Renaissance’s Goldsmiths: From Ghiberti to Da Vinci

What do Renaissance masters like Da Vinci, Brunelleschi, Ghiberti, Donatello and Gozzoli have in common? What ‘unpleasant start’ did they all have? The answer comes from Brunelleschi’s Dome by Ross King:

“Goldsmiths were the princes among the artisans of the Middle Ages, with a large scope to explore their numerous and varied talents. They could decorate a manuscript with gold leaf, set precious stones, cast metals, work with enamel, engrave silver, and fashion anything from a gold button to a shrine, reliquary, or tomb. It is no coincidence that the sculptors Andrea Orcagna, Luca della Robbia and Donatello, as well as the painters Paolo Uccello, Andrea del Verrocchio, Leonardo da Vinci, and Benozzo Gozzoli had all originally trained in the workshops of goldsmiths.

Despite its prestige, goldsmithing was not the most welcome of professions. The large furnaces that were needed to melt gold, copper and bronze had to burn for days on end, even in the heat of summer, polluting the air with smoke and bringing the danger of explosions and fire. Noxious substances such as sulfur and lead were used to engrave silver, and the clay molds in which metals were cast require supplies of both cow dung and charred ox horn. Worse still, the workshops of most goldsmiths were found in Florence’s most notorious slum, Santa Croce, a marshy and flood-prone area on the north bank of the Arno. This was the workers’ district, home to dyers, wool combers, and prostitutes, all of whom lived and worked in a clutter of ramshackle wooden houses.”

Bornze Panel by Ghiberti

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