by Roderick Conway Morris

| | | | | | | | | | | | |
G. Rustichelli
Ambivalent about working with gold, Annamaria Zanella uses more commonplace items for her creations.
A 2010 brooch called ''Queen of the Night'' included silver, copper, iron, niello, lapis lazuli powder and enamels.

Padua's goldsmiths: modern masters of form

By Roderick Conway Morris
PADUA, Italy 2 May 2008


In Renaissance Italy, geometry and mathematics became the mystical as well as the practical means of achieving perfection in art. In mid-20th-century Padua, a school of goldsmiths and jewelers adopted the same principles, developing over the following decades an international renown for the creation of important and original works, now featured in museum collections all over the world.

'Artistic Jewelry: Padua and Its Gold School,' a glittering exhibition of more than 500 pieces by 18 artists spanning more than 60 years, aims to present this highly distinctive, and distinguished, school of modern jewelry to a wider public. The initial venue is the lofty medieval hall of the Palazzo della Ragione, on the city's central market square. The show will continue here until Aug. 3, before traveling to Munich and other cities.

The founder of the Padua School was Mario Pinton. Born in Padua in 1919, he studied at a local art school, the Istituto Statale d'Arte Pietro Selvatico. He completed his goldsmith's training in Venice and went on to broaden his knowledge of art at several institutions, finally graduating in sculpture from the Brera Academy in Milan in 1944.

In the same year he returned to Padua to take up teaching at the 'Selvatico.' The institute had been established in 1867 by an aristocratic Venetian architect and art critic, the Marquis Pietro Selvatico. Unusually for a vocational school, Selvatico put great emphasis on broadening the intellectual curriculum beyond the handling of materials. The school was less directly linked to industry than many craft institutes and Pinton, deeply sympathetic to Selvatico's vision, encouraged students to exercise their individuality by creating single pieces of art jewelry, rather than doing designs for serial production.

When Pinton returned in 1944, the institute had no separate gold-working section, but his innovations in teaching led to the establishment of what was later to be called the 'Metalwork and Jewelry' department. For Pinton, jewelry was a form of sculpture, albeit on a small scale, and an understanding of geometry was fundamental to its design. At the same time, his own pieces were informed by his profound knowledge of ancient jewelry and that of other non-European cultures and his appreciation of contemporary art.

While many schools of contemporary jewelry were abandoning the use of gold, Pinton and his followers treated it as their primary material. Only when the working of gold had been thoroughly mastered were other elements investigated.

But if the primary material was thoroughly traditional, the way it was worked was experimental and daring.

'Gold is highlighted with gracefulness and subtlety, or even hidden, masked, concealed, contrasted,' said Mirella Cisotto Nalon, the show's curator, in the catalogue's introductory essay. 'It is oxidized, rendered opaque, scratched, corroded, covered, appears in light surfaces or more solid and compact ones; it becomes background, plot, texture, wave, line or pure geometry.'

Several of Pinton's graduates have become inspirational teachers at the school, prominent among them Francesco Pavan, born in 1937, who now heads the gold-work department, and Giampaolo Babetto, born a decade later.

Pavan's work is notable for the inventive use of cubes, cones and circles, sometimes in contrasting combinations. Babetto, who has attracted a wide international following, swings between geometrical, anti-geometrical - confections of tangled wire - and figurative styles.

Babetto is especially inspired by certain Renaissance artists, producing, for example, figurative brooches based on a 'Deposition of Christ' by the 16th-century mannerist painter Jacopo da Pontormo. His palette includes antique pigments, notably the rich blues, reds and greens of Italian old master painters. He also designs furniture.

Another teacher and leading practitioner, although not himself a graduate of the school, is Renzo Pasquale, who studied biology at Padua University before turning to jewelry. Pasquale investigates the possibilities of transparent materials, such as rock crystal and Plexiglas, and creates classic pieces in fascinating combinations - bracelets, for example, made of gold and black African granite.

Teaching, too, at the Selvatico, since 1976, is Graziano Visintin, born in 1954. His jewelry, which in some ways represents a return to the pure geometrical principles of the school, has an extraordinary lightness of touch and subtlety in the handling of the gold and in the minimal but telling use of other materials, such as enamels, ebony, onyx and niello - a black alloy of sulfur, silver and copper, which the ancient Egyptians are credited with inventing.

Some of the most unexpected and striking works in the show are by Diego Piazza. His creations in gold, silver, copper, iron, ebony, niello, rock crystal and Plexiglas include full-scale geometrical sculptures from which could be detached pieces of wearable jewelry, like rings and earrings. Piazza taught at the school before his premature death, at age 45, in 1995.

While the school is rooted in formal and technical rigor, its training can accommodate, and even encourage, creative rebellion.

Among its younger stars, Annamaria Zanella, born in 1966, uses gold only sparingly, favoring base metals like iron and steel, found materials and waste - for example, curled steel lathe shavings. Although Zanella has reverted to geometry in some of her recent pieces, one of her most famous, autobiographical, works is a 1993 ring set with shards of glass from the windscreen of her own car, shattered in an accident.

It is more a miniature sculpture than a wearable accessory. Zanella says she made it to confront and contain the shock of the crash.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023