A Revival of the Revivalists

One of the distinguishing characteristics of the 19th century was a reverence for the past. This was the age of the Grand Tour, when the popular imagination was sparked by visions of antiquity, the Middle Ages, and the Renaissance as the refined upper classes returned home bursting with information and purchases from their trips abroad. In Italy, ancient gold Etruscan jewelry was turning up in excavations, and society women were captivated by its beauty. Roman jeweler and art dealer Fortunato Pio Castellani saw his opportunity and swiftly presented the public with an easy alternative to the ancient: contemporary, well-made jewelry in the classical style. Formerly a producer of jewelry in traditional French, English, or Swiss styles, Fortunato set about creating new pieces that replicated the designs of the early Italians and Greeks. The resulting jewelry was an immediate hit with both native Italians and European tourists.

Castellani jewelry is still prized by collectors. Many items exist in public and private collections around the world, but never before have a group of them been brought together in so comprehensive an exhibit as “The Castellani and Italian Archaeological Jewelry,” organized by and opening at New York’s Bard Graduate Center on Nov. 18.

For the exhibit, Castellani jewelry from both the National Etruscan Museum at Villa Giulia and the Capitoline Museums in Rome will travel—for the first time in history—outside of Italy. They will join items from the British Museum, the Louvre, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, and the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris, as well as important private collections. More than 250 pieces will be on view, showcasing the Castellani quest to replicate the past with pieces in the classical, Medieval, and Renaissance revival styles.

Hidden treasure. Fortunato Pio Castellani (1794-1865) opened his first jewelry workshop in Rome in 1814, but his fascination with antiquity did not develop until the 1830s. Through a high-society friend—Michaelangelo Caetani, the Duke of Sermoneta—he was invited to observe and comment on some jewels recently unearthed from a tomb in Cervetri, near Rome. The intricate, opulent items emerging from the ground fueled a desire in Fortunato to learn more about their creation—a quest for information that soon crossed generations of the Castellani family.

Fortunato had three sons and five daughters, but only two sons, Alessandro and Augusto, followed in his footsteps. Augusto (1829-1914) succeeded his father as director of the family firm in Rome, while Alessandro (1823-1883) had a more turbulent history. As a member of an election commission during the Roman Republic of 1849 and later implicated in a revolutionary plot, Alessandro was arrested, imprisoned, and later exiled from Italy when the Papal government regained power. He fled to France, where he opened a successful Castellani branch shop on the Champs-Elysées. He also was instrumental in establishing shops in London and Naples.

Augusto remained in Italy. He kept out of politics and maintained his position within the family firm while acquiring a reputation as a classical historian. He was appointed honorary director of the Museo Capitolino in Rome and wrote extensively, promoting antiquity as an inspiration for jewelry design. He also spent time grooming his son, Alfredo (1853-1930), to succeed him as director of the firm.

Alessandro also was known for his scholarly knowledge of antiquity. While in France he oversaw the sale of an important Italian collection of ancient jewels—including, among other items, an ornate Etruscan gold diadem dating to the third century B.C.—to the French government. Before the items were sold, however, the Castellani firm made reproductions of all the pieces in order to draw on them for future designs, as well as to further their own knowledge of ancient techniques.

Learning from the past. “It appears that the ancient goldsmiths were acquainted with and made use of chemical and mechanical agents which are unknown to us; they could separate and join particles of gold of such extreme minuteness as to be scarcely visible to the naked eye,” said Alessandro in his famous 1861 lecture “Antique Jewelry and its Revival.” The speech, originally given to the Archaeological Society in London in 1861, was privately printed in brochure form in both London and later in Philadelphia. JCK magazine—then The Jewelers’ Circular and Horological Review—also printed a version of it (from which these quotes were drawn) in 1878, two years after the Castellani firm’s American debut at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia.

In his lecture, Alessandro’s disdain for contemporary Italian craftsmanship comes through loud and clear: “Our labors ended with [the study of] the Italian Renaissance, as the goldsmith’s art has not since produced anything new deserving special attention,” he said. He tells of his family’s experiments in mimicking classical enamel and micromosaic pieces and focuses on their quest to determine the granulation technique of the Etruscans—how they studied, experimented, and consulted the writings of earlier masters such as Pliny and Benvenuto Cellini. He also notes their discovery of a small town in the Apennines, “far from every center of civilization,” where craftsman were still creating jewelry in the ancient Etruscan style. His family promptly hired some of those artisans and brought them to Rome.

Through a process of trial and error, the Castellani maintained a constant quest to regain the craftsmanship apparent in classical jewelry. “In imitating old Roman jewelry we found no difficulties, but that of the Etruscans and Greeks required much patient labor,” said Alessandro. “It is not long since we discovered (while examining an Etruscan ornament in our own collection through a magnifying glass) that the spots from which the granulated work had been broken off presented the same appearance as the gold surface previously covered by enamel. This discovery taught us a method of “granulating,” which modern goldsmiths had ’til then declared inimitable …”

Despite all their study and experimentation, the family never did discover how to achieve fusion-welding granulation without the use of solder. They did, however, create pieces of such exquisite workmanship that their work stood out from all other jewelers of the time—with the possible exception of fellow Revivalist jewelers Carlo Giuliano and his sons, Carlo and Arthur (see “Victorian Virtuosity,” JCK, August 2002, p. 84).

The exhibit at the Bard Graduate Center provides insight into the Castellani workshops, including tools, drawings, and period photographs as well as jewelry. Some ancient pieces are displayed alongside their Castellani counterparts, providing an opportunity to observe the results of the family’s technical experimentations in granulation and micromosaics.

The show will run in New York until Feb. 6, 2005. It then will move on to Rome’s National Etruscan Museum at Villa Giulia and will finish its tour at London’s Somerset House. A catalog will be available featuring extensive illustrations and essays by exhibit co-curators Susan Weber Soros and Stefanie Walker as well as international experts in the fields of Italian jewelry, archaeology, and the 19th century.

For more information on the exhibit, call (212) 501-3000, or visit www.bgc.bard.edu.