Villa Giulia

Typical Etruscan pottery

By Tim Spauwen FGA

It was a nice walk through 'Villa Borghese', a cool park situated to the North of the historic city centre of Rome. Our legs had brought us to the museum called 'Villa Giulia' to see the Castellani Collection. The museum is situated in a beautiful villa that used to be the summer home to Pope Julius the third. Anticipating gold and gemstones only I was somewhat startled to enter the museum and see a hallway full of Etruscan pottery, artifacts that I had familiarized myself with two days earlier while visiting the Vatican Museum. A quick look on the museum ticket I was just handed solved my puzzle: I just entered 'Museo Nazionale Etrusco di Villa Giulia' - the national Etruscan museum. I'd been under the assumption that the museum was home to products from the Castellani workshop only. Wrong...

Etruscan Armband

Villa Giulia holds the most extensive collection of Etruscan artifacts in the world. Pottery, metalwork, sculptures, fragments of buildings and the like, it is fascinating to see how these people lived, built and died. A large portion of the items on display is coming from tombs. The Etruscans must have been under the firm believe that there was a long life after death. The amount of gear a deceased would carry with him in the grave is impressive. I learned that the famed 'Roman arch', the feature that enabled higher structures to be built was in fact a perfect copy of the Etruscans. Several hundreds of years before the ancient Roman civilisation came to it's glory the Etruscans had figured out many of the Greek 'secrets to society' already. The Etruscans had acted as a sub station for a lot of things that I, until then, had pictured to have flown over straight from the Greeks to the Romans. Situated just north of Rome, the center of the Etruscan civilisation had provided as a hub for knowledge and acted as a source for inspiration to the Roman architects and artists.

Etruscan breastplate
Amongst all the grave gifts were, of course, many jewelry articles. Turning into one room eight large cabinets were lined up along the walls. From a distance I recognized one of the pieces to be a Castallani brooch with it's fine micromosaic. Quick glances towards the other cabinets proved that there were 2 cabinets with Castellani made items and 6 with original Etruscan jewels.
The Castellani displays showed a nice collection of work produced by the three generations of goldsmiths this family produced during the years 1814 and 1927. Unique micromosaics, granulation in all possible forms and perfect filigree kept us occupied for over an hour in front of those two cabinets alone. The Etruscan cabinets provided much food for thought. The main question being: 'how did these people manage to manufacture items so fine, so detailed? Such complicated techniques, and so long ago... 2700 hundred years!' But also: 'where did those gemstones come from?' There was sapphires, emeralds, garnets and quartz. Polished pebbles, the worlds first cabochons.
A brooch with micro mosaic from the Castellani workshop Image courtesy of Wartski

To this day it's still impossible to decide which I found more impressive, the 19th century Castellani jewelry or the 2700 year old Etruscan pieces. Its craftsmanship to its perfection all over the place. The Etruscan pieces with their fine hammered sheets of gold decorated by granulation. The Castellani-made perfect micro mosaics, reinstated granulation and fine filigree work. Both periods represent eras where human time was much less expensive than the gold that was needed for an item. Human hands were abundant, gold wasn't. The result was hundreds, maybe thousands of hours spent on a single item, manufacturing it to be perfect. A situation we may never encounter again.

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