Peasant jewellery in Italy
THE peasants of Italy still retain much of their ancient jewels and their costumes; indeed, they are about the only class of the people of Italy which still possesses something of its old splendour. This is to be attributed, no doubt, to the lesser intercourse which the peasants have had with foreigners and with the world at large. Many of these peasants have become small landed proprietors; some have even supplanted their landlords as property owners on a vaster scale, and have also acquired princely Sewels and household effects. The greater extension of railways all over Italy; military service, calling the young men away from their mountain fastnesses to the great centres, where they are brought into contact with other conditions of life; the creation of industries and factories which attract young women to the towns and away from the soil; and, above all, the prosperity resulting from very extensive emigration, are rapidly bringing about a complete change in the conditions of the masses in Italy. The most inaccessible places are visited by the emigration agent, and when one villager has gone abroad and prospered he sends for a brother or other relation, and soon all the able-bodied disappear. From abroad come funds to buy land and houses, or to build, and with affluence comes the desire to cast off the old ways and habits, and to put on the garb ox the well-to-do of modern times.
There is also the “ traveller ” in cheap iewellery who is ready, when money is not immediately at hand, to accept old jewellery in exchange for his wares. Thus the melting-pot has destroyed much of the older and finer goldsmiths’ work. The old costumes were expensive. In many districts, indeed in most parts of Italy, it was the custom to wear the marriage garments only on grand and important occasions, and to hand them down to the next generation. Girls were engaged for years in making their bridal-sheets, adorned round the upper edge with the most delicate lacework, valued at twenty to thirty pounds sterling per pair. The pillow-cases were as beautiful, and the bed-curtains extraordinary examples of drawn thread-work. Naturally, these were not used except on special occasions. It mav arouse surprise that peasants should possess such wealth, but I have seen these things in peasant houses. Until quite recent years the richer peasants in Sicily sought after ancient jewels and were ready to pay good prices for such as they could get. Silver girdles, of the kind worn by the women of the Piana dei Greci, could be got for about twenty pounds, whilst I have had to pay as much as forty for an exceptional specimen. I have seen an old woman of the people at Nicosia, in Sicily, wearing gold, enamelled earrings, in the form or a galley, the sails being of seed-pearl,—examples of which are illustrated herein—which she refused to part with at any price. They had been worn by her mother and grandmother before her. Their weight was such that the lobe of the ear was enormously lengthened, and I could have put my little finger into the hole for the earring. She had a ribbon which supported the earring from the top of the ear. In many parts of Sicily the men wear earrings, sometimes only one, in the shape of a gold padlock.
The women of the Terra di Lavoro, of Abruzzo, and of Sardinia, all wear picturesque and rich costumes. In Upper Italy and Piedmont the costumes differ totally. Southern Italy exhibits types with marked Byzantine, Saracenic and Greek characteristics.
The sumptuary laws, which were instituted in order to try to limit the use of costly jewels and wearing apparel amongst the rich, were also extended to the contadini, regulations succeeding each other throughout the centuries. With these regulations the incentive arose to evade their penalties. Jewellers contrived big, showy earrings of enamelled gold, so light in weight that it hardly seemed possible that they contained any precious metal at all. These were naturally very fragile, and it is not surprising that not many have survived their use. Goldsmiths attended the country fairs, and even worked at the houses of their patrons. In searching through the wardrobe accounts of the Medici at Florence I found the pay-roll containing the name of Benvenuto Cellini as a household goldsmith, with an account of the implements given to him for his workshop in the Palace. They were very few in number and very primitive in character; and yet with such as these the Italian goldsmith could fashion the most beautiful work.
The Byzantine characteristics seen in some kinds of Sicilian jewellery are also strongly noticeable in the old goldsmiths work of Venice and along the Adriatic shores of Italy down to Southern Italy. This is no doubt due, not only to the relations of trade between Venice and the Oriental cities of Italy and the Levant, but also to the invasions from the East, and in a greater measure to the colonies of Albanians who settled in Italy some centuries ago, retaining their language, their costumes and their habits to the present day.
The first person who tried to collect specimens of Sicilian ethnography was Giuseppe Pitre ; a small museum, due mainly to his exertions, has been formed at Palermo. Whilst he was working in Sicily, Lamberto Loria, with greater ambition, was endeavouring to create a Museum of Ethnography at Florence for all Italy. The Rome exhibition of 1911 was the crowning point of his work, concentrating, as it did, at Rome all that he had been able to gather together, besides exhibiting much that could not otherwise have been seen. There the peasant art of Italy was shown as it had never been possible to show it before. Lamberto Loria was discovered dead in his bath at Rome one day last summer. His death will temporarily paralyse the efforts to create an Ethnographical Museum at Rome to commemorate the exhibition of 1911. A collection of jewellery as worn by the peasants of Italy, brought together by Signor (Alessandro) Castellani, had been shown at the Paris exhibition of 1867 and was purchased as a whole by the Science and Art Department (now the Victoria and Albert Museum) of London. The Arundel Society published some of these pieces in 1868. The examples now put before the student are much more typical of the jewellery, which is fast disappearing, than those already available in the plates published by the Arundel Society.
Superstition has influenced much ot the jewellery and has been a good friend to the goldsmith. I have mentioned in my Introduction to this volume the fact that from childhood the Italian bears some charm against misfortune. Professor G. Bellucci, of Perugia, has collected together a unique comparative collection of amulets to show the development of charms from pagan times to the present day. The gradual transition of the objects worn is clearly shown. In the old days—and still in the remoter districts—ancient customs prevailed, and amulets which have been handed down from generation to generation, or which have been purchased from former users, are employed. The wonderful gold and silver baptismal ornament (No. 290), referred to in my Introduction, consisting of a huge stomacher with repousse and chased silver plaques, between which are gold and coral beads, forming the letter “ M,” the initial of the Virgin Mary, is one of these survivals. It is used at the Piana dei Greci near Palermo. Some of them have a representation of the Bambino hanging from them. A bean set in silver or gold ; amber set in the same manner ; or a bell against the effects of thunder and lightning may also be seen attached to these baptismal ornaments. When the child grew older a rattle of silver bells was given him, both as a plaything and as an amulet against the “ evil eye.” These rattles are now getting very rare. Some characteristic and special types are illustrated. Later the growing child was given cimaruti and “ horns ” of a more or less elaborate nature, according to the means of his parents.
With years came rings, neck ornaments, earrings and spadetti (small swords) for the hair—in districts where the hair was not hidden. The head-dress varied a good deal, according to the degree of the sun’s intensity. In the South the women generally wear clothes over the head and little of the hair is seen ; in the North the headdress is more intricate and handsome. The women of Lombardy wear an extraordinary kind of diadem called the raggiera, which is made up of a number of silver pins set in the hair in “ rays” at the back of the head. In Piedmont the head-dress is also very important and unlike anything worn in the other districts of Italy. Under the domination of Spain in South Italy the high comb was a prominent feature of the head decoration, but it has died out. The women of the Neapolitan provinces have always attached much importance to the dressing of the hair, and the profession of the pettinatrice (hairdresser) is a popular one; there is scarcely a woman so humble who cannot afford to subscribe a small sum monthly to a hair-dresser to come daily, or three times a week, to dress her hair in the prevailing fashion.
The picturesque old costumes are last disappearing ; even the pastori, who come down from the hills in the south of Italy at Christmas-time with their bagpipes to chant old lays to the images of the saints put up outside private houses as votive offerings, are now appearing in ordinary every-day attire. The handsomer old costumes are rarely seen ; only those who have been fortunate enough to pick up some of those wonderfully fashioned old Presepe figures of the pastori can get an idea of the way the costumes were made. Numerous silver buttons were an essential. They were used in Sicily, Sardinia, Calabria and other parts of Italy, down the front of the jacket or along the sleeves and breeches. In Sardinia the women also wore them ; in that island the buttons were an important part of the national dress, and they are still found of all sizes and sorts. The button is met with as far as Malta, which ethnographically was a part of the old kingdom of the Two Sicilies. In Calabria the buttons are usually more massive. In the Venetian districts of the Adriatic the button is usually in the shape of a bunch of grapes made of sea-pearls, with gold enamelled leaves.
The rosary was in common use all over Italy and was often worn round the neck. Some Sardinian rosaries had enormous medals of filigree work, in the centre of which were Papal medals or silver impressions of the Cera Benedetta.
The peasants of Italy especially affect pearls. The province of Gaeta was the fountain-head of the production of the big earrings and stomachers made of gold or silver-gilt mountings for innumerable seed pearls and garnets, or even imitation stones. In Tuscany the peasants, who can save little money, all endeavour to purchase a necklace of several rows of seed pearls. In the Neapolitan provinces the women wear earrings made up of baroque pearls, the bigger the better. Coral necklaces have always been used by the people, the reason being that coral is considered to bring luck to the wearer.
Peasant jewellery, of an ordinary everyday kind, can be seen in vast quantities at the popular shrines in Rome and the provinces. The Madonna at Loreto has probably the greatest stock of these objects. These treasures are not to be compared in any way with the votive offerings which the chief churches of Sicily have accumulated during centuries. The treasures at Catania, Messina, Siracusa and Trapani contain, however, other than ordinary peasant votive offerings, and are wonderful storehouses of the art of the goldsmith in Italy, from mediaeval times to the present day. The wonder is that so much should have survived the necessities of the times, the ravages of princes, seeking for treasure to replenish their exhausted exchequers, and the sometimes ignorant attention of zealous guardians who have sent priceless jewels to the melting-pot in order to raise money for the purchase of more up-to-date objects of little or no artistic value.