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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