Love Jewellery – Rome to Renaissance Pt 1

Amorini in a wallpainting in the Casa Vettii at Pompeii
Amorini in a wallpainting in the Casa Vettii at Pompeii
Amorini in a wallpainting in the Casa Vettii at Pompeii

Amorini, or cupids, in a wallpainting in the Casa Vettii at Pompeii

Evidence feelings of love and jewellery were associated in the ancient world can be found detailed in a fresco adorning the walls of the House of Vetti in the ruins of the city of Pompeii, Italy. It depicts a goldsmith’s workshop and a group of amorini, or cupids engaged in making jewelled ornaments, intended to wound a victim’s heart

Excavators found a variety of gem stones in one shop, some only partly cut along with the tools for working them. In one shop a note left by a visitor on that fateful day when the volcano Mt Vesuvius erupted in the year ‘79 saying. ‘I should like my jewel to be ready at three o’clock’.

Cupid blindfolding beauty

Cupid blindfolding beauty

An important aspect of every human society yet recorded is a belief gold and gemstones had an enormous effect on the affairs of many. This has not been limited to any age or culture and tokens of human affection have been treasured throughout the ages. If you bring gold and precious or semi precious stones together skilfully and make them symbolise romance and reflect true love then you have a ‘tour de force’, a triumph of Cupid’s D’art!

Roman fresco with banquet scene from the Casa dei Casti Amanti (IX 12, 6-8) in Pompeii.

Roman fresco with banquet scene from the Casa dei Casti Amanti (IX 12, 6-8) in Pompeii.

Pompeii was the place where the elite in Roman society went for a holiday and to enjoy the company of friends. A modern day Australian comparison would be Noosa on the Sunshine Coast. Jewellers had a ready market in Pompeii forming an active profession the Aurifes universi, which supported local candidates for political office.

The level of business was such that even very special gem cutters and engravers were drawn to the town and made a living there. When people today talk about gems and gemology the basic vocabulary seems to have become confused. So just for clarification.

Rubens-Venus-&-Adonis-WEBGemstones are minerals found in the earth and ‘Gems’ objects fashioned from them. Jewels are gems prepared for mounting in either jewellery or other objects of art.

Jewellery is the finished product that adorns the wearer.

‘Behold you are beautiful, my love…your rounded thighs are like jewels, the work of a master hand, your navel is a rounded bowl, that never lacks mixed wine…your two breasts are like two fawns, twins of a gazelle…your lips distil nectar, my bride, honey and milk are under your tongue…you have ravished my heart, my sister, my bride, you have ravished my heart with a glance of your eyes, with one jewel of your necklace…’ This rather erotic love language comes from the Old Testament of the Bible, an edited extract from the Song of Songs, which is Solomon’s.

Sensational Etruscan Jewellery courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art New York

Sensational Etruscan Jewellery courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art New York

According to that witty and erudite first century documenter of Roman times, author, naturalist and natural philosopher Pliny the Elder ‘People nowadays go to buy clothes in China, look for pearls in the depth of the Red Sea and emeralds in the bowels of the earth…moreover, the practice of piercing the ears has been invented. It did not suffice to wear jewels round the neck, in the hair and on the hands; they also have to be stuck in the body!’ 

Parian marble sculpture Aphrodidte, ancient Greek Goddess of Love

Parian marble sculpture Aphrodidte, ancient Greek Goddess of Love

In ancient Greek mythology Aphrodite, the Goddess of  love and desire rose naked from the foam of the sea.

Her divine duty was to make love and inspire others to do so. Love! I am sure that everyone has experienced that most frustrating, captivating, exquisite, infuriating, but enduring of all human emotions called love.

In an early manifestation as the familiar of Aphrodite you could describe Eros, the God of Love, perhaps as being bittersweet and Greek lyric poets and tragedians stressed his omnipotence and cruelty.

‘What thing is love for (well I wot) love is a thing, It is a prick; it is a sting, It is a pretty, pretty thing,

It is a fire; it is a coal, Whose flame creeps in every hole.’

As a companion of Venus in her Roman manifestation, known as Cupid he could be both young and beautiful. Cupids were widely used emblems of prosperity belonging to the worlds of both Venus and the God of Wine, Bacchus. As time progressed he turned into a rather chubby mischievous little boy.

Venus and Cupid by Cranch

A well-known painting of him with Venus 1531 by Lucas Cranch depicts Cupid complaining to his mother Venus. He is suffering loudly from bee stings – a warning of the pain, which so often accompanies the pleasure of love.

The history of ancient Italy does not just reside with the Romans. Long before Rome became the centre of a Roman Empire, Rome was but a town on the coastal plain tucked between the Latin tribes in the hills to the east and south, with in the north, the mysterious and very colourful people known as the Etruscans. They ruled the lands of Etruria, broadly corresponding to the modern region we now know as Tuscany.

The people called themselves Rasenna, it was the Romans that gave them the name Etruscan (Etrusci or Tusci) and the Greeks called them Tyrsenoi, rendered in English as Tyrrhenians, the name of the sea to the west of the Italian Peninsula. They had a reputation in the ancient world as  consumers of good things and were particularly famous as jewellers.

Etruscan Grape Cluster Earring V & A Museum at London

Etruscan Grape Cluster Earring V & A Museum at London

They crafted gold and silver jewellery and engraved gems, which they traded all around the Mediterranean world.

Etruscan goldsmiths produced objects technically very difficult to make. Etruscan grape-cluster earrings of the 4th century before Christ are often shown worn by women on Etruscan terracotta statues and tomb paintings.

Some terracotta heads show they were very large and nestled behind the curls of the wearer,  tucked into the side of the neck.

Shaped from thin sheet gold clusters of gold globules they were attached and the whole decorated with filigree – attached gold wire – and granulation.

The technique of granulation developed by Etruscan goldsmiths was brought to an extraordinary standard of perfection and was often extremely fine. It reached its height at Etruria in the seventh and sixth centuries before Christ and has never been surpassed.

Etruscan-JewelleryIt was necessary to produce first tiny pellets of gold, then using a copper solution mixed with vegetable or fish glue diluted with water, the pellets were then applied in selected patterns onto the object. As copper has a lower melting point than gold, the copper, when heated, joined the pellets to the background.

In this way fusion of the pellets and background was prevented and the granular effect was not lost.

Young Woman Mummy Portrait from Fayum

Young Woman Mummy Portrait from Fayum

1st Century Roman Woman wearing an outstanding collection of Jewellery

1st Century Roman Woman wearing an outstanding collection of Jewellery

Granulation is often combined with filigree, which was the application of gold wire to the surface.

Mummification continued to be practised during the Roman period after the year 30 BC in Egypt. Painted mummy portraits like our young lady reveal their jewellery preferences.

She is wearing a stunning brooch, with complementary earrings and hair jewel. These paintings are among the most remarkable historical and cultural documents of outstanding interest found in the cemeteries of the Fayum district of Egypt by archaeologist Sir Flinders Petrie (1853–1942)

Our second portrait was also excavated by Petrie who dubbed her as his Jewellery Girl.  ‘In the top of her bun is a pin set with pearls and garnets. The bun is gathered with a gold chain with a central medallion and decorated gold boxes at either side. Above these a long pin is worn across the back of the head.

She has four necklaces, the uppermost matching the pin in the bun with pale stones, perhaps aquamarine in gold settings between small pearls and garnets. Beneath is a necklace of squared emeralds separated by gold beads, and below that a chain of gold beads with a gold pendant. Hanging low on her breast is a plated gold chain with a large oval stone, perhaps an emerald intaglio in a heavy gold setting. 

She is also wearing trident earrings with a central pearl set above the bar and three pendant pearls.  Pearls were highly prized, the most valuable usually imported from the Red Sea could fetch exorbitant prices. Drop earrings consisting of two or more pearls were called crotalia, by analogy with the tinkling sound of the simple percussion instruments played at that time called crotali’.

Roman necklace made of gold and carnelian stone. This necklace is a pastiche. The carnelian beads are ancient and strung on modern gold links. The lion-head finials comprising the hook and eye clasp are reused from Greek earrings. The child's head boldly carved in a carnelian stone is set in a gold setting, which may or may not be ancient - source Wikepedia

Roman necklace made of gold and carnelian stone. This necklace is a pastiche. The carnelian beads are ancient and strung on modern gold links. The lion-head finials comprising the hook and eye clasp are reused from Greek earrings. The child’s head boldly carved in a carnelian stone is set in a gold setting, which may or may not be ancient – source Wikepedia

What archaeologists call true Roman jewellery was first made in the first century BCE. Any Greek or Roman travelling through the Medietrranean area at that time would have been confronted by a cultural mosaic composing elements from many different periods.

The preference in the first century was for colourful, though not very elaborate pieces and pearls, gems and glass paste contrasted with the bright yellow gold to produce jewels of great effect and ostentation, beloved by the nouveaux riche.

Women during Roman times wore a great deal of ancestral jewellery handed down, so dating them stylistically from mummy boards doesn’t always work for some scholars.

As the Roman Empire collapsed between the fourth and sixth centuries after Christ fragments of precious jewels were preserved and today collecting them has become a favourite pastime for many.


Roman garnet intaglio, c. 1st century AD, engraved with a nude Apollo, his right arm raised holding a bow, his left arm reaching for an arrow from his quiver, a wreath in his hair, in a classic 22ct gold setting. Anne Schofield Antiques, Sydney

Fragment of a 1st Century Cameo

Fragment of a 1st Century Cameo

Two of the most favoured jewels in ancient society was an Intaglio,  that of an image created by cutting, carving or engraving into a flat surface and the Cameo, where the image is what is left when the background has been cut away to leave the image above the back ground.

The measure of a cameo of great quality is the depth of its carving.

The Ancient Cultural mosaic was shattered between the fourth and sixth centuries AD as the borders of the Roman Empire collapsed and today fragmens of the Greek , Etruscan and Roman cultural mosaic are spread throughout the world.

The Lady and the Unicorn (La Dame a la Licorne) is the collective title for six tapestry panels, hung originally in the Castle of Boussac and now in the Museum of the Middle Ages (Museé de Moyen Age) at Paris.

Lady-&-Unicorn-DesireThe colours of the clothes, flowers (mille fleurs) and jewellery were rendered in wool and provide a superb documentary record of the style of costume worn in fourteenth century Europe.


Henry VIII in a typical power pose

Costume encompasses all that we wear, including objects for personal adornment such as jewellery, hats, gloves, shoes, accessories and undergarments. All these various aspects of costume have an interesting history and reflect our social growth.

They also project our beliefs both religious and spiritual, while aesthetically convey an image purely for purposes of personal status or, to accommodate a desire to be distinguished from others in a culture and its society.

As the feudal system, that had been in place throughout the middle ages disintegrated a burgeoning of luxury in the royal and princely courts of Europe and England began.

At this level costume is subjected to politics; the preening extravagances of exotic charismatic emperors, princes, potentates or dictators was from antiquity right through until today. The Tudor monarchs of England perceived visitors to the court equated lavish display with national strength and power.

No other period in history was to give men more precious adornments to project their human beauty and status and Henry VIII (1491-1547) just loved flamboyant display,  which is apparent in all familiar depictions of him.


19th century reproduction Renaissance Hat Badge by Castellani courtesy V & A Museum London

His chest measured 45 inches in his youth and he wore lavish clothes on which jewels were abundantly applied. By 1540 Henry’s chest had grown to 58 inches and was a perfect display area. (Who would have needed a jewellery shop with a client like Henry. He is a display case in himself). He strove to keep, forgive the pun, abreast of all the latest developments in the arts.

When viewing his portraits however, we would have to believe that his elaborate codpiece protected, what he more than likely would have considered, after having had six wives, his most precious jewels of all. At this time aesthetic and ethical ideas could not be considered a mere imitation of the classical world.

It was believed that if the ancients were to be revered and admired at all it was because they were thought to have found their wisdom and art at the same source as that of knowledge and beauty. This was an ideal Henry VIII turned to in his quest for a new life.

Hat EnseigneOne of the most popular adornments he wore was called an Enseigne (hat badge). Made of gold and jewels and worn on the hat or cap of men of prominence, their design was mainly allegorical accompanied by an explanatory motto. These devices, as they became known,  led to a delight in anything ingenious or unusual even if it had no secret meaning.


15c Italian Gold Signet Ring

Artists rendering them in many mediums chose the better known mythology of the ancient world and as a result,  their works were rich in amatory illusion. The intent of any device was to teach an intuitive form of moral truth.

Their real charm however lay in the fact it was only those who could read their visual message that knew their real significance so if you particularly want to understand jewellery design of this period you need to be well versed in your mythology and legend.

The Venetian ambassador to his court described Henry VIII’s fingers as ‘one mass of jewelled rings’. Rings on the finger, and indeed on other parts of one’s person, have been worn continuously since the 3rd Millennium BCE by all civilisations. The ring, being a circle, has no beginning or end so perfectly represents the enduring qualities of true love.

rings & ThingsA diamond inset into a marriage ring was, by the fifteenth century, a symbol of conjugal faithfulness because of its resistance to fire and steel. It was also used in its natural crystalline structure and set, although it did not sparkle like today’s highly polished jewels. Its hardness however was admired and it came to symbolise the durability of marriage and an important aspect of the ritual surrounding weddings.

Jane Seymour by Holbein

Jane Seymour by Holbein

Anne of Cleves when she married Henry VIII had a very optimistic inscription on her wedding ring: ‘God send me well to kepe’.

Henry encouraged foreign artisans to England. In 1526 German painter Hans Holbein the Younger arrived and by 1536 had become the King’s painter. As well as rendering series of portraits of eminent people of his era Holbein embraced jewellery and metal design, books illustration and decorative schemes.

Early eighteenth century British physician, naturalist and collector Sir Hans Sloane bequeathed 179 of Holbein’s jewellery designs to the British Museum and they provide a fascinating study.

Jane Seymour, who gave Henry his long awaited son and heir, was painted by Holbein wearing some wonderful jewellery given in love by Henry to her. Her selection includes a popular form of pendant made of a large emerald, emblematic of love, together with a ravishing ruby, representing his passion.

Stunning emerald and table cut diamond ring set in gold and made in England 1685-1701 courtesy V & A at London

Stunning emerald and table cut diamond ring set in gold and made in England 1685-1701 courtesy V & A at London

The sixteenth centuries luxurious materials, rich heavy stuffs, thick embroideries, sumptuous silks and velvets, as well as fragile lace, provided perfect settings for, or enhanced the wearing of, superb jewellery. Henry’s daughter Elizabeth imagined that people ‘would be diverted by the glitter of her jewels from noticing the decay of her own personal attractions’.

Coronation Portrait Elizabeth 1

Coronation Portrait Elizabeth 1

For many it was far more important to have seen Queen Elizabeth 1 (1558 – 1603) in person than to have seen England.

At her coronation, which took place on a crisp winter morning with just a hint of snow in the air, ‘she wore her hair as her mother had done, unbraided… hanging loosely about her shoulders’ symbolic of her unmarried state.

The congregation in Westminster Abbey went wild with enthusiasm.

She was clothed in a gown made from one of the extraordinary textiles of the time, known as the cloth of gold, holding a bejewelled orb and sceptre her hands as well as the objects being symbols of her authority . Her gown was trimmed with ermine, symbolic of her purity as a Virgin Queen as were the pearls in her crown.

Elizabeth 1 was given a great deal of jewellery as a ‘love gift’, however none more acceptable to her than that from her favourite the Earl of Leicester given in both love and friendship.

Elizabeth 1

Elizabeth 1

She was well aware of what image and marketing, supposed modern concepts, were all about, and she revelled in the business of courtship, a game at which she excelled.

It is evident, from all the writings about her Elizabeth loved the rich gifts of jewels showered upon her as well as the flattery and protestations of the various envoys all striving to outdo each other for her favour.

Baron Zdenek Waldstein of Moravia visited England in the summer of 1600 and prayed for nothing so much as that he ‘might come face to face into the presence of your majesty…the greatest object of my journey ‘the figure of the Queen’ glittering with the glory of majesty and adorned with jewellery and precious gems’.

Erik XIV of Sweden declared he would ‘rush through armies of foes to protect her’ and had a superb portrait of her painted for his personal pleasure.

In it, sewn to her very chic red coat and hat are clusters of gems and pearls and the sleeves of the jacket are encrusted with pearls all the way up to the elbows.

Sir Francis Bacon recorded that Elizabeth imagined people … ‘would be diverted by the glitter of her jewels from noticing the decay of her personal attractions’…and surviving contemporary portraits reveal the extent of her ability to influence people’s perceptions of her.

Bia de Medici (Uffizi, Florence)

Artists and artisans of the Renaissance in Italy took full possession of their classical heritage and it inspired them toward new creative endeavours.

The House of Medici was a new type of patron. This prominent banking family was very passionate about the antique and it had the wealth to patronise artists with great creative gifts.

The remaining Treasures of the Medici, although plundered over the centuries were a triumph of the jeweller’s art and for as long as the duchy lasted the creation of beautiful objets d’art was a focus and boast of the Medici Court.

During the Middle Ages Venus had come to represent fear of nudity, luxuria, or sensuality, as well as paganism. During Europe’s rebirth she returned to her original role as universal mother and creator of all living things.


Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) painted her as a contemporary lady and placed her before a mirror, a symbol of truth (it does not lie), which reflects pride (Satan’s image), as well as the two dangers of vanity and lust. She is a truly luscious lady who is wearing, well nothing at all really except two pearl earrings and a bracelet. The earrings, one of which is black the other white are reflected in the mirror and represent the two sides of human nature, which can also be polar opposites, like light and dark.

Her stunning gold bracelet is decorated with arrows. This is a sign Cupid, now reduced to a winged youth or chubby infant flying about on golden wings randomly shooting arrows to make his targets fall in love, or setting their hearts on fire with his torch, has been around endeavouring to use the power of love to disarm her strength… continued…

Love Jewellery – Restoration to Revolution Pt 2

Love Jewellery – Regency to Revival Pt 3

Love Jewellery – Romantics to Retro Pt 4

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2010 – 2014, 2017

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