece, tell us that the Medici not only commissioned but also owned the painting, the embodiment of adamantine strength and of resistance to enemy attacks, all virtues attributed to the gem, which was believed to be capable of resisting iron, fire and the gems cutters’ attempts to tame it. Whether the enemy (the centaur) is political or moral, the meaning remains the same. For the Medici painter, in the case of moral enemies, the strength of the goddess appeared to lie in the fact that she opposed the ambiguous and feral nature of the centaur using her sapientia, which was as sparkling and stainless as a diamond.
Usually, when looking at the Primavera, the jewels are not the elements that catch the beholder’s eye, which is instead instantly drawn to the dreamlike atmosphere created by the mythological figures. And yet the jewels of the Primavera add further beauty and coherence to this perfect work. Even in its details, the work is tangible proof of both the Medici family’s interest in Antiquity and its divinities, and also of the unique relationship between Botticelli and jewellery.
The painting does not contain many jewels, in fact they are only worn by Venus and the Graces, her handmaids. The goddess has a diadem and a pendant, which are both very pertinent: the former, barely visible, is decorated with pearls, the gem of pure, natural beauty, while the latter, worn not in the usual position above the breast, but near her rounded belly, draws attention to the part of the body in which a pregnancy is nurtured.
The shape, which appears to be confused by the presence of the red stone, is a crescent moon which recalls the lunula, a characteristic amulet worn by Roman women. The reference to fertility is made clear both by the subject of the jewel (according to the astrology of Marsile Ficin, the Moon is responsible for the growth of the foetus) and by its position. The only place where Botticelli might have seen this kind of jewel, which was so different from the 15th century fashion, was Rome, from where he had just returned and where he had been inspired to create the group of the Graces.
Analysing the pendants of two of the three young girls, it can be noted that one of these is a classic Florentine pendant (the one with the red gem). The other one, featuring phytomorphic motifs enhanced by pearls and possibly sapphires, is more of a pin, which, due to the oak leaves visible on it, could possibly be a heraldic reference to Pope Julius II. Thanks to the pope, for whom he had painted part of the frescoes of the Sistine Chapel, Botticelli had been able to greatly increase his knowledge of Antiquity, so enriching his pictorial eloquence with an archaeological erudition never seen before; this eloquent jewel could therefore be an expression of his gratitude to the Roman commissioner. However, it must be considered that one of the meanings attributed to the Graces by the humanists was that of emblems of Harmony, so the jewel could have had the even more decisive function of expressing the peace achieved between Rome and Florence. And indeed, by comparing the two jewels, it can be noted that the former is a pendant widely documented in Florentine portrait painting, whereas the latter, a heraldic reference to the pope, could well represent Rome. In this way, Botticelli would have celebrated with a discreet detail, the peace achieved between Florence and Rome, to which he, as a Medici artist, had made his own personal contribution.
The monumental Triptych commissioned by Tommaso Portinari for the Florentine church of Sant’Eligio in 1478 is a veritable jubilation of beautiful jewels. Its dimensions are a clear indicator of the commissioner’s grand ambitions and the same can be said for the jewellery, symbolising wealth and virtue, expertly executed by the Flemish painter.
Although the work depicts the Adoration of the shepherds which, unlike the more traditional Adoration of the Magi, required no precious iconographic attributes, the Portinari noblewomen - Maria Maddalena, the commissioner’s wife, and her daughter Margherita - are wearing jewels, as are the angels. The former sports a wedding ring on her ring finger, composed of a ruby and a cabochon sapphire, set side by side, and an opulent necklace of enamel, rubies, sapphires, pearls and onyx beads, probably of Burgundian production, symbolising chastity, (the pearls), strength (the diamond) and generosity (the ruby). It is a historical object, because an identical one also appears in the portrait of the woman painted by Hans Memling (at the Metropolitan Museum of New York), possibly a wedding gift. It is thought to be the jewel that her husband was later forced to sell to settle the debts arising from the bankruptcy of the Medici Bank he had managed in Bruges.
Young Margherita is wearing an elaborate string of pearls with a three-stone pendant: two cabochon gems (a ruby and a sapphire) and a diamond with the unmistakeable spearhead cut, talisman of goodness, humility, and strength. Another, even more eloquent jewel, is the hat pin with a sequence of (enamelled) ovals, and three round pearls: the margaritae in the language used by lapidaries, clearly a reference to the young girl’s name.
In the two portraits the jewels are vanitas and refer to the worldly nature of the protagonists, however, the angels too are wearing interesting head ornaments, showing the ambivalence of the meaning conveyed by jewellery, here the metaphysical expression of divine glory. Divided into two groups, the celestial messengers on the right are dressed in magnificent liturgical vestments and adorned with crowns, confirming that they belong to the highest spheres of the angelic hierarchies.
The Angels on the left from the white tunic of the announcing archangel, have a pennino in the centre of the diadem, a precious jewel that came into fashion over a century later. One of the two appears to be formed by a small coral reef to which some round pearls are attached: the coral makes the object into a sort of amulet against evil, because the red marine material, often in a cross formation, was acknowledged as having the power to drive the devil away. This faculty, mentioned by Marbode of Rennes, is thought to have been extremely popular, thanks to the widespread European reach of his book, and its many translations.
With this bizarre antenna, the angel nearest to the beholder non only reminds us of his role as announcer, thanks to his position, the lily in the vase depicted alongside him and the pearls of his bandeaux, but also seems to take on the role of the guardian of the Portinari family, whose social and economic position, in those years, was perilously unstable.
The Holy Conversation painted for the church of San Giusto alle Mura in Florence features the Virgin and Child surrounded by archangels Michael and Gabriel, saint bishops Justus and Zenobius, and a choir of angels. Gold is used extensively in the work, although it is not obtained with the traditional gold leaf technique. Instead, it is applied with an innovative method that entails applying thin coats of paint in simple colours, one on top of the other, as Giorgio Vasari relates.
A very original golden frieze adorns the edge of the masonry parapet that separates the terrace of the Saints from the garden behind it: it is decorated with sapphires, rubies, emeralds and pearls, representing the modesty, goodness, beauty and purity of the Madonna, values which, with this method are intended to be extended to all the characters of the Holy Conversation. The Virgin’s cloak is held together on her chest by an oval pin featuring a sapphire surrounded by pearls, a clear mark of her natural humility and dogmatic virginity. The Child is holding a crystal globe, topped by a cross in gold and pearls, a reference to spiritual kingship, since the object, like the sceptre and crown, had been a regalia since the time of the Roman and Byzantine emperors, with the added of the jewelled cross. In fact, the globe does not represent the Earth which, at the time, was believed to be flat, but the cosmos,and as such it was meant to convey the concept of universality, in this case that of the spiritual kind.
The material itself, rock crystal, thought capable of cauterising wounds due to its reflective properties, is believed to have been a reference to the Redeemer’s thaumaturgic power. The indication regarding the use of crystal, initially provided by Pliny (XXXVII, 28), is repeated by Marbode of Rennes and in the 16th century by Camillo Leonardi and Ludovico Dolce. For medieval exegete Rabanus Maurus, crystal, a sort of fossilised ice, is linked to the sacrament of Baptism, and to the Incarnation of Christ.
The globe is an attribute of St Michael, also present in the altarpiece, a detail that suggests a privileged relationship between the divine Child and the armed Archangel. The precious stones set in his metal armour, neckline and on his hips in the style of a girdle, give the Saint the character of a supernatural warrior, a divine avenger, while the pearl near his lower stomach is a reminder of his angelic chastity, and the absence of sexual connotations.
The sapphires on the mitres of the saint bishops are a reference to the words of St Ambrose, who defined the gem as the emblem of holy men capable of heavenly contemplations in earthly existence. Instead, the rubies on their gloves, simulating the stigmata, are a reminder of the Passion of Christ Redeemer. The pins on the saints’ copes are extremely interesting: the one worn by Zanobius, featuring a red lily, is the symbol of Florence, while that of St Justus from Volterra has a strategic exegetic function.
Located right in the centre of the throat and emphasised by the gesture of his hand, the pin draws attention to the eloquence of the Saint, who evangelised his city besieged by the Goths.
The Adoration is the central part of the triptych, from the Castle of St George of the Gonzaga, which can be dated to the 1460s. The painting, which is not very big, shows how Mantegna, having abandoned the topos of the royalty of the Magi, and excluded crowns from his interpretation, on the other hand, described with great accuracy the vases holding the gifts, embossed, chiselled in gold and decorated with gems.
Here, the lids bear three visible different kinds: a ruby, a sapphire, and a pearl. The three different exotic stones naturally enhance the protagonists’ Eastern provenance: the three wise men (possibly Persian astrologists and followers of Zoroaster) who had identified the comet and recognised it as the prophesy of an exceptional event, had followed it until they met the Messiah (Mt. 2, 2-12). Not surprisingly, Mantegna’s Renaissance painting style means that he portrays the gems in detail, but this does not explain why they are different from one another: this was probably due to the painter’s desire for variety and to please his customer, marquis Ludovico Gonzaga, who would used to that level of luxury. But it was also possibly an attempt to highlight the different contents of the precious vases.
In fact, the three gifts, gold, frankincense and myrrh, symbolic tributes respectively to the kingship, divinity and humanity of Christ, can be associated with the gems based on the indications of the biblical interpretation. In this way, the pearl, also called unio, or unique gem, by Pliny - since each oyster cannot contain more than one of them (IX, 123)- and therefore worthy of a monarch, crowns Melchior’s vase containing gold. It is thought to represent the kingship of Christ, and also refer to his chaste conception (see the Madonna by Filippo Lippi). Instead, Balthasar, bearer of frankincense, hands over a vase crowned by a large sapphire, one of the gems that adorn the bases of heavenly Jerusalem, the divine city, a place of Sanctity and virtue (Rev. 21:9 For the exegetes, from St Ambrose to Hugh of Saint Victor, the sapphire represents the sky, and therefore the heavenly dimension. It would therefore have been associated with frankincense due to the ascending movement of its scented smoke which, during liturgical practices would convey the prayers towards the sky, the ultimate divine location. Finally, the black Mago, Gaspar, who gave Christ myrrh, holds a vase decorated by a large ruby. This substance, used in embalming practices, is an allusion to death, and implicitly underlines the human nature of Christ, who was at once divine and mortal. For exegete Bruno d’Asti (who died in 1125), the ruby, symbol of charity and fire, of which it is the quintessence, represents martyrdom. Mantegna, who was well-learned and harboured a passion for Antiquity, could have learned about the symbolism of the gems in at least two ways: the Holy Scriptures, the study of which by a painter of religious subjects was a requisite for ensuring the eloquence of his works, and Pliny the Elder’s Naturalis Historia. At the time, the Roman polygraph’s work was present in the Gonzaga library in the precious form of a manuscript with a comment by Petrarch. In the book of the Naturalis Historia dedicated to gems, the Magi are mentioned by the author as keepers of magic-therapeutical knowledge about precious stones. With the exception of their shared knowledge of astrology, no real association exists between the wise men of sacred history and those of Pliny, a mysterious Middle Eastern caste of priest-astrologers, but it is possible that Mantegna took advantage of the ambiguity of the term magi, common to the two sources, to add the three gems and so enrich his pictorial eloquence with an erudite reference that would certainly have impressed the customer.
Mantegna’s depiction of the cloak pin that adorns the Madonna in this small painting is executed with his usual, Flemish precision. The jewel is enhanced by a ruby in the centre, cut à cabochon.
The gem, associated with the element of fire, from which it was believed to have been an extract (Pliny XXXVII, 92), represents the ardent love of Mary, who had been capable of giving up her son to redeem humankind. However, in De Universo, exegete Rabanus Maurus affirms that the carbunculus, endowed with the ability to shine with its own light, is the allegory of the Word incarnated, which had been capable of illuminating humankind in the shadows. The three small pearls set in a triangle around the gem in the centre, evoking the virginity of Mary, recall the Trinity in their number, while their characteristic spherical, candid and precious look evokes the perfect purity of Christ, due also to the analogy between Mary’s virginal conception and that of the oyster (see Madonna with Child and Angels by Filippo Lippi) and that of both’s results. In this way, the eloquent pin embodies a combination of the Marian symbolism of virginity and love, and subtle, yet clear references to the Trinity, and to Christ’s mission as the Word incarnated.
The jewellery set of Barbara, daughter of Rolando II Pallavicino, is extremely luxurious, denoting the prestige of her ancient family. Confirming the authority and social distance of her noble descent, the young girl is depicted in profile, like an ancient cameo or the portraits on the imperial coins.
The jewel, strung sideways on the headband or ferronière, is a fashion choice that makes the opulent pendant visible. The pendant is of the characteristic shape already in vogue since the end of the 15th century, featuring a large emerald in the centre, a ruby at the top and a pear shaped pearl at the bottom. The jewel has an identifying function, courtesy of its strategic location on the head. The emerald and the pearl prevail over all the other gems, signs of beauty and chastity, but also of fertility, due to the association of the former with the planet Venus and that of the latter with the Moon, both responsible for pregnancy, according to the medical astrology of Marsil Ficin. This interpretation would be coherent with the matrimonial function of the portrait, possibly destined to introduce Barbara to her future husband, Ludovico Rangoni, condottiero from Modena.
The emerald, ruby and pearl triad reappears in the pendant on a string of very large round pearls, an unequivocal sign of purity, but the most unusual jewel worn by the girl is a long necklace of black beads, probably jet, a magical jewel also depicted in Leonardo Da Vinci's Lady with an Ermine. Jet is an organic material, a variety of lignite known since Ancient times, and in fact widely mentioned by Hellenistic sources, which suggest that it was used to regularise the menstrual cycle and to gift successful pregnancies to sterile women. In his De mineralibus,Albert the Great recommends it, above all, as a means for revealing whether a woman’s virginity is intact: he claimed, in fact, that if an “impure” woman were served water in which a fragment of jet had been washed, she would immediately feel the urge to urinate, a sure sign of her tainted virtue. And the same author claimed that the black material also warded off the fear of giving birth. These properties would justify the presence of such a plain jewel among the other, openly precious jewels, its function being to introduce Barbara with her virtue intact.
It could be due to that ‘scarf’ wrapped round her head like a chador that the young girl portrayed by Boccaccio Boccaccino, painter from Cremona, earned herself the title of ‘gypsy girl’. But in fact, except for the exotic head covering, which resembles the whimsical, multi-coloured elegance of Giovanni Bellini’s Venice, there is nothing in the young girl’s religious concentration that might allude to the quick thinking and slyness of a gypsy.
Instead, there is something deeply moving and devoted in her that is reinforced by the delicate jewel round her neck: a pendant with a ruby in the centre. A symbol of charity and of unconditional love, due to its well-known link with fire, the ruby is well-suited to the image of a devotee, or a Saint, and the same can be said about the pearls, in a cross formation, which are a reference to Christ and to the purity of the evangelical message. Although the headband jewel is difficult to interpret, it associates the gypsy girl with the Magdalene depicted by Boccaccino in the Procession to Calvary in London (National Gallery): in fact, the two female figures have similar facial features and their veils are made of the same fabric, although they are worn differently.
For a long time, the altarpiece, destined for the Tedaldi chapel in the church of Santa Maria dei Servi, was believed to be a representation of the Immaculate Conception, a dogma however, that considers St Ann’s conception of Mary as being without sin. Instead, here the expectant Virgin is standing on a base which, like an ancient sarcophagus, features the embossed depiction of the scene of the Annunciation, while on her head, the Holy Spirit is glimpsed, illuminated by a beam of light, indicating the divine fecundation of Jesus.
On the sides, two wings belonging to Saints open up, like a curtain, revealing the scene in the centre, where the two Capital virgins are kneeling in contemplation: Catherine of Alexandria on the left and Margaret the Virgin on the right. Unlike the Madonna, who is completely unadorned, the two Saints are wearing a few, but meaningful, jewels. Saint Catherine’s neckline is decorated with white, perfectly round pearls to underline her obstinate chastity, as she had rejected the Emperor’s amorous advances, devoting herself to Christ. The pearls are alternated with small jewels set with rubies: the quintessence of the element of fire and an iconographic reference to charity and unconditional love, as well as to martyrdom - as claimed by Bruno d’Asti - and to Christ as the Word incarnated, according to Rabanus Maurus.
Instead, Margaret wears a pin on her shoulder, featuring a diamond in the centre surrounded by pearls, marks of her dogged Faith (see Portrait of Battista Sforza and Fortitude) and Chastity (see Madonna with Child by Filippo Lippi), which she had demonstrated by rejecting a pagan suitor. Both martyrs for having defended their purity, the jewels of the two Saints are symbolically equivalent, as are their facial features: two mirror image faces of the same spiritual quality.
The work, commissioned by the monks of San Donato in Scopeto in 1496, was supposed to replace the Adoration of the Magi left unfinished by Leonardo, when he had left for Milan, 15 years earlier. Unlike Leonardo’s version, Filippino’s painting contains several references to precious jewels used, above all, to draw the beholder’s attention to the portraits of the Medici featured. In the role of the Magi, Giovanni and Lorenzo, sons of Pierfrancesco and cousins of Lorenzo de Medici, who were both still alive at the time, are presenting the Christ Child with a valuable chalice as a gift, decorated with three spearheads, an explicit reference to the Medici family.
However, the most interesting element is the crown that one of the attendants is placing on the head of the second Medici brother, an unequivocal sign of royalty, and an extremely bold move on the part of a citizen of republican Florence. At the time, Lorenzo of Pierfrancesco de’ Medici was a key figure; he had accompanied Charles the VIII of France in the invasion of Florence in November 1494 and his branch had risen to prominence shortly after the revolution in which Piero the Unfortunate, son of Lorenzo de Medici, had been deposed. The crown is therefore a reference to the expectations that the commissioning monks, protected by the Medici family several times in the past, had placed, above all, in Lorenzo.
Another precious detail offers an opportunity to draw additional conclusions: a pearl strung on green ribbon which adorns the head of a Moorish bystander in Roman clothes. The very presence of this young man is a reference to the process of the multi-ethnic Roman world’s conversion to Christianity, the gold earring is his bizarre and exotic ornament, and the pearl is a clear reference to Christ. In an evangelical parable mentioned by Matthew (Mt., 13:45), the Kingdom of Heavens is defined as similar to the good trader who sets off in search of beautiful pearls and, having found one of great value, sells everything he has in order to purchase it. According to Clement of Alexandria, Christ is the extremely valuable pearl of the trader in the parable and this would appear to be the reference cited in this work by the eloquent ornament of the Moor converted to Christianity.
Elisabetta’s headband, clearly visible in the portrait, viewed from the front and embellished by a scorpion, is an extremely effective signifier, a detail that draws the attention of the beholder, qualifying the owner. Excluding both its function as a reference to her star sign - the duchess had been born an Aquarius -and the heraldic theory, because it fails to correspond with the emblems of her lineage, the object invites an interpretation based on the association between the terrible arachnid and the diamond in the setting.
The tip of the hardest gem, symbol of strength and resistance (see Fortitude and Pallas and the centaur), a tool used to cut, engrave and facet all precious stones, on a symbolic level, is a reference to the sharp intellect of the duchess, whereas the scorpion, attribute of the dialectic also documented in the tomb of Pope Sixtus IV by Pollaiolo, illustrates her talent as a speaker. The frontal position and evocative shape of the jewel on the headband make it part of the mute yet direct dialogue between the Duchess and the beholder, transforming the ornament into a sort of threat, a promise of cutting and poisonous acts of revenge to anyone who might dare attack its owner. The verses of Cecco d’Ascoliand the book by Camillo Leonardi both signal the efficacy of the diamond in warding off one’s enemies. Leonardi affirms that stones engraved with the image of a scorpion are capable of converting malicious souls into benevolent ones simply by the person coming into contact with the sealing wax stamped by the gem.
The pendant of Maddalena Strozzi, young wife of Agnolo Doni, portrayed en pendant with her husband, is very probably an elegant, valuable wedding gift. Its setting hosts three stones: a sapphire, a ruby and an emerald, and is enhanced by a large pear shaped pearl. Raphael and his customers were extremely knowledgeable about fine materials and their virtues, because they would keep company with famous jewellers and gems cutters and engravers such as Valerio Belli, and pore over the classic texts of lapidary literature, such as the work by Marbode of Rennes, L’Acerba by Cecco d’Ascoli and De vita Coelitus comparanda by Marsile Ficin. The gems in the setting represent the owner’s vitality (ruby), wealth (sapphire) and purity (pearl).
In the pendant, the small emerald set in the unicorn, crafted with the lost wax casting technique, is tasked with conveying a more intimate message. As the jewel of Venus, according to Marsile Ficin, the emerald is the bearer of fertility, so when strategically placed in the belly of the animal that symbolises chastity, it would appear to be a reference to the lady’s desire to give her husband a legitimate heir. A timely, probable theory, in light of the fact that, when the portrait was painted, round about 1506 or 1507, the couple was still childless, although they had been married for a while. And at the time, it is even more probable that Maddalena was already pregnant, since we know that Maria, her eldest daughter, was born on 8 September 1507. This is thought to be indicated by her heavier face, tired look and the position of her arms, aspects that have also prompted similar assumptions about the Mona Lisa. If this were true, Raphael would have performed the delicate task of revealing the protagonist’s pregnancy to the world using a jewel.
In medical astrology, gems were powerful medicines both when ingested and worn, and it is therefore possible that the object, immortalised by the painter in the portrait of the woman, not only served to describe her character but was also meant to work magic on the wearer: the ruby preserving her health (Cecco d’Ascoli), the sapphire, Jupiter’s gem, casting away her enemies and attracting the benevolence of God and of humans, and finally the pearl, bringing her the tranquillity of the sky from which it was believed to have been generated (Camillo Leonardi) and the influence of the moon needed for every gestation process (Marsile Ficin).
Both Maddalena and Agnolo, in their respective portraits, wear a table-cut diamond on the index finger of the left hand, symbol of tenacity, which made it the chosen stone for wedding rings in that period. Worn on the index, or pointing finger, rather than on the more common ring finger, the wedding ring is a sign of the pride in the marital unity implied in the very concept of the double portrait.
Painted by an unknown Flemish master, the two panels, - the remaining parts of a triptych, in the centre of which there may have been a Virgin with Child - depict the spouses Pierantonio Baroncelli and Maria Bonciani, married in 1489. In Bruges, the place they had moved to, Pierantonio and Maria occupied a significant position in local society, as also testified by their many ornaments.
The gold cross with table-cut diamonds and pear shaped pearls round Pierantonio’s neck is a reference to the owner’s faith and its adamantine tenacity. It is difficult to tell whether this is a Burgundian or a Florentine piece: certainly, when it was painted, the Netherlands was the world’s leading player, for importing diamonds from India, even if it is probably in Italy that how to cut them was first discovered. The hat pin, with its visible image of the Madonna with Child refers, with the devotion of Mary, to the participation of Pierantonio in the spiritualism of the city he had chosen to live in: Bruges, where both the cathedral and the most exclusive confraternities of secular prominent citizens (that of Our Lady of the Dry Tree) were named after the Virgin.
The small jewel pointed on Maria Bonciani’s clothing has more of a protective than an ornamental function. It has the shape of an eloquent shell with a pearl hanging down, possibly a minding (souvenir) of a pilgrimage to Compostela, or a reference to the Virgin, whose name the lady bears (see Madonna with Child by Filippo Lippi). Instead, a coral rosary with a pendant in the shape of an agnus dei or lamb of god, connects her to her city of origin: Florence, whose patron saint, St John, had coined the epithet agnus dei.
A lavish necklace with floral motifs of coloured enamels and pearls, reminiscent of the jewel of Maddalena Portinari in the triptych by Hugo van der Goes, featuring the same colours and techniques, is a reference to Bruges, the place where both women resided, and the setting for their interwoven stories, as the wives of rich, ambitious Florentine financiers.
Possibly part of a polyptych painted for Frederick I, the work depicts the Magi with three gifts in the form of three masterpieces of Renaissance goldsmithery. Real objects that the painter might have seen in his father’s workshop, or inventions of someone who had seen that art close-up. Proof of Durer’s personal involvement in the painting is visible in what is probably a self-portrait of the painter, in the bearded, blonde Mago in the centre, who is wearing a curb chain and another gold chain on which a jewel with a ruby hangs, a sign of charity and a reference to his generous heart. An emerald surrounded by pearls on a brooch underlines the wise man’s handsomeness, recalling the hope for Redemption. He is holding a liturgical vase, a pyx, destined to hold the Eucharist for communion, forged in gold, a material that is eternally identical to itself, and a symbol of divinity.
The spherical container held by the black Mago has a similar meaning. Its cap terminates with the closed figure of the ouroboros, the snake biting its own tail. The message of eternity is clear, but it is also an obvious reference to sovereignty, since the globe, as well as the sceptre and crown, was a regalia (see the altarpiece of San Giusto by Ghirlandaio). The third pyx offered by the Mago kneeling at the feet of the Child is in the shape of a small box. The shape of this last container, more suited to a reliquary - similar to the specimen in gilded silver and precious stones made in Florence, dated to the second half of the 15th century and preserved in the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo in Florence – could be a reference to the earthly death of the son of God, and therefore an unequivocal sign of his humanity.
The identity of the protagonist of this portrait is unknown. It was painted by Hans Memling, German master active in Flanders at the end of the 15th century. The subject was definitely wealthy, as documented by the expensive lynx collar that trims his outer garment. His foreshortened hand in the foreground displays two rings: one worn on the index finger and the other worn on the second bone of the pinky.
In Flanders in the late 15th century, rings were worn by men and women on both hands, all the finger bones and all the fingers, except the middle finger, known as digitus infamis, believed to be unworthy of decoration since Roman times (Pliny XXXIII, 24), because even back then it was used to make the well-known rude gesture it is used for today. So, the protagonist of the painting was following the trend of the period, but the rings also give us some useful insights into his identity, probably suggesting that he was a financier or a trader, possibly with a public office. This is indicated by the ring on his index finger - defined later, in Giovan Battista della Porta’s Fisiognomica della mano the pointing finger - with its flat red gem, which may have been used as a seal. Although it is hard to make out, and this was possibly the painter’s intention, the object proudly shows off the character’s social position. It is difficult to tell whether the dark cabochon jewel set in the ring on the pinky finger is turquoise, as the colour would appear to indicate, but the fact that it is not completely pushed on to the finger but instead positioned on the second bone and therefore much more apparent suggests that it played an active role in the dialogue with the beholder, probably protective, that was just as urgent as its representational function. Indeed, this stone was believed as having the ability to save the owner from all dangers.
Part of a triptych, with the Virgin and Child with St Benedict, the panel was considered to be a portrait of Benedetto Portinari, the nephew of Tommaso Portinari, portrayed by Hugo van der Goes in the monumental Triptych of the Uffizi and by Memling himself in the portrait of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
The only detail that the presumed Benedetto has in common with Tommaso is a pinky ring, of interest, above all, for its position, intended to nonchalantly indicate the existence of a rich estate kept under lock and key (see Portrait of a man with a medal). And in fact, the ring of this Florentine merchant, resident in Flanders, is enhanced by a tiny table-cut sapphire, whereas the one in New York is probably à cabochon. The sapphire was commonly found in the portraits of men. A jovial gem, it was believed capable of attracting prosperity and the benevolence of God and of the humans, as well as protecting the wearer from sudden fevers and all kinds of natural disasters. On the protagonist’s white shirt, we can just catch a glimpse of a golden chain, on which a lorgnette, or lens, is hung, an object that indicated the fragility of the human body, but possibly also stressed the desire or the professional need to see clearly, both physically and spiritually.
Over the centuries, this portrait has immortalised the features of a character who was well-known, but not extremely famous: Richard Southwell, courtier and right-hand man of King Henry VIII, here in his official role as state official, decorated with a curb chain and a hat pin or einsegne with a cameo bearing the design of a figure.
The jewel, precursor of a fashion that would flourish about thirty years later, is crafted in commesso, a complex goldsmithery technique which, in a single embossed design, set parts in smooth or enamelled gold alongside parts in carved gemstones. It depicts the head and bust of a black woman with exotic headgear featuring black bands and gold, not a coincidental figurative choice given the key position of the pin, Holbein’s pictorial expertise and well-known skills as a jewellery designer. Richard Southwell, gentleman of the English landed gentry, had embarked upon a brilliant political career between 1534 and 1535 when he was appointed sheriff of the county of Norfolk and Suffolk. At the beginning of 1535, he had taken on an even more significant role at the court of Henry VIII, where he played an active part in confiscating ecclesiastic goods for the benefit of the monarchy. In that same year, the king passed the Act of Supremacy, divorcing from his wife Catherine of Aragon, to marry Anne Boleyn; by doing this he enraged, among others, humanist philosopher Thomas More, an illustrious member of the government who, by refusing to sign the Act, was imprisoned with the ignominious accusation of high treason, and sentenced to death. Richard Southwell took part in the final questioning of the humanist and the date of the portrait, 10 July 1536, celebrates the anniversary of the incident. Southwell’s hat pin is a reference to that sad event, expressed using a play on words, a pun of the type used in the language of personal emblems: in fact, the subject of the cameo, a black moor, was reminiscent of the sound and spelling of Thomas More’s surname, at the time Moor, and only later becoming More.
Texts Review: Patrizia Naldini, Cristian Spadoni
Translations: Eurotrad Snc.
Graphics: Andrea Biotti
Photos Francesco del Vecchio e Roberto Palermo
Please note: each image in this virtual tour may be enlarged for more detailed viewing.