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Luxuries that cost human life? Pearls in Early Modern Italy

Early modern visitors to the Rialto market in Venice report a dazzling abundance of goods for sale. As the Englishman Fynes Moryson describes in his travel account, Itinerary (1617): ‘The goldsmiths shoppes lie thereby, and over against them the shoppes of the Jewellers, in which Art the Venetians are excellent’ (191).He and others were surely tempted as they passed by their glittering displays.

Petrus Christus, A Goldsmith in his Shop, 1449. Oil on oak panel, 100.1 x 85.8 cm. Metropolitan Museum, New York.

Most of these precious materials came to Venice from across Europe and the wider world. Some goldsmiths and jewellers emphasised the foreign and mysterious origins of gemstones, perhaps as a marketing tool. Rimondo Rimondi operated his shop ‘under the sign of the Turk’ in the neighbourhood of San Severo to the east of the Rialto district. Here customers could purchase Bohemian garnets, Baltic amber and white sapphires from India.[1]

We don’t know what Rimondi’s sign looked like, but ‘Turks’, men from the Ottoman Empire, were often represented with turbans like that worn by the Sultan Mehmet II in this portrait. Gentile Bellini, The Sultan Mehmet II, 1480. Oil on canvas, possibly transferred from wood, 69.9 x 52.1cm. The National Gallery, London.

Rimondi’s competitors also offered gems, precious metals and semi-precious stones from around the world. Benetto Bellotto, who had a shop near the Rialto bridge under the sign of the Magdalen, sold bracelets ‘in the Turkish style’, Scottish pearls and assembled gems called doublets (doppie) from Spain.[2] In Alvise Belliardi’s shop you could find diamonds, agate, lapis lazuli, turquoise and emeralds—all imported from afar—for sale. The goldsmith also had ‘two table-cut rubies and another cabochon ruby set in a gold ring in the Turkish style (ala Turcehscha)’. Finally, Belliardi also seems to have stored gems for friends or clients when they were away. He had, ‘in a box a string of seventy pearls, marked with a lead marker, said to belong to Abraham Turcho Granatino, who is in Constantinople’. [3]

Lapis lazuli is a semi-precious stone that was imported into Europe from what is now Afghanistan. It was used to make very expensive blue pigments as well as in jewellery. Portrait of Cosimo de’ Medici, c. 1567-9. Carved lapis lazuli, 5.5 x 4.7 cm. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

There was a definite air of exoticism around gemstones and jewels that added to their desirability and value. But behind the sparkling facade were dark secrets; these materials were often mined, fished or otherwise retrieved in ways that harmed human and animal life as well as the environment. And, the gems and jewels that came with ethical implications were worn not only by the wealthiest members of society, but those lower on the social hierarchy as well. The inventories gathered for the Refashioning the Renaissance project show that many artisans owned gemstones and other precious materials that were financially and environmentally costly.

This painting on copper shows an idealised and mythological take on the fishing of pearls and coral in the New World. Jacopo Zucchi, The Coral Fishers, 1585. Oil on copper, 55 x 45cm. Galleria Borghese, Rome.

Pearls in particular appear in great numbers in these documents especially in the form of necklaces and bracelets, and indeed pearls were coveted by people across early modern Europe. Until the end of the fifteenth century, most pearls came to Europe from the Persian Gulf, Red Sea and Gulf of Mannar, with freshwater pearls largely coming from Scotland. But, on his third voyage to the Americas in 1498, Christopher Columbus realised pearls could be fished off of the coast of what is now Venezuela, opening up a new and plentiful source for the European and Asian demand for pearls. Spanish-run pearl fisheries quickly depleted communities of indigenous divers, having enslaved and worked many of them to death. To feed the European market, and to fill Spanish coffers, enslaved men from the west coast of Africa were brought to the Americas to dive for pearls.[4]

Reports from Spanish missionaries and other Europeans detail the appalling treatment of the African and indigenous divers, both in terms of their living and working conditions. Bartolomé de Las Casas (c. 1474–1566), for instance, recorded in his Historia de las Indias (History of the Indies) that divers were beaten if they took too long fetching pearls from the sea floor. On these deep dives men risked being attacked by sharks and other marine predators, as well as drowning, haemorrhaging and blown ear drums. According to Las Casas, many died after only a few days of this work, and those who didn’t saw changes to their hair colour and burned wounds due to prolonged time in cold salt water.[5]

This detail of Theodor de Bry’s engraving shows pearl divers off of Cubagua, near what is today Venezuela. From Girolamo Benzoni’s Americae pars quarta (Frankfurt am Main: Ioannis Feyrabend, 1594), plate XII.

In addition to taking human lives, pearl diving also killed an enormous number of animals. Pearls are found in about one in 10 000 oysters and it’s estimated that over the most lucrative thirty years of fishing off of the coast of the island of Cubagua alone, 1.2 billion oysters were harvested.[6] Their shells were pried open, pearls removed and the remains tossed on the beach; some contemporaries wrote about the incredible stench from the discarded oysters and all the flies this attracted – a far cry from even the smelliest of canals in Venice, where many pearls ended up in workshops like Rimondo Rimondi’s.[7]

In addition to the loss of human and animal lives, pearl fishing also devastated the local environment. Harvesting tens of thousands of oysters over a fishing season drastically altered the marine ecosystem. Some entrepreneurs also proposed dredging the sea bed to more quickly collect oysters, though this was not often practiced in the Americas due to the damage it caused, which prevented recovery of the oyster beds over time.[8]

The large, drop-shaped pendant pearl on this necklace is so famous it has a name: Le Peregrina, The Wanderer. It came into the possession of the Spanish crown having been fished from waters off of Panama in 1579. It passed through the hands of Napoleon’s elder brother, Joseph, and eventually Elizabeth Taylor. In 2011 it was sold at auction as part of this necklace for 11,842,500 USD!

Pearls from the Americas flooded the European market in waves beginning in the early sixteenth century. And, the Portuguese gained control of pearl fisheries in Indian Ocean and Gulf in 1507, which meant more pearls than ever were coming directly into Europe.[9] This abundance drove prices down, making pearls more affordable, even if they were never cheap. One contemporary noted: ‘Now everyone wears pearls and seed pearls, men and women, rich and poor’. This observer pondered whether pearls were so popular, ‘because they are brought from another world […] or perhaps it is because they cost the lives of men.’[10]

Pearls certainly carried with them reminders of the sea and maritime power, even for those who would never visit the waters from which they came. For example, a stone-cutter in Siena had a pair of little gold pendants with ships and six little baroque pearls in 1646.[11] These may have been similar to the pendants owned by a weaver, also from Siena, who had, ‘a pair of little pair of ship-shaped pendants with six pearls each and six more little pearls with a red stone in the middle’, in 1640.[12] There are several examples of these kinds of pendants in the Refashioning documents and in museum collections today, suggesting they were quite popular.

Pendant in the form of a ship, 16th century, possibly Italian. Enameled gold and pearls, 16 grams. Musée du Louvre, Paris.

But, if ship pendants decorated with pearls made reference to the sea, maritime power and increasing European dominance over other continents, they elided the death and destruction that came in the wake of pearl fishing. This made it easier for consumers to ignore or remain ignorant about from where their pearls came and at what cost. Similarly, today’s pearls hide their origins well. Natural pearls—those that occur and grow in wild oysters and mussels as they coat parasitic worm or other foreign bodies (but not sand) with nacre (also called mother of pearl)—are now very rare. Nearly all pearls on the market today are ‘cultured’ or grown inside of salt- or freshwater molluscs through human intervention. A young oyster or mussel is forced and propped open with a wooden wedge and a scalpel is used to make an incision in its reproductive organ. Then a nucleus—often a bead of pearl, mother of pearl or shell—and a piece of mantle from another mollusc are implanted; the animal is then allowed to close. Over time, it secretes nacre (mother of pearl) around the nucleus, as it would any other irritant in nature. After around three and a half years a saltwater pearl can be harvested if the operation was a success. This process usually results in the formation of one or two pearls but freshwater mussels can produce between thirty and fifty pearls at once, though over five years rather than three. After the harvest, some animals are killed and others put through the process again.

Pearl farming has drawn criticism from both animal welfare groups and those concerned with the environment. Mussels feed on plankton, the growth of which is encouraged by farmers through the addition of manure, soil and other pollutants to freshwater. Oysters, though, are more sensitive to their environment and changes within it. They won’t produce pearls if conditions aren’t perfect, so farmers monitor the saltwater environment closely. This is similar to those running pearl fisheries in the early modern period, where there was an understanding that the waters could be over-fished and that changes to the ecosystem impacted the number and quality of pearls produced. And, as in the past, diving for pearls today can be difficult, dangerous and even deadly work.

This devotional pendant features pearls made from lampworked glass – a convincing alternative to real pearls? Devotional pendant, 16th century (and later), Italian or Spanish. Cut and polished, reverse-painted, reverse-gilt, and reverse-silvered rock crystal; lampworked glass; gold. Diameter 3.3 cm. Robert Lehman Collection, 1975. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

‘Do we get most bodily pleasure from luxuries that cost human life?’ Pliny the Elder (23–74CE) asked about pearls in his Naturalis Historia written nearly 2000 years ago.[13] The question continued to be relevant into the early modern period, when people were enslaved and died, billions of animals perished and severe environmental damage was caused all to feed desire for pearls and wealth generated from them. Today, modern versions of these problems persist, though some efforts are being made to farm and harvest pearls in more ethical, eco-friendly ways. There are also alternatives to cultured pearls, such as those made from plastic, cotton and glass. In the early modern period, too, shoppers could choose pearls made from clay, shell, glass or enamel to suit their budgets, desires and sensibilities.


[1] Archivio di Stato di Venezia (hereafter ASV), Giudici di Petizion, b. 350, f. 13. 22 April 1626.

[2] ASV, Giudici di Petizion, b. 358, f. 45, 12 December 1642.

[3] ASV, Cancelleria inferiore, Miscellanea, b. 41, f. 30, 10 August 1570, fols. 5r and 7r. On the global trade in gems see Michael Bycroft and Sven Dupré, eds., Gems in the Early Modern World: Materials, Knowledge and Global Trade, 1450–1800 (Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan, 2019).

[4] Mónica Domínguez Torres, “Pearl Fishing in the Caribbean: Early Images of Slavery and Forced Migration in the Americas,” in African Diaspora in the Cultures of Latin America, the Caribbean, and the United States, ed. Persephone Braham (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2014), 73–82. Nicholas J. Saunders, “Biographies of Brilliance: Pearls, Transformations of Matter and Being, c. AD 1492,” World Archaeology 31, no. 2 (October 1999): 243–57, 250-1; Molly A. Warsh, American Baroque: Pearls and the Nature of Empire, 1492-1700 (UNC Press Books, 2018), 38-40.

[5] Molly A. Warsh, American Baroque: Pearls and the Nature of Empire, 1492-1700 (UNC Press Books, 2018), 43. Mónica Domínguez Torres, “Pearl Fishing in the Caribbean: Early Images of Slavery and Forced Migration in the Americas,” in African Diaspora in the Cultures of Latin America, the Caribbean, and the United States, ed. Persephone Braham (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2014), 73–82

[6] Warsh, American Baroque, 62.

[7] Warsh, American Baroque, 155.

[8] Warsh, American Baroque, 65-67.

[9] Robert A. Carter, Sea of Pearls: Seven Thousand Years of the Industry That Shaped the Gulf (London: Arabian Publishing, 2012), 61-89.

[10] Warsh, American Baroque, 81.

[11] Archivio di Stato di Siena (hereafter ASS), Curia del Placito, b. 283, f. 266, 3 September 1646, fol. 18v.

[12] ASS, Curia del Placito, b. 280, f. 111, 24 April 1640, fol. 224r.

[13] Pliny the Elder, Natural History, a Selection, trans. John F. Healy (London: Penguin Books, 1991), 135.

What happened to the clothing? A case study of a glazier family

On a fall day the 15 October 1591, the worldly possessions of the deceased couple, the Elsinore glazier Morten and his wife Kirstine, were divided among their two kids, the son Morten Mortensen, and the daughter Anne Mortensen.[1] Unfortunately the inventory is not clear about whether the father or mother died first, only that their children were entitled to their common goods. [2] As a glazier, Morten worked on windows, and owned for example a casket with candles, a tool for rolling lead mullions for windows, and a chest and another box with glass ‘whole and half panes’.[3]

Glazier, woodcut artist Jost Amman Das Ständebuch, 1568. SLUB / Deutsche Fotothek / DDZ.

Sadly, their son Morten died not long after his parents’ inventory was made, leaving Anne alone at a presumably very young age.[4] We do not know what happened to Anne from the time of her parents’ death to the death of her brother, but we can see from her brother’s inventory that several costs for Anne were listed, indicating that she was taken into care from 12 October 1591 until Christmas, but by whom, and what happened after this, is unknown. Entries also indicate that she had new clothing made: the tailor was paid 2 marks and 4 shillings for two garments and  some mackaye, possibly a mixed woollen fabric that could contain linen, cotton or even silk.[5]

Despite these awful circumstances two rather interesting inventories survive from this family, documenting what happened to the clothing belonging to the parents, not only in terms of why and how it changed hands, but also how the descriptions of the garments changed.[6]  

First page of the common inventory of the parents Morten Glazier and his wife Kirstine.

 

The clothing of the parents

The apparel of the parents was first distributed to the two children. The heirs for the glazier Morten and his wife were Morten and Anne, represented by their guardians Michell Snøckill and Jørgen Shriffuer, who were responsible for naming the goods. Both children’s lots included numerous items of copper, brass, and pewter, as well as a number of household linens such as sheets, bed linens, and table cloths. The children also inherited all the household’s linen fabrics, adding up to 48 ells (ca. 30 meter) of linen fabric made of flax and 26 ells (ca. 16,3 meter) made from coarser blår (tow). It seems that it was mainly the mother’s clothing that was given to the children; the items Morten received included one woman’s brown kirtle, a black woman’s kirtle and a red skirt. In comparison Anne received a cloak with a velvet trim and a red woman’s kirtle.

 

Sales, payoffs, and giveaways

Some of Morten and Kirstine’s clothes were also sold, which could be a way of obtaining financial means to benefit the children or to pay for the funeral or the cost for having the inventory made. Father’s outfit, a black kirtle made out of English cloth and a pair of breeches, was bought by a man whose name was Jørgen Lichtt Hartt for 3 daller. He also bought a felted hat for 24 shilling, but since the estate of the glazier and his wife owed him 11 shillings he ended up paying only 13 shillings. But some of the clothing owned by the glazier and his wife was also used to pay people who had provided services to the couple. This included their servant-maids, who were given two of Kirstine’s trøjer (doublets), and a pair of stockings were given to a woman who had watched over ‘the corpse’.[7] Some of the father Morten’s clothes were also bequeathed to close family, for no costs it seems. This was the case with a pair of leather stockings, 2 leather livstøcker (a sleeveless garment worn over the shirt), and a pair of leather breeches which were granted to the children’s grandfather on their mother’s side. Additionally, a cloak, presumably also belonging to the father, was used to make new garments for his children. 

 

New meanings

When the young Morten died in March 1592 an inventory of his goods was made.[8] This inventory explains how Morten’s guardian sent for his sister’s guardian to collect the goods that he had received from the estate of their parents. Is not clear if Anne received all her brother’s goods, but the objects listed in the inventory drawn up after her parents are listed again, giving us new insights about their appearances and where some of them went after her brother’s death.

Emphasized in brackets were Mortens heirlooms that were inherited from his mother, but now their descriptions had changed slightly, including:  ‘1 black under kirtle, 1 red flesh coloured skirt and ‘1 brown under kirtle without upperpart’.[9]

The inherited clothing highlighted in brackets in the son Morten’s inventory.

Anne’s goods had also changed description: the black cloak was still decorated with velvet trim but instead of just being a kirtle, the red garment was now described as an under kirtle. These changing descriptions in the inventories indicate not only the difficulties of working with dress terminology but also how perceptions of clothing change from viewer to viewer, giving new information on shades of colours and the construction of garments.

 

Sale of the mother’s kirtles

It is not clear what happened to the red or flesh-coloured skirt belonging to Morten, but we see that two kirtles, presumably the ones he had inherited, had been attacked by moths. They were therefore not useful, and were given to a woman who in turn sold them for 24 shillings. This is an interesting information because it tells us that garments—even in bad condition—could be attractive on the secondhand market.

By investigating two inventories from the same family we are able to follow the many ways in which clothing could be obtained and disseminated into society as heirlooms, sales, gifts, or a way of paying for services. Hopefully further research will reveal more of these interesting cases.


[1] Helsingør byfoged, 1583–1592, 238 r–241 r.

[2] There is unfortunately no information on the time of death, where they lived in town, or the age of the children. 

[3] His tools and materials were left undivided and given to his children. 

[4] The inventory of her parents belongings was made up on 15 October 1591 and the inventory between the son Morten and his sister Anne is dated 10 March 1592.

[5] See e.g. Ulinka Rublack and Maria Hayward, eds., The First Book of Fashion. The Books of Clothes of Matthäus & Veit Konrad Schwarz of Augsburg (London & New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2015)., 400, https://kalkarsordbog.dk/ordbog?aselect=Makejer&query=makej, https://www.saob.se/artikel/?seek=mackejer

[6] On this topic see e.g. Patricia Allerston, ‘Clothing and Early Modern Venetian Society’, Continuity and Change 15, no. 3 (2000): 367–90, who discusses many of the ways clothes could be obtained and distributed in early modern society.

[7] If this was Morten Glazier or his wife is not mentioned.

[8] Helsingør byfoged, 1583–1492, 275 r–277 v.

[9] The inventory of the son Morten in general includes more clothing than he inherited, so we must assume that these were his personal textiles including a linen skjortekrave (shirt collar).

Pharmaceutical Fashion: The Leather Tanner’s Jewellery Box

In The Treasury of Jewels (Venice, 1602, p. 228), Cleandro Arnobio explains that pearls represented many (and contradictory) things:

First, a thing prudently done.
Second, a holy thing.
Third, a thing much desired and a precious and expensive good.
Fourth, a vane and superfluous ornament that should be forbidden to women.
Fifth, an ornament on the gates of heaven

Queen Elizabeth I was well known for her love of pearls, which represented her status as a ruler and well as her great wealth, marine power and purity. Attributed to George Gower, Queen Elizabeth I (The Armada Portrait), c.1588. Oil on oak. Woburn Abbey & Gardens, Woburn, UK.

In fact, perceptions of gems and precious metals more broadly were complex and varied; these goods were beautiful works of nature that could be employed to honour the church, god and rulers but desire for them was also a huge, unnecessary expenditure for secular (and vane) adornment. In addition to glorifying and beautifying sacred and secular bodies, gems and semi-precious stones were also believed to protect and improve the health of those bodies. As Arnobio goes on to explain with respect to pearls, if ground into powder and ingested, they could cure ulcers, clear up sight problems, comfort the heart, staunch flux of the womb and taken with sugar, pearls could help cure pestilential fever (237). Pearls and gems were often ingredients in medieval and early modern medicines for a range of ailments and illnesses. The focus of this blog post, however, is on the health-giving benefits of wearing gems and jewels, like pearls, which were believed to temper the humours so that lust was reduced and chastity bolstered by those who wore them.

Drawer F with samples of materia medica collected by John Francis Vigani, Professor of Chemistry at Cambridge University in 1703-4, including shark’s teeth, pearls, sapphires, jacinth, lapis lazuli, garnets, rubies, topaz and other stones. Queen’s College, Cambridge University.

In particular, we’ll look at some of the jewellery owned by a Sienese leather-tanner, Pietro Paolo de Cheri as described in the inventory drawn up when he died in 1637. This list shows that he and his family members had access to necklaces, bracelets, rings, earrings, rosaries and hat badges that were made from or decorated with amber, jasper, coral, garnets, pearls and other precious materials. These were beautiful and sometimes costly goods that marked the economic and social status of the wearer as well as their age, marital state and religious and political affiliations, but they were also believed to have important health benefits that offered care and protection from harm and illnesses. Importantly, these kinds of objects and materials were just one way of supplementing other methods of protecting and defending individual and familial health, such as amulets, medicine, devotional practices and keeping one’s body, home and the air clean.

One lovely example in Pietro Paolo’s inventory is ‘a little amber rosary with fifteen silver buttons’. Rosaries were used by the faithful to keep track of their prayers, with beads of one size or material to mark the recitation of the Hail Mary, often punctuated at intervals of ten with a bead of a different material or larger in size, which signalled a different prayer was to be recited, usually the Our Father. In Pietro Paolo’s rosary, the amber beads marked the Hail Marys and the silver beads probably marked the Our Fathers, but these materials—amber in particular—were also important to prayer and maintaining good health.

Amber beads on a string of unidentified fibre, date unknown (medieval?). 65 x 114mm. Museum of London.

Amber – fossilized tree resin – largely came from the Baltic Sea in this period and was (and still is) valued for its beauty, rarity and its perceived powers. It can be shaped and polished, and was used for handles for cutlery, made into cups and amulets, featured in frames and also used in the form of beads, as with the leather-tanner’s rosary. It is especially suited to objects that are handled, as amber warms up through touch, and this warmth helps to release a scent into the air and the hands. This was important as part of religious practice and experience, but the smell produced was also believed to help purify the air and protect people against dangers like the plague, as Rachel King has shown. Amber was believed to be such a powerful prophylactic against illness (and a pleasant-smelling perfume), it was also ground and mixed with oil for perfuming gloves and pomanders, and was burned like incense to help clear the air of dangerous smells and spirits.

This pomander would be filled with scented materials like amber and musk pastes. Suspended from a belt, cleansing perfumes followed the wearer, wherever they went. Pomander, 17th century (Italian). Silver, 6.4 × 2.9 cm. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Amber can also take on an electric charge when rubbed vigorously with another material, like wool. Sophie gave a demonstration of this—called the triboelectric effect—in our imitation workshop in March 2020, where a small piece of amber was ‘charged’ and then attracted small bits off of a table top like a magnet. This property was also recognised in the early modern period, leading some to recommend amber be used to draw dangerous substances out of the body. For example, the Belgian physician Johannes van Helmont (1577–1644) suggested rubbing amber on the wrists, temples, insteps and left breast to help prevent illness. As Martha Baldwin has argued, van Helmont believed that the amber, working like a magnet, would draw out from the body the dangerous odours that caused plague.

Pietro Paolo’s amber and silver rosary was not just an object that was beautiful and costly, but that supported religious practice by helping the devout count and keep track of their prayers. The feeling of the warmed amber beads and smell they released would add to the devotional experience, but also helped to purify the air of dangerous and even deadly smells and substances, helping to keep the believer safe and healthy.

Jasper was a material also praised for its beauty and usefulness in texts on minerals and gems, but unlike amber, it rarely appears in the inventories of artisans’ homes gathered for this project. Pietro Paolo, though, was one of the few people from our documents in possession of jasper, of which he had four pieces alongside some bits of coral. It’s not clear if these were just loose pieces, if they had been shaped, polished or treated in another way or what they were intended to be used for. The inventory also does not make clear what colour the jasper pieces were, as this opaque material could be found in a range of colours and combinations. Notably, the jasper does not seem to have been set in silver, the material recommended by contemporary writers for boosting jasper’s virtues, which include curing fever and dropsy (edema), allaying lust, encouraging conception, aiding childbirth, making the wearer virtuous and staunching bloody flux (dysentery). This was quite a useful and powerful material!

This intaglio shows just one type of jasper, which can range in colour and opacity. In the early modern period, the most highly esteemed was green jasper with red striations. Adoration of the Shepherds, ca. 1500 (Northern Italian). Jasper and silver, diameter: 51 mm. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Much more common in artisan households and jewellery boxes were items featuring coral. In addition to the pieces that Pietro Paolo the leather-tanner had, he was also in possession of six coral necklaces: two featured coral beads and baroque pearls, three with just coral beads and one that combined coral, gold and stone beads. All the pieces except this last necklace are described as being ‘for girls’ and coral was believed to be particularly useful for keeping young people safe in this period. Early modern portraits of children sometimes show them wearing necklaces or bracelets of coral beads as well as coral branches, as it was believed the material would protect them from both witches and epilepsy. The Christ Child is also at times represented wearing coral beads and branches, and the material was, through its red colour, linked to the blood of Christ and redemption, giving it religious significance and power.

Here the Christ Child wears a necklace of coral beads and from which a branch of coral is suspended. Giorgio di Tomaso Schiavone, Madonna and Child with Angels, 1459-60. Oil on panel, 69 x 56.7 cm. The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore.

This example of a Carved pieces of coral mounted in expensive enamelled gold were owned not by leather-tanners or other artisans, but wealthy and elite families (or the Christ Child). Carved coral amulet for a baby, mounted in enamelled gold filigree, possibly Italy, ca.1600. Height: 6.3 cm, Width: 2.7 cm, Depth: 2.2 cm. Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Adults, too, wore coral, especially women, as it was believed to help issues with menstruation, again due to its colour, as well as issues with the heart, stomach, intestines and gums. It was also believed that red coral would turn pale when touching the flesh of a person that had been poisoned, due to the vapours released through the pores of the skin. So, although a different result than with amber, physical touch was a key means by which coral could positively impact health.

An image of a young peasant woman from Chioggia, described as wearing a necklace of pretty coral beads in Cesare Vecellio’s costume book of 1590. Cesare Vecellio, De gli habiti antichi, e moderni di diverse parti del mondo libri due (Venice: Damian Zenaro, 1590), 150v.

Like coral, it was believed that carbuncles—red gemstones like garnets—would become pale if worn against the skin of a person who had ingested poison. Although not as common as pearls, coral or turquoise in the homes and jewellery boxes of artisans, garnets seem to have been fairly popular with this social group. They may have offered an affordable alternative to much more costly rubies, and there are twice the number of garnets versus rubies listed in the project’s inventories. There are also quite a lot of artisans with rings with ‘red stones’ that perhaps were intended to look like rubies or garnets; contemporary writers note that many tried to counterfeit carbuncles using glass pastes or coloured foils layered between pieces of rock crystal and the stone, which were hard to detect when set in rings.

Most often the garnets that appear in artisans’ inventories seem to have been worn in the form of beads strung alongside gold buttons, pearls and sometimes turquoise in necklaces and bracelets. This is the form the garnets in Pietro Paolo’s inventory took and he owned two necklaces of little garnets and gold beads. As these would likely rest against the skin, the garnet beads would, in theory, signal if the wearer had ingested poison. Additionally, this gemstone was believed to ‘gladden the heart and send away sadness’, and to ‘defend those who wore it against the plague’, as Ludovico Dolce described in his translation of a Latin lapidary into Italian in 1565 (26r).

In the inventories collected for the Refashioning the Renaissance project, garnets and pearls were often strung together in necklaces and bracelets; however, they also appear together as decorative elements in earrings and rings, as in this example. Enamelled gold fede ring, with a lozenge shaped bezel set with pearls surrounding an almandine garnet engraved with clasped hands, the back of the bezel engraved with a red flower, with later Roman mark for gold (1815-70), made in Italy c. 1640-60. Height: 2.8 cm, Width: 2.3 cm, Depth: 1.7 cm. Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

As I mentioned above, garnets in our inventories appear frequently strung alongside pearls, though this was not the case for Pietro Paolo’s collection of jewellery. Instead he owned a necklace of baroque pearls on two strings interspersed with black buttons, two pairs of necklaces of coral mixed with baroque pearls (mentioned above) and some earrings, bracelets and a medallion for a hat band all decorated with pearls. And it wasn’t just the leather-tanner, but many other artisans owned pieces of jewellery and accessories decorated with pearls; this gem can be found much more frequently than any other in the inventories gathered for this project. Like other precious materials, pearls were valued for their beauty, rarity and associations with purity. But they were also believed to have health benefits such as preventing fainting, problems with the heart and dysentery, as well as improving eye sight. Although the best way to benefit from pearls was to actually ingest them—pulverised seed pearls and other gems were a common ingredient in medieval and early modern electuaries—they also provided some health benefits when they were worn, as Cleandro Arnobio argued with respect to chastity.

This recipe to prevent death from the plague calls for ‘white pearls’ to be mixed with other ingredients including deer antler, camphor and sugar; pearls and other gems were common ingredients in contemporary medicines for a variety of ailments. [Girolamo Ruscelli, De’ Secreti del reverendo donno Alessio Piemontese, prima parte…. (Venice, 1563), 51v.

One of my favourite descriptions of the prophylactic power of a gem is that for jacinth (also called hyacinth) given by Girolamo Cardano. He explains that, ‘it fends off the plague, which strikes mainly through fear and through weakness of the heart, and hyacinth abolishes both’ (369). Although the artisans studied as part of the Refashioning the Renaissance project did not own jewellery or accessories decorated with this reddish-orange gem, they often owned others that were believed to offer defence against a variety of dangers. Amber, jasper, coral, garnets, pearls and many other precious materials not discussed here provided wearers with not just a fashionable look, but together with clean linens, saying one’s prayers and sanitising the air perhaps offered some reassurance in times of illness. Although fear may not be the cause of illnesses, we know today it does negatively impact the immune system, so as a source of reassurance and hope, gems and jewels surely did support good health.

Ring with intaglio in jacinth showing the head of Minerva, seventeenth century. British Museum, London.


Works cited and recommended further reading:

The inventory of Pietro Paolo de Cheri’s homes and workshop can be found at the Archivio di Stato Siena, Curia del Placito, b. 280, f. 65, 1637, fol. 20v-26v; all of the jewellery is listed on fol. 23r.

Giovanni-Maria Bonardo, La minera del mondo, … divisa in 4 libri, (etc.) (Fabio Zoppjni, 1589), 22v and Lodovico Dolce, Libri tre ne i quali si tratta delle diverse sorti delle gemme che produce la Natura (etc.) (Venice: Gio. Battista Marchio Seisa, 1565).

Martha R. Baldwin, “Toads and Plague: Amulet Therapy in Seventeenth-Century Medicine,” Bulletin of the History of Medicine 67, no. 2 (1993): 227–47.

Girolamo Cardano, The De Subtilitate of Girolamo Cardano, ed. and trans. J. M. Forrester, vol. I (Tempe, Ariz: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2013).

Sandra Cavallo and Tessa Storey, Healthy Living in Late Renaissance Italy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014).

John Cherry, “Healing through Faith: The Continuation of Medieval Attitudes to Jewellery into the Renaissance,” Renaissance Studies 15, no. 2 (2001): 154–71.

Maya Corry, Deborah Howard, and Mary Laven, eds., Madonnas and Miracles: The Holy Home in Renaissance Italy (London; New York: Philip Wilson Publishers, 2017).

Anselm De Boodt, Lapidary or, The History of Pretious Stones, trans. Thomas Nicols (Cambridge: Thomas Buck, 1652).

Lodovico Dolce, Libri tre ne i quali si tratta delle diverse sorti delle gemme che produce la Natura (etc.)(Venice: Gio. Battista Marchio Seisa, 1565), 45r. Giovanni-Maria Bonardo (conte), La minera del mondo, … divisa in 4 libri, (etc.) (Fabio Zoppjni, 1589).

Christopher J. Duffin, “The Gem Electuary,” Geological Society, London, Special Publications 375, no. 1 (2013): 81–111.

Marieke Hendriksen, “The Repudiation and Persistence of Lapidary Medicine in Eighteenth-Century Dutch Medicine and Pharmacy,” in Gems in the Early Modern World, ed. Michael Bycroft and Sven Dupré (Cham: Springer International Publishing, 2019), 197–220.

Rachel King, “‘The Beads with Which we Pray Are Made from It’: Devotional Ambers in Early Modern Italy”, inReligion and the Senses in Early Modern Europe, edited by Wietse de Boer and Christine Göttler (Leiden & Boston: Brill, 2013), 153–176.

Jacqueline Marie Musacchio, “Lambs, Coral, Teeth, and the Intimate Intersection of Religion and Magic in Renaissance Tuscany,” in Images, Relics, and Devotional Practices in Medieval and Renaissance Italy, ed. Sally J. Cornelison and Scott B. Montgomery (Tempe: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2006), 139–56.

James E. Shaw and Evelyn S. Welch, Making and Marketing Medicine in Renaissance Florence, (Amsterdam; New York: Rodopi, 2011).