The Renaissance period is often considered to bridge the gap between the middle ages and modern history. Spanning the centuries between 1300 and 1700 it encompassed many different artistic trends; it saw the demise of the medieval Gothic and the initiation of the Baroque and finally the Rococo. Because of this, it is difficult to pinpoint a specific ‘Renaissance style’- we’re dealing with a long stretch of history after all. We can trace the origins of Renaissance history back to Florence, Italy in the 14th century; it would go on to spread throughout northern Italy and, in turn, the rest of Europe. During this time, Florence was under the influence of the affluent Medici family and had recently been populated by an influx of Greek scholars who had fled to Italy after the fall of Constantinople (now Istanbul). This meant two things for the city: financial wealth and cultural wealth.
In French, Renaissance translates as "rebirth” and the way we define the term in English is "a revival of or renewed interest in something”. This concept is reflected strongly in Renaissance art. The influential Greek scholars and the texts they brought to Italy led to a reconsideration of the ‘classics’. Art, literature and architecture all looked upon ancient civilisations and their mythologies for inspiration.
Humanism and the study of classical antiquity reigned strong and we can blatantly see how the Renaissance thinking stemmed directly from Greek philosophy. The works of philosophers such as Pythagoras became highly influential, particularly through the rediscovered appreciation of realistic linear perspectives and the overlap of science and the arts. This is most famously illustrated by the works of Leonardo Da Vinci, who created art in a specific scientific manner (see his "Vitruvian Man” pictured right).
Perhaps the most evident features of Renaissance architecture, painting and craft were realism and naturalism. Subjects of art were often sourced in everyday life and there was a huge emphasis on realistic representation. For example, there was development of perspective in oil paintings and the artistic study of light and shadows was of great importance. Human anatomy was studied in depth (again, see Da Vinci) and art worked hand in hand with science to deliver accurate representations of reality. This realism was also true when it came to natural imagery. As we can see even more clearly during the baroque period, nature and botanical motifs were a huge inspiration for painters, sculptors and craftsmen alike.
Of course, some styles during the Renaissance still strayed away from strict reality. Mannerism was popular during the late Renaissance; a style which focussed on exaggeration, featuring elongated limbs and lengthened necks in portraits. Due to the appreciation of classical antiquity furthermore, mythological motifs were highly popular. Some symbols which were popular during the medieval age often religious) still also retained their popularity. There has been much debate as to how to consider this period: was it really advancement or simply an extreme nostalgia for ancient civilisations? Either way, the Renaissance has provided us with some exceptional designs in art, jewellery and silver.
Similarly to other art from the Renaissance, jewellery was highly influenced by ancient Greek and Roman designs. It was difficult however, to directly replicate any of these designs as little jewellery had survived from these ancient civilisations. Therefore inspiration came largely from mythical imagery and the biblical imagery which hadn’t wavered in popularity throughout the middle ages. Not only was jewellery regarded highly for its aesthetic appeal during the Renaissance; it was also considered as portable wealth. Nobility regularly used jewellery to fund military campaigns, evidencing its vital importance within Renaissance society.
The art of jewellery making during the Renaissance was highly collaborative and there was a big overlap between 2D and 3D art forms. Again, it was a time when many elements of art and science seemed to influence each other. It was not uncommon for painters to have been originally trained as goldsmiths for example. This practice was initiated in order to help painters understand the importance of specific lines and attention to detail. This linked jewellery and painting intrinsically. Often, a piece of jewellery would be initially designed by a painter, crafted by a goldsmith, engraved by another specialist, and then set by someone else.
We are lucky enough to get an accurate insight into the techniques of the time thanks to Benvenuto Cellini's book 'The Treatises of Benvenuto Cellini on Goldsmithing and Sculpture' which outlines these practices during the Renaissance period. Popular techniques used by goldsmiths of the time included filigree work, enamelling, stone setting, foiling, diamond cutting, casting and gilding. Engraving was also used frequently and it was the technique that first made it possible to reproduce jewellery on a mass scale; painters would create an engraved design which could then be printed and replicated throughout Europe.
Gemstones were of great importance in Renaissance jewellery design, particularly adored were sapphires, rubies and emeralds. The 16th Century saw the biggest influx of gemstones into Europe due to new trade routes being established. The discovery of a route to India around the Cape of Good Hope meant that a direct link with India could be established and gemstones and diamonds became far easier to source. Other developments including the discovery of pearls in the Persian Gulf and the location of emerald deposits in Columbia led to the widest variety and availability of gemstones Europe had ever seen. Along with an increase gemstones came an upsurge in imitation jewellery- it just didn’t seem fair for colourful jewellery to be absolutely exclusive to the most elite classes. Imitation jewellery techniques included foiling and glass gems.
In addition to brightly coloured gemstones, diamonds became greatly popular. The favoured diamond cut of the early Renaissance was the table cut, which moved aside during the early 17th century for the rose cut.
As well as being highly aesthetic- featuring beautiful botanical motifs and mythological imagery- early Renaissance jewellery was often also utilitarian. It was common for items of jewellery to double up as something else, giving the item a dual purpose. Rings for example (which would adorn all five fingers), would sometimes contain hidden spaces under the bezel in which their wearer would hide scented materials. The purpose of these pleasantly scented rings was to mask the any disgusting smells that tended to linger during the Renaissance period (due to a lack of knowledge/ understanding of hygiene). On encountering a distasteful smell, the wearer would raise their ring finger up to their nose and inhale the pleasant smelling fumes instead.
Another item of jewellery that was used for a similar purpose was the pomander. Pomanders were small cages usually crafted in gold and ornamented with gemstones that were attached to a length of chain and used to hold perfumes, cloves, ambergris, or scented gum- again, their purpose was to ward off bad scents and keep their wearer nicely perfumed.
Another way in which jewellery was made useful during the Renaissance was by crafting pieces that featured compasses, clocks and even sundials. Even though watches as we know them today hadn’t yet been invented, portable timepieces originated around 1500. The timepieces were fashioned into pieces of jewellery, often pendants giving people a way to know the time on the go.
Overall, pendants were perhaps the most important type of Renaissance jewellery. As well as carrying clocks, they would also be used encase more personal things. Sometimes they would contain the initials of the wearer’s loved one; often they would also contain a depiction of a scene or a small bible reference (such as the initials ‘IHS ’, to signify Christ). Some pendants were actually considered so personal that they would be destroyed upon their wearer’s death. This sadly means that we have few remaining examples of renaissance pendants.
Jewells were also used to ornament bodices: they would feature aiguillettes, clasps, gold trinkets and clusters of stones or pearls. Lastly, the Renaissance also saw a return in popularity of earrings, which had all but disappeared during the middle ages. Renaissance earrings normally featured pear shaped pearls or simple jewels in the drop earring style. The designs grew slightly more complex as the Renaissance progress and (by the 17th century when we begin to see the evolution into the baroque style), they featured more geometric patterns and their length increased.
In terms of silver, the influence of the European Renaissance did not reach England until the 16th century. When it finally did, it was largely because of English interactions with German craftsmen. During this period there was an increase of shared ideas between nations; German, French, Italian and Dutch pattern books started to be circulated throughout Europe (influencing silver design in England and elsewhere). Henry VIII was also partially responsible for the increase in silversmiths and goldsmiths coming to England as he invested a lot of wealth in foreign plate. Silversmithing surged in popularity during the late Renaissance, sadly however, a relatively small amount has stood the test of time.
Jewellery wasn’t the only thing that served a dual purpose. Some silver, for example the Sutton Cup (made by Isaac Sutton in 1573) had multiple uses: as well as being a regular drinking vessel with decorative work and German influenced repousse sections, it was also believed to cloud upon contact with poison- a potentially lifesaving and aesthetically pleasing specimen.
The Liver Pot was another popular design of the Renaissance period. A secular item, they were used to replenish smaller vessels and consisted of a design that later evolved into the flagon. They closely resembled flagons in appearance and had a cylindrical form; often featuring German influenced flat chasing. Another secular item was the Deane Tazza, a stunning example of engraving work (typical of the Renaissance before embossing gradually became vogue) featuring the zigzag effect of wrigglework.
When it came to food and drink, salt was arguably the most important thing you’d find on the Renaissance table. Because of this, silver was crafted- both simply and extravagantly- to house salt. Standing salts featuring a circular or square outline and domed covers with finials were popular around the middle of the 16th century. Although smaller models proved more popular over a long stretch of time, larger, bell shaped Salts were in high demand from around the 1590s to the mid-1620s. For those who wished for a more extravagant way of transporting their salt we find Nefs. Nefs were ornaments designed to resemble ships. They were originally used for drinks, but soon evolved to become the impressive item that would transport salts and other condiments around a large dinner table.
Cups and beakers were also important features of Renaissance silverware. They would often be embossed or engraved to depict specific scenes (similarly to what we saw before with lockets). Popular scenes included depictions of biblical moments, mythological stories and hunting images. The bases of these cups would be ornamented without exception. Cups in the forms of animals were commonly found in Germany and Switzerland during the 16th and 17th centuries. Silversmiths would craft drinking vessels in the form of cocks, stags, bears, goats and squirrels to name a few. One notable and particularly quirky example was an owl drinking vessel whose head was crafted in silver with a coconut body.
A final notable drinking vessel was the Magdalen Cup. This was an early form of beaker which was heavily engraved. It was dubbed the 'Magdalen cup’ due to early paintings of Mary Magdalen who is often depicted holding a pot of ointment resembling this particular style of cup.
From utilitarian jewellery to unusual designs of silverware, the Renaissance period has given us a wealth of antiques. It is unfortunate how little has survived over the years, but we can still see influence of the Renaissance style on more recent antique and vintage items of jewellery and silverware- at least the techniques and styles have stood the test of time!
Andrew Campbell started trading in antiques during the 1970s. Initially, Andrew lived in the South of England, travelling the country, searching for items of silver to buy. Andrew sold these items at various London markets and antique fairs. Over time, and through selling at a range of venues, Andrew built up a large and diverse customer base from private buyers to national and international trade customers.