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.