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The Etruscan goldsmith's art

Etruscan jewellery and goldsmithing techniques

The Etruscans were a people who lived between the 9th century and the 1st century B.C. in a large part of Italy, more precisely from what is now southern Veneto and south-eastern Lombardy to some areas of Campania, passing through Latium, Umbria, Tuscany and Emilia-Romagna. But in addition to the military skills that enabled it to expand so much, the Etruscan civilisation distinguished itself for an important artistic production that arose during the Villanovan period (900-720 BC) and was subsequently developed thanks to the continuous trade with the Greeks.

The Etruscans

One of the most distinctive elements of the Etruscans was their dedication to the pleasures of life, with a continuous tendency towards luxury and elegance. In fact, to satisfy this need, works of goldsmith's art were born and flourished, aimed at exhibiting and showing off the wealth of the aristocracy of the time.

vetrina con gioielli etruschi ritrovati: collana, orecchini ed anelli

In particular, from the 8th century onwards, gold began to be worked to make fibule (the Latin name for brooch or buckle) and various personal ornaments such as jewellery, bracelets, earrings and necklaces.
However, prior to the Etruscans, evidence from the period shows that jewellery was made using the same techniques as those used for bronze (cold forging, casting, engraving, stamping and punching), and from this we can inevitably deduce that there were no specialised goldsmiths, but rather metal craftsmen who worked with different metals or alloys.

It was in fact in the so-called "orientalising age" (720-580 BC) that the Etruscans brought the technique of granulation to perfection through the creation of fine jewellery.
From a stylistic point of view, the protagonists were oriental motifs of Egyptian inspiration and later floral elements were also introduced. The technical virtuosity so exalted together with the care taken over the microscopic decorations (obtained with micro soldering) characterise the Etruscan jewellery found more than the floral and ornamental shapes and motifs.

Pair of rediscovered Etruscan earrings

This obsession with extreme refinement in jewellery making was possible for two main reasons: an important demand for prestigious jewellery and artefacts to be traded on the maritime market, not only for the raw material itself, but for the goldsmithing techniques that the Etruscans developed in the best possible environment, i.e. within specialised workshops, probably genuine guilds of crafts.

This cup, found in the tomb of Bernardini di Preneste, bears witness to the existence of guilds (understood as a grouping of professionals in the sector) thanks to the following engraving: "belonging to (the group/corporation of) foundrymen".

A gilded silver 'Phoenician' cup with depictions of bulls and horses. It dates back to the end of the 8th century and was found in the Bernardini Tomb.

Etruscan goldsmithing: techniques and tools

The techniques that characterised Etruscan goldsmithing were essentially based on the use of two main tools: foils and wires.
First of all, the gold foils, up to a tenth of a millimetre thick, were made using a long and minute hammering process. The very thin wires were obtained by twisting and compressing a rigid plane, such as marble, and a thin strip of sheet metal.
In turn, these threads, using the technique of interweaving, were further worked to obtain the main elements of the filigree, which were then fixed on another material, which was also precious.

From the 4th century onwards, the technique of knurling was born, which consists of rolling the thickest threads (about 1 millimetre) by pressing them perpendicularly with a blade at one or more longitudinal grooves, thus giving rise to a series of engravings of both linear and perpendicular types.

Etruscan gold earring

The moulding technique

They used the foil to print the most detailed decorations that characterise all the Etruscan jewellery found. This technique, known as stamping, was aimed at enhancing the shape and volume of the gold by using the smallest possible amount, thus saving money. In fact, it involved beating the punches from the decorated heads on material that was not too rigid (such as pitch or lead) and the stamped figure, once cut out, was soldered onto the jewel.

A variant of this technique was also practised, which consisted of using blocks of bronze or stone with negative representations on one side, so that when the gold foil was pressed on top, it showed the positive sign of gold.

The granulation

Granulation is the most complex and fascinating technique that characterises Etruscan goldsmithing. It consists of soldering micro-granules of gold (small spheres) onto the foil, preferably gold, shaped according to the decoration desired for the jewel.

rediscovered Etruscan gold earring made using the granulation technique

Hard Brazing

The brazing technique was used in two cases: when the joint had to withstand high stresses, or when the very high temperature required for welding was very risky.

💡 Did you know? In Tartessian goldsmithing ("Tartessian cultural area", currently south of Spain) brazing was also used for granulation but this never reached the elegance and perfection of Etruscan art.

Autogenous welding

Another important soldering technique is autogenous soldering, which is used to solder smaller rings together to form chains.

precious Etruscan gold pendant
By Roberta Gennuso
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