Italy’s Iron Crown

Iron Crown
Italy's Iron Crown

The tradition of Italian jewelry-making and of silver- and gold-smithing goes back centuries.  But most objects of silver and gold, whether made for aesthetic or utilitarian purposes, belonged to wealthy individuals, and their historical vicissitudes were not necessarily recorded for posterity.  Some institutional collections, however, such as royal treasures, have recorded histories that offer fascinating details on the historical fate of the jewels of which they were comprised.

Italy, as is well-known, was a kingdom until the end of the second World War, when the people opted, by plebiscite, for a republican form of government.  The House of Savoy was one of the oldest aristocratic houses in Europe, having ruled over shifting boundaries since the tenth century.  And of course there were the jewels of the Crown, which eventually became the official jewels of the Kingdom of Italy, to be used only on solemn state occasions.

The chief piece of the collection is undoubtedly the Iron Crown, which, for centuries, has been kept in the Duomo di Monza.  This crown is of 8th century Longobard manufacture, and, according to tradition, it incorporates a circular insert made of metal from one of the nails from Christ’s cross.  The Iron Crown thus antedates the Savoy dynasty, and it is a symbol of the Kingdom of Italy quite apart from the historical vicissitudes of which dynasty happened to rule the country.  It was used, in fact, to crown the German kings of Italy in the Middle Ages, the kings of the Napoleonic Kingdom of Italy, and the kings of the Lombardo-Veneto kingdom, but never a Savoy king.

The crown, despite its name, is made of a silver-gold alloy.  It is constructed in six segments joined vertically to each other.  Since the crown, in its present state, is too small to fit the head of a grown man, it is hypothesized that it was originally composed of EIGHT segments, two of which have somehow been lost.  The crown is adorned with 26 embossed golden roses, 22 precious stones of various colors, and 24 cloisonne’ plaques.

The historical value of the Iron Crown is inestimable.  The legend of the nail from the True Cross goes back to Empress Helena, mother of the emperor Constantine.  The crown itself was commissioned by Teodolinda, Queen of the Longobards, and it was used thereafter to crown the Kings of Italy, amongst which Theodoric, Charles the Great, and Frederick Barbarossa.

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Benvenuto Cellini – Italian Goldsmith

Cellini's "Saliera" in gold, enamel, and ivory
Cellini's "Saliera"

If one were to name a single Italian artist who most perfectly embodies the turbulence and the genius of late Renaissance Italy that artist would certainly be Benvenuto Cellini, unexcelled goldsmith, sculptor, painter, musician, but also a lawless murderer whose life was marked by violent conflict whenever his immoderate appetites were thwarted or his professional preeminence challenged. Benvenuto was also a successful military man, hailed as a hero at the Siege of Rome in 1527, rewarded by the Pope for his military prowess, and a distinguished participant in the conflict between his native city of Florence and its rival Siena. As if all this were not enough, Benvenuto was also the author of an acclaimed Autobiography, which is relentlessly self-promoting but magnificently captures the spirit of those restless times.

Benvenuto’s life is the stuff of film and legend. His travels spanned the great centers of Italian art, Florence, Rome, Naples, Venice. He was a friend of Popes and kings, spending several years at the court of Francis I of France, immersed in court intrigues and controversies. During his stay in Rome he murdered a couple out of jealousy, because he was in love with the MAN. He was for a period jailed in Castel Sant’Angelo, from which he tried to escape in the best tradition of a Dumas novel. He suffered both legs broken in the process, and was nearly executed but for the timely intercession of powerful friends.

But it is of course his art that has made him immortal, and of all the art forms in which he excelled his predilection was goldsmithing and the carving of intricately beautiful objects. Some of his most notable works are the Saliera (The Salt Cellar), carved in gold, ivory and enamel, pictured in this article. The Saliera itself has a checkered history: made for Francis I of France it eventually made its way to the Vienna Museum, from which it was stolen in 2006. Only recently was it recovered and restored to its former home in Austria.

Famous are also his gold medallions, among which we may mention “Leda and the Swan”, also in Vienna, “Hercules and the Nemean Lion”, in gold repousse’, and “Atlas supporting the Sphere”, in chased gold. An outstanding Cricifix carved in ivory is housed at the Escorial, outside Madrid. And his “Perseus with the Head of Medusa” is a magnificent example of his larger sculptures.

Cellini died in his native city, Florence, in 1571. Straddling the end of the Italian Renaissance and the birth of Mannerism, he was truly a figure of myth, incomparable artist, swashbuckling adventurer, at the mercy of strong passions, and an accomplished author.

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