Venice was the wealthiest city and the principal port in Europe during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, and Florence was the leading artistic center of the time. Out of these city-states poured painters, architects, and sculptors, many of who began their study of art with the study of the craft of goldsmithing. The design skills learned through technical artistry served as a kind of apprenticeship that led them on to other more celebrated pursuits. It is from their paintings that we learn about the styles that were popular at the time and because they had sometimes made the jewelry they depicted, or were at least familiar with the way it was made, we have a very accurate record of what jewelry looked like in the Renaissance.
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Despite the changing of fads, it was not the desire to display one’s wealth that seems to have influenced early Renaissance jewelry; the gems and metals that were used were not always the most actually valuable. Rather, the desire for harmony and perfection of execution influenced styles. Every piece of jewelry was finished on its back and front. Many pieces involve realistic depictions of subjects carved into their gold settings, including human figures, real and imaginary animals, stories from classical mythology and occasionally sacred allegories. This is true of ensigns, which originated as identificatory badges worn on the hat, but which became entirely articles of adornment, bearing representations first of religious scenes and then of secular and even humorous subjects as well.
The Renaissance evolved from the fourteenth through the sixteenth centuries, and styles changed dramatically during these three hundred years. From Piero della Francesca’s paintings we glean many examples of one of the most popular styles of the fifteenth century: a head ornament that emphasizes the forehead by placing a single jewel at the top of the brow set into a ribbon or galloon. These head ornaments were known as ferronnieres. By the sixteenth century, these head ornaments disappeared and instead coiffures were adorned with ropes of pearls and sprinklings of jewels. Neck adornments evolved similarly: in the fifteenth century, we see single gems or small clusters hanging on a thread, but by the sixteenth century, the thread became a solid chain, and the light necklace became quite heavy.
Women wore hairpins – often called bodkins – that were richly decorated with stones. Queen Elizabeth received several such ornaments as New Year’s gifts: “A bodkyn of golde, garnished at the ende with four smale diamondes and a smale rubye, with a crown of ophales, and a very smale perle pendant peare fashone… a bodkin of golde, with a flower thearat, garnished with smale rubyes and ophals on one side,… a bodkinne of silver, with a little ostridg of gold, pendant, enammuled, and two waspes of golde lose enamuled.”