by Roderick Conway Morris

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Jewels and Treasures from Friuli

By Roderick Conway Morris
CODROIPO 29 August 1992
Treasury of Duomo di Santa Maria Assunta, Cividale
Reliquary Bust of San Donato, c. 1374



Living at the crossroads of civilizations can be an artistically enriching but hazardous occupation. Repeatedly fought over, frequently laid to waste and incessantly ridden and marched over by foreign armies, Italy's north-east corner, the meeting point of the Latin, German and Slavic worlds, developed over the centuries a cultural blend unmistakably its own. An outstanding manifestation of this brew was the region's metalworking - as is revealed by a sumptuous exhibition Ori e Tesori (Jewels and Treasures), which lasts till 15 November.

The setting of the show, which is subtitled 'A Thousand Years of the Goldsmith's Art in Friuli-Venezia Giulia' (as the Region is now officially called), is the Villa Manin, the imposing and spacious country house of the eponymous last Doge of Venice. Mercifully distant from the urban and industrial encroachment that mars the surrounds of too many other villas in the Veneto and Friuli, Villa Manin at Passariano, just outside Codroipo, stands amidst a shady park and lush fields against the backdrop of the Carnic Alps.

Friuli's fertile plain, having been devastated in the 10th century by the Hungarians - to such an extent that almost all continuity with its Roman and Carolingian past were lost - underwent a dramatic revival under the German Patriarch Poppone, who rebuilt the ancient basilica at Aquilea and consecrated it in 1031. One of the first items in the show, a beautiful 11th-century gilded silver chalice, probably made in Cologne, crisply and expertly engraved with figures and lettering, testifies to the strong German influences on Friuli's artistic rebirth.

Meanwhile, the region's position on the shores of the northern Adriatic played its part, with very different religious artefacts - including superb metalwork, ivory portraits and bas-reliefs, represented by admirable pieces here - arriving from Constantinople at a period when Byzantine art was experiencing a second Golden Age, following the defeat of Iconoclasm, which had rejected all figurative imagery. Friulian eclecticism was in due course further fuelled by the arrival of works as diverse as Limoges enamels and Islamic bronzework.

By the 14th century artist-craftsmen throughout the area were making a wide range of products, using the full gamut of materials and techniques. This coincided with a time when popular fervour for the worship of saints' remains was giving rise to ever-increasing demand for suitable vessels and cases to contain the revered relics. Exquisitely-fashioned silver arms, hands, fingers, legs and feet proliferated. But the acme of the art form was reached in the life-sized busts made to encase holy skulls - some of which have all the expressiveness and presence of more conventional sculptures in stone and wood, and even predate by decades the work of better-known Renaissance masters. Particularly striking are the silver, gilded silver and enamel bust of San Donato of 1374, whose portraiture is astoundingly accomplished and sophisticated for its time, and two early 16th-century busts of San Sigismondo, very much in the High Renaissance classical style, and Santa Anastasia, which reflects contemporary views of early Christian purity and fortitude (she was a 4th-century martyr) and is at the same time a vigorously- executed tribute to Italian womanhood.

Advances in the working of rock crystal and the making of glass also encouraged the manufacture of free-standing reliquaries to display smaller sacred remains: fantastic gothic architectural extravaganzas in miniature, with spires, pinnacles, gables, pillars, sloping roofs and niches for tiny statues, congregations of saints, martyrs and angelic choirs. The local master of these was Nicolo Lionello, who worked in the first half of the 15th century, and who, as well as being a goldsmith, was employed by the city of Udine (Friuli's capital) as an hydraulic engineer and as the architect of its handsome Municipal Loggia.

Later sections of this large but unfailingly interesting show deal with the sacred treasures of the Jewish, Greek and Serbian Orthodox communities, which built grandiose synagogues and churches in Trieste when the port rose to prominence as the Habsburg Empire's Mediterranean entrepot during the last century.

The growing affluence of Trieste and the region in general created a lively market for decorative jewelry for people of all classes, from ship-owners to peasants. Most prominent of the new-style secular jewelers was the Slavic Janesich family, who at one time enhanced the glitter of many a crowned and uncrowned head of Europe, and by the 1920s had shops in Paris, Monte Carlo, Deauville and Vichy.

Finally is an extraordinary set of finely-finished wrought-iron jewelry of the kind that, having started life as a somewhat ostentatious austerity measure in Berlin during the Napoleonic Wars, enjoyed a brief rage among the well-heeled all over Europe.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024