JEWELRY: Granulation and Filigree

Many aspects of the Etruscan civilization remain a mystery, because so much of it was ignored by the Romans and purposely destroyed by Christians. Part of the lost knowledge concerns the origin of Etruscan jewelry technologies and, particularly, of how the Etruscans attained the extremely fine granulation and filigree that characterizes much of Etruscan gold work. These techniques already existed, in more primitive forms, in other Mediterranean areas before they "suddenly" appear in Etruscan jewelry.

It is most often conjectured that Syro-Phoenician* jewelers settled in southern Etruria, perhaps at Tarquinia and Cerveteri, and taught local apprentices the intricacies of gold granulation and filigree (decoration with fine spiral gold and silver wire). Granulation -- the art of decorating smooth surfaces of gold jewelry with patterns composed of minute granules of gold -- is first recorded in Mesopotamia in the third millennium BC and work of later date has been found in Anatolia, Syria, Egypt, Cyprus, and Mycenaean Greece. The collapse of the Bronze Age civilization in the Aegean brought with it the disappearance of such sophisticated arts in Greece, but they survived in the Near East and from there were reintroduced to Greece in the ninth century and transferred to Italy during the second half of the eighth.

With these techniques new decorative motifs also began to appear in Etruscan jewelry. Syro-Phoenician sacred emblems, such as the solar disc and the half moon, were incorporated into the traditional geometric repertoire, but soon floral and figurative elements of oriental inspiration dominated. Older methods of stamping and incising designs into hammered gold and silver sheet continued in use, but jewelers in the service of aristocratic patrons began to use filigree and granulation to embellish precious-metal ornaments. Such decoration was applied, ever more exuberantly, to inherited forms, which had previously been worked in bronze, such as fibulae, hair spirals, pin-heads, beads, rings, bracelets, earrings, and large pectorals. The same artisans may have made the banqueting vessels of gold and silver that have been found in the princely tombs of Etruria and Lazio.

Cerveteri, Tarquinia, and Vetulonia appear to have been the main centers for the production of this exquisite jewelry.


*  Why Syro-Phoenician? What archeologists and ancient historians formerly identified as Phoenician is now (in this age of gratuitous political correctness) called Syro-Phoenician, a recognition of the broader base of Levantine culture, which Phoenician seafarers distributed around the Mediterranean and beyond. The conjecture that Etruscan granulation and filigree techniques arrived with the Phoenicians is based on the circumstance that the Phoenicians were the only folks with the knowledge of these techniques that are known to have been travelling around the area at the appropriate time.

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