The World’s Greatest Goldbeater


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Author: Erla Zwingle
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Marino Menegazzo hammers gold leaf into sheets 200 times thinner than a human hair. He works in the same studio where Titian, Italy’s great Renaissance artist, lived and painted. Now Menegazzo’s craft, where the hand can still beat a machine, is on the edge of extinction.

By ERLA ZWINGLE

During the peak of Venice’s growth, in the 15th century, the Venetian government indulged in gold leaf to impress foreign dignitaries with the Republic’s wealth and power. ''Gold shines like fire blazing in the night,'' wrote Pindar, the ancient Greek poet. The Great Council Room in the Doge’s Palace is just one example. photo courtesy of the Fondazione Musei Civici di Venezia.

Tungsten is harder. Rhodium is rarer. Californium is more expensive. Copper was worked earlier. But gold is more beautiful than any of them, and we seem to be born craving it.

The Egyptians called gold “the breath of God.” The Inca called it “the sweat of the sun.” (The somewhat less poetic Aztecs called it teocuitlatl, the “excrement of the gods.”) The ultimate measure of anything, of course, is “the gold standard.” And Italian mothers, tucking in their children for the night, wish them sogni d’oro: “Dreams of gold.”

The gold leaves are so fine that they cannot be touched by the human hand; so fine that they can wrinkle as soon as they hit paper, and the wrinkles smoothed away with only the faintest puff of breath. It’s like working with spider silk.

While it’s possible that Marino Menegazzo’s mother also told him this, it’s unlikely that she meant it literally. But he doesn’t have to dream of gold—as a battiloro (batty-LOW-ro), or goldbeater, he has spent 40 years pounding the noblest of the eight “noble” metals into gossamer tissue that gleams from churches, monuments, doors, and domes around the world.

In Venice, where he was born and still works, there once were 340 goldbeaters hammering away in 46 workshops, an extravagant number in a famously extravagant city. The craft came to Venice in about 1000 A.D., brought by masters from Byzantium. Venetians produced sheets of gold to gild icons, Gothic palaces, Baroque picture frames, furniture, books, walls, and the numberless gleaming mosaic tesserae that cover the walls and ceiling of the legendary basilica of San Marco. The façade of one palace on the Grand Canal once shone with so much gold leaf—22,000 sheets—that it was nicknamed simply Ca’ d’Oro, the “House of Gold,” a nickname it holds to this day.

Gold in its natural state can contain any number of other elements, so it must be refined by smelting at 1,062 degrees C (1,943 F). The Egyptians were the first to use this procedure, which was performed by the priests of the god Ptah. photo by Erla Zwingle

Just behind the goldbeaters, other crafts flourished; in the eighteenth century there were 71 workshops in Venice that did nothing but stamp gold leaf onto leather. There were also scores of gold-cutters, and tiraori, or drawers of gold wire for fabric and jewelry. The drawers and cutters are gone, the gilders are dwindling, and Menegazzo is the last artisan in Europe who is still beating gold the traditional way.

Before beating his gold into almost translucently thin squares of leaf, Marino Menegazzo weighs the gold on a balance scale measured in grams. Knowing the exact weight he begins with lets him judge the leaves’ diminishing density as he goes. photo by Erla Zwingle

LIKE WORKING WITH SPIDER SILK

The earliest smelters used earthen jars as crucibles, but the refining process was slow: Five days and nights to achieve the purity of the gold that Marino pours after just half an hour. photo by Andrea Cacopardi

In the farther reaches of the Cannaregio district is a quiet little lobe of Venice that once resounded with myriad crafts, as the street names attest, but which now counts mainly a florist, a hardware store, and a few stone carvers chiseling tombstones for the nearby cemetery. On a truncated side street is a small courtyard called “Campo del Tiziano,” so named because the door at #5182 opens into what was once the house and workshop of Titian, the immortal 16th-century Venetian painter. Far from being a shrine, the house now contains a few upstairs apartments, while at street level is the small workshop, office, and cutting room of “Mario Berta Battiloro.” There is no sign outside, only the name on the doorbell.

Because gold leaf is so fine, it responds dramatically to weather conditions. In dry weather, Marino says, it “becomes electric.” To reduce the heat build-up, he then slows his hammer blows. Over the years, Marino has learned that he must respond to the gold as much as the gold responds to him. “The gold feels your mood,” he says, “especially if you’re nervous.” photo by Erla Zwingle

The crucibles at Mario Berta are made of graphite—partly because of the material’s resistance to heat, and partly because graphite leaves very little residue. photo by Andrea Cacopardi

At 7:30 on a foggy autumn morning Marino Menegazzo is already in his minuscule office, having made the daily commute from Spinea, a mainland town 10 miles away. (Like many Venetians, the Menegazzo family decamped years ago for a more affordable and convenient dwelling beyond the lagoon.) His welcoming handshake is firm; as he speaks, his manner is calm and affable. Meanwhile, his wife and twin daughters, Sara and Eleonora, are seated at their worktables in the adjoining room, visible through a large square window. Beating gold leaf is one thing, but without his family’s help the results would never leave the lab. The women are deftly taking the leaves that he pounded yesterday, cutting them into precise shapes according to the order (4 by 8 centimeters, 9 by 9, and so forth), then placing them, one by one, into 25-page booklets (libretti), which is how the gold will be sent out.

One of Venice’s greatest Renaissance painter was Titian– or “Tiziano” in Italian. Titian worked in the nearer of the two houses on the right at the end of this small square, where Marino’s gold leaf shop, Mario Berta Battiloro, was established in 1926. In Venice, a square is called a “campo,” and this one has carried the artist’s name since his death in 1576. photo by Erla Zwingle

The cooled ingot being pried from this mold is now pure, at 24 karats, and it shines with pure gold’s famously warm yellow tone. Adding copper gives gold a reddish tone; palladium, a cold yellow. With silver, it starts out bright yellow, then greenish-yellow if you add more; at 50 percent, it turns into white gold. photo by Manuel Bergamin

With surprising speed, the women lay each sheet on a square of paper, flicking away the cut-off feathery bits with a pair of tongs that look like wooden tweezers. The discards form a growing pile of crumpled tatters at the corner of each worktable, to be smelted down again later. Random flakes glitter from the floor, to be recovered once a year. With gold costing $1,320 per ounce at the moment, waste is unthinkable.

You don’t have to come here, though, to see Marino’s gold leaf. In Venice it gleams (even in the dark, I’m convinced) on the golden statue of the Archangel Gabriel atop the bell tower of San Marco, and on the enormous ball supporting the figure of Fortune on the old Customs House building. In France, the cross and crown atop the basilica of Our Lady of the Rosary, at the sanctuary of Lourdes, scintillate with five square meters (54 square feet) of Marino’s gold leaf. On a less monumental note, his gold shines on three pairs of 18th-century doors in Venice’s Correr Museum. He also produces leaves in silver, platinum, and 17 various alloys of gold, particularly the so-called “white gold” (which is at least 50 percent silver), but pure gold remains, for him, the ultimate metal.

Marino’s gold leaf gleams in the foyer of the building where Titian once lived and worked (the 14th-century beams here are original). The door to the right opens into the office and cutting room; the steps to the left lead out to the garden and workshop. The golden niche encircles a trompe l’oeil painting of Titian. photo by Erla Zwingle

The leaves being laid in the libretti are so fine that they cannot be touched by the human hand; so fine that they can wrinkle as soon as they hit paper; so fine that the wrinkles can be smoothed away with only the faintest puff of breath. It’s like working with spider silk. A small radio murmurs in the background; a few soft friendly comments waft between the women, but the atmosphere is otherwise dense with concentration.

The thinness that Marino aims for depends on whether the leaf will be used on glass, wood, stone, leather, porcelain, paper, frescoes, even human skin. Perhaps it’s going to be eaten, draped on cakes and canapes or floated in liqueurs. If the poverty-stricken Chinese peasant in The Good Earth could say that “Tea is like eating silver,” I have no idea what the equivalent for gold would be. I certainly couldn’t ask to try it. [For more detail, see our adjacent sidebar: “The History of Gold Leaf.”]

As with many old-world crafts, the profession’s name—in this case, “battiloro”—has long since become a family surname. (A Facebook inquiry reveals literally hundreds of Battiloros scattered around the world, from Italy to Amsterdam to Utah and beyond.) The company’s original sign was designed to seem composed of glass mosaic cubes; this is because the shop flourished thanks to the constant demand for gold leaf from mosaic and other glass-making artisans. photo by Erla Zwingle

MEASUREMENTS IN ATOMS

Humans have worked gold since 4,600 B.C., as attested by the oldest gold treasure in the world excavated at the Varna Necropolis in Bulgaria, but it was the Egyptians, as far as we know, who in 2,500 B.C. began to pound it into delicate sheets to cover mummies and their cases, and the walls of royal tombs.

The Archangel Gabriel atop the pinnacle of the belltower of San Marco in Venice, is made of wood completely covered with Marino’s 24-karat gold leaf. The purest gold is best for exterior use because it resists deterioration. In this case, the leaves were so thin that a special wooden cabin had to be constructed around the statue to prevent the wind from blowing them away. photo by Erla Zwingle

By 1,400 B.C. the Greeks were draping their ivory statues of gods in garments of gold; in 900 B.C., the Bible reports, “King Solomon made two hundred large shields of hammered gold.” In South and Central America, Africa, Asia, wherever gold was known it was linked with gods and kings. The Chinese did likewise, but then went further, translating gold’s glory into something human: “True love,” they said, “should last even longer than gold.”

Gold leaf is defined as a sheet of gold hammered into the thickness of around 1/10,000 of a millimeter, or 0.1 micron. That is five millionths of an inch. A human hair, by comparison, is 750 times thicker. Gold can be worked to such phenomenal thinness because it has the highest ductility and malleability of any of the 118 known elements, which means it can dramatically change form without breaking.

Gold is so malleable that one gram, which is the size of a grain of rice, can produce a leaf measuring ten square feet. A single ounce (about the size of a sugar cube) can be beaten into a continuous sheet measuring roughly 28 square meters (300 square feet). Gold can become so fine that it becomes translucent; in which case a stack of 7,055 sheets would be no thicker than a dime. It can even be flattened into an infinitesimal pile of atoms (230 to be exact); or an ethereal film that’s measured in angstroms, a scale normally used on electromagnetic waves. With such prodigious capacities, gold, in a sense, can be worth more than money.

The ancient Egyptians are considered the first to smelt and work gold, and surviving artifacts confirm that they developed most of the techniques still used by modern artisans. During the Copper Age, around the 4th Century B.C., Egyptian gold-smelters oxidized lingering base metals by heating the crucible with blowpipes. During Egypt’s lavish phase under Tutankhamun, one foreign ruler declared that gold in Egypt was as common as dust. photo by Erla Zwingle

A MARRIAGE OF METALLURGY

Pure gold leaf seems to shine forever, as indicated by San Marco’s Archangel Gabriel, whose gold leaf is 20 years old. William Adair, an eminent gilder, recalls the time Prince Charles showed him a gold-leaf restoration he had recently commissioned, but admitted that he hadn’t bought 24-karat leaf. “That’s too bad,” Adair replied. “If you had, your grandchildren would be seeing it just as it is today.” photo by Erla Zwingle

At 64 years old Marino has no immediate thoughts of retiring, though he hopes to continue until the shop’s 100th anniversary in 2026, when he will be 72. In any case, whenever he decides to put away his four crushing hammers, the European goldbeater will be extinct. Gold leaf still will be produced, but machines have already taken over the bulk of the work in most countries, Italy included. To understand why that matters, you must abandon the notion that gold is merely metal. “It has a soul,” Marino tells me. He states this as fact, not as opinion, and after a lifetime of working it, he should know.

Egyptians pounded gold leaf with a rounded hand-held stone, achieving a thickness of 6 microns, which is almost as thin as what modern beaters can achieve. A gilt funerary papyrus in the British Museum commemorates Neferronpet (about 1300 B.C.), with the title, “Chief of the makers of thin gold.” photo by Erla Zwingle

Marino was born in 1954 in the part of Venice called the Giudecca, a strip of islands curving along the city’s southern edge. As a boy he may not have evinced either the strength or the patience his craft requires, but he was drawn to metal, graduating in 1972 from a three-year course as a perito (an analyst) in metallurgy. His studies included mathematics, analytic chemistry, applied physics, technical design, mechanics, and, naturally, metallurgy. None of this knowledge is necessary, as it turns out, for beating gold, but that wasn’t his plan.

A pure gold ingot, ready to be flattened into leaf. While some of the alloys in modern gold are intentional, there are a lot of deceptions on today’s market. “I know that what the Chinese are doing is gold with tin, zinc, copper, silver,” says master gilder William Adair. “Basically, selling copper with a little bit of gold.” photo by Erla Zwingle

Marino was aiming to work for a company in the Industrial Zone (at Porto Marghera on the Venetian shoreline), but by 1975 an economic recession crippled a range of industries and he still hadn’t found a permanent job. Then he met Sabrina, his future wife and, more to the point, he met her father, Mario Berta, who had recently re-established the family gold-beating workshop, a business founded in 1926.

As the recession eased, the demand for gold leaf began to boom, and the workshop was racing to fill orders for 20,000 leaves a week for the glass furnaces on Murano, where artisans were gilding drinking glasses, vases, and chandeliers. Berta had 14 employees, of which only two were beating gold; he needed more, so his future son-in-law was invited to try his hand. “Clearly it wasn’t easy,” Marino admits. “My father-in-law didn’t think I’d continue, but with time…” He smiles amiably. “One day the other workers said, ‘Mario, look—he beats better than you,’ so he began to ease up on me.”

After a gold ingot has been made, the first step is to turn it into a long ribbon. This is done by repeatedly running it through metal rollers. photo by Erla Zwingle

LIFE AT THE BENCH

The heat treatment during the annealing changes the granular structure of gold and other metals, making them both tougher and more pliable. photo by Manuel Bergamin

Marino’s laboratory is out back in a lush little garden (one could hardly be working with fire and molten metal inside a 500-year-old historic building). The lab comprises two small, compact rooms – even the tools and equipment are small. There’s scarcely any grime or dust; there isn’t even any smell. So much for my notions of Vulcan’s forge.

I couldn’t wait to see Marino start pounding, but he had to scrupulously complete a number of steps before picking up his hammers. He doesn’t start with nuggets, but small ingots that he orders from gold suppliers in nearby Vicenza, one of Italy’s premier jewelry-producing towns. (This gold is almost certainly mined abroad, as relatively few areas of Italy produce enough to be commercially viable.) Marino pays for pure, 24-karat gold, at quantities ranging from a few grams to a few hundred; still, he will smelt it again, in a gas-fired graphite crucible at 1,948 degrees Fahrenheit, to ensure its purity. He then pours the gold into a steel mold to cool, producing a square ingot measuring just a few inches on each side.

When the square is cool, he feeds it, again and again, through the rollers of a laminator that transforms this tiny piece into an ever-longer, ever-thinner ribbon of gold that reaches a length of about 20 feet. Interestingly, this thinning process—called “strain hardening”—makes the soft metal up to 20 percent stronger. Beating the gold then makes it stronger still.

Normally, gold is hardened by being alloyed with other metals, but this process strengthens it while maintaining its purity. [For a fascinating tale about how vintage jewelry in the U.S. took advantage of this capability in gold, making it more durable than most of the finest modern jewelry, see our story, “The Jewelry Archaeologist.”] I was transfixed by the sight of the effortlessly ever-lengthening strip; I’m guessing the ancient Egyptians would have been too.

The Berta family has used this tilt hammer, which administers the first beating, since the workshop opened in 1926. Leonardo da Vinci once designed a water-powered mechanical hammer, though it was never built. photo by Erla Zwingle

Marino now snips the ribbon into a pile of postage-stamp-sized squares. The room is silent as the ladies place each gold snippet on a sheet of non-stick parchment paper called carta pergamina. They don’t stop until they have accumulated a stack of 1,400 leaves–called the forma pergamina (or a “cutch” in English). Marino divides the stack into two packets, snugs them together into a pair of goatskin sleeves, then puts on industrial-strength ear protectors. Time for step one of the hammering.

Inside his workshop, Marino places the leaves under a vintage 1926 motorized tilt hammer, a hardy relic of the original shop founded by Sabrina’s grandfather. Twenty minutes of violent mechanical hammering follow, which give the leaves their first stage of enlargement.

As the ever-lengthening ribbons of gold are rolled out, they begin to cool and stiffen. By annealing them over a flame, Marino keeps them workable until they flatten to about an eighth of a millimeter. photo by Erla Zwingle

THE MEANING OF HANDMADE LEAF

When beaten by hand, gold seems to become a sort of organism. It not only feels the weather, “It feels your mood,” he says. “If you’re tense, or annoyed, it comes out one way.”

This tilt hammer raises obvious questions about what “handmade” gold leaf means, and how we should evaluate it. Marino’s hammer is, in fact, a piece of modern, mechanized machinery, which means his gold leaf is not entirely hand made. However, after the Egyptians, gold leaf was never entirely made by hand. Marino’s two machines are the functional equivalent of tools that gold-beaters have used since antiquity. For centuries, the laminator rolling out the gold ribbon was powered by a person. Even the mighty tilt hammer has been employed by metal-workers since its invention in China in 1050 B.C.; since then, it has been driven successively by gravity, water, steam, and electricity.

What distinguishes Marino’s tilt hammer procedure, compared to those used in industrial gold-leaf production, is how briefly he uses it, and the hammer’s relatively light touch. Marino’s machine has a 25-kilo (55 pound) hammer, while the biggest leaf producers use machines with 700-kilo (1,543 pound) heads. And their gold is never finished by hand afterward. Yet industrial goldbeaters, in Italy, at least, still refer to themselves as battiloro. [For more detail on how Marino’s methods compare to his competitors’—both in Italy and beyond—see the adjacent sidebar, “The Value of Hand-Made Gold Leaf.”]

After its flattening by the tilt hammer, the forma pergamina goes back to the cutting room, where the women cut the leaf into four equal parts and slip each gold leaf between sheets of mylar. It’s finally time for Marino to start beating—by hand.

THE ARTISAN’S MEDITATION

“Gold is interesting,” Marino tells me. “It feels the influence of weather very much – dry, humid… If the weather’s too dry, it creates static, so you have to beat more slowly to control the heat buildup. If the weather’s humid, sometimes it gets sticky.”

When beaten by hand, gold seems to become a sort of organism. It not only feels the weather, “It feels your mood,” he says. “You give it all of yourself, but if you’re tense, or annoyed, it comes out one way. It’s true for the girls, too, because they blow on the leaves. More than craft, I call it art.” 

Forget your image of the village smithy—there is no clanging in this process. On the thick packet of mylar, Marino’s hammer blows produce a dull thudding sound, like a boxer hitting a heavy punching bag. He works with four hammers in sequence, starting with a massive 8-kilo hammer (a 17 pound head) and proceeding to 3, 4, or 6 kilos (6, 8, and 13 pounds respectively). The 8-kilo hammer makes a thick, ponderous sound with a slightly sharp overtone, the 3-kilo a more lively, cracking noise.

To warm up the gold, Marino starts with as many as 70 strokes per minute for up to five minutes. Through the whole process, which can last for hours, he establishes a steady rhythm, but the speed continually alternates from heavy and slow to lighter and brisker. The rhythm is very soothing; this could make an excellent meditation technique, I thought, if you could forget that you’re wielding a hammer that weighs more than a gallon of paint. As he spins and flips the packet over and over—his fingers mere inches, or less, from these heavy hammer blows—Marino easily carries on happy conversations, sometimes looking down only occasionally.

Marino’s four cast-iron hammers. From left to right: 6, 3, 4, and 8 kilos; or 13, 7, 8, and 17 pounds. “Old tools are always the best tools,” says a character in “Lost Illusions,” by Honore’ Balzac. “They ought to fetch more than the new, like goldbeater’s tools.” Not true, Marino says, whose hammers are nearly 100 years old. While the hammer head, if cared for, will never age, the handle might need replacement. photo by Erla Zwingle

THE ART OF THE HAMMER

The latest trend is to consume gold leaf or gold dust as some kind of health tonic. While this fad feels very cutting edge, the practice has been around for thousands of years. With certain conditions, gold does seem to help; with many others, not so much.

The reason his right arm doesn’t look like Popeye’s by now is that Marino doesn’t fight the hammer, he collaborates with it. Goldbeating obviously requires perfect control, angling this block of iron away from the body, almost imperceptibly, to deliver a sort of glancing blow. It helps that all those layers of mylar are slightly springy, which makes the hammer bounce. Learning to control this phenomenon is fundamental to the art of goldbeating. “I’m exploiting the rebound—it lightens the impact,” Marino explains. Those glancing blows also have a simple explanation: If you drive the hammer straight down, it will bounce straight back up and hit you in the face. I wonder who discovered that little detail.

Goldbeating may look monotonous, but it is exceptionally complex. The number of blows required depends not on the clock or a calculus, but on how the gold is responding. Marino can’t see what his hammer is doing, only what it has done. “We say it has a soul because you transfer your emotions to what you make,” he says. “We transfer all our sensations into the gold through our skin.”

Marino strikes the forma three times in the center, then deftly turns it 90 degrees to the right, three blows, another 90-degree turn, three blows, until he has completed a clockwise circle. Then, without missing a beat (literally), he flips the forma and repeats the sequence. Turning, flipping, turning, flipping, counting carefully all the way. When beaten properly, the leaves will expand gradually outward, like a good pie crust—if the edges split, Marino switches to heavier hammers to close them. But why do the splits matter since the edges will be cut off anyway? “The leaf with a split edge tears more easily when it’s being cut,” he said, “and the girls yell at me.”

Tweezer work by Eleanora Menegazzo, one of Marino’s daughters. Various papers have been used over time – bamboo, rice, straw–but Marino uses only silk paper made in Germany. Its combination of fibers, he says, grips the gold just enough, but not too much. photo by Andrea Cacopardi

Marino didn’t seem the least bit bothered to be talking while he was hammering, but knowing he was counting bothered me a lot. I was fixated on the risk that miscounting would ruin the gold in some way. Absurd? “I had an apprentice once who was ambidextrous,” he said, “and you could see the difference between the hands in the gold leaf.” I therefore assumed he was working by muscle memory. “No, I’m counting,” he tranquilly replied. So I just kept talking.

IN SEARCH OF A FUTURE

Marino is the last master goldbeater for two simple reasons: price and boredom.

Regarding price, most potential customers, of which there are many, are easily satisfied with industrial leaf. Curiously, while Marino gets his leaf twice as thin as the best-known Italian industrial product, the prices of the two are almost equal: about $40 (or 34 Euros) for 25 sheets of 24-karat leaf, each 9 inches square. And some of Marino’s leaf is actually slightly cheaper than the leading industrial leaf from France.

A factory, however, can produce a quantity impossible for one man to match. And today, everybody is facing competition from China, whose factories threaten to overwhelm European leaf production. While Chinese leaf is exponentially cheaper, any goldbeater can recognize its inferior quality. Yet we are living in an age when gold paint seems as good as real leaf to many (including some well-known Italians I can’t name who ought to know better).

Cutters have traditionally been women, whether for their extraordinary patience or their precise fingers. While the thinnest leaf cannot be touched, this batch is thick enough to resist a momentary fingertip. “We say it has a soul because you transfer your emotions to what you make,” Marino says. “We transfer all our sensations into the gold through our hands.” photo by Manuel Bergamin

And potential apprentices? “They get bored,” his daughter Eleonora tartly declared. “It’s too repetitive.”

Marino by now has had to resign himself to the fact that he has no likely successor. In 2005, 14 people still worked at Mario Berta Battiloro. “One died, one retired, now we are reduced to seven including me and my wife. I’m the only one who beats gold. We had good apprentices but one by one they left ….”

“They don’t have a spirit of sacrifice,” says Eleonora. “They have to realize that at the beginning they can’t earn thousands of euros.” Worse yet, “They can’t count past 50.”

They can’t count? “They’re all with cell phones,” Marino says, “and have lost the capacity to keep count.” He’s not just geezing like some outdated crank. The ability to keep count is a function of the capacity to concentrate, which has eroded significantly. According to studies of cell-phone use, even the mere proximity of your phone is enough to distract you, diminishing your attention span and, ultimately, your cognitive ability.

“It’s repetitive, but it isn’t, really,” Marino says. “It’s the beauty of seeing the grams of gold come out in leaves of a certain thinness.” But you can’t easily convince someone that the beauty of the result is equal to the beauty of the process. Perfection only comes with practice, and goldbeating doesn’t appeal to someone who sees only the labor required.

Habberley Meadows, another family enterprise and now England’s only producer of gold leaf, faced the same problem some years ago, ultimately failing to find anyone willing to take on its long apprenticeship. The same fate befell centuries-old family businesses elsewhere in Europe, and even in Japan. All now produce exclusively industrial gold leaf.

Master gilder William Adair, of Gold Leaf Studios in Washington, D.C., tries out a sample of Marino’s leaf. Adair’s eye for quality is ruthless. He likes to quote Cennino d’Andrea Cennini, a 15th-century Florentine painter and gilder, who in his “Il Libro dell’Arte” advised gilders to avoid compromise: “He said, ‘Even if you can’t afford the best gold, use it anyway. If you use false gold your reputation will suffer.’” photo by Erla Zwingle

What if Europe were suddenly swarming with willing apprentices? Would there be enough work for them? “No,” was Marino’s simple reply. “Some people from UNESCO came to see me a while back,” he said. “They were considering placing gold-beating on their list of traditional crafts” (as Intangible Cultural Heritage). “But when they found that no one was coming after me, they went away. ‘It’s already dead,’ they said.” Or maybe it isn’t.

ELIXIRS AND COSMETICS

About ten years ago, when the demand from Venice’s glass furnaces began to decline, Marino and Sabrina started looking for new markets. They now have a standing order for 100 libretti, or 2,500 leaves, a week from the Angelo Orsoni workshop (another Venetian family business in an even more remote part of Cannaregio), one of the world’s foremost producers of handmade glass tesserae, the small cubes that compose mosaics.

And in recent years, two other new markets have opened up: beauty and cuisine.

Transferring gold leaf to its new home is such a delicate operation that gilders use a special brush—in this case, one made of squirrel hair. (Camel, pony, and badger hair are also used.) When stroked on the face, these brushes develop just enough static electricity to lift the gold leaf, and hold it during positioning. photo by Erla Zwingle

Gold leaf has been considered an anti-aging treatment since antiquity, the filmy element being so thin that it is literally absorbed by the skin. Being inert, gold is almost incapable of harming you unless you’re one of the tiny number of people who are allergic to it. This luxury facial is now performed in one of Venice’s most expensive hotels, but you can also do this at home, and Marino now packages his 24-karat leaves into a cosmetic kit of five envelopes containing 11 leaves each. The kit sells for 200 Euros ($239).

They’ve also started offering temporary gold tattoos (Marino’s wife, Sabrina, was sporting one on her arm during one of my visits.) But the latest trend is to consume gold leaf or gold dust as some kind of health tonic. While this fad feels very cutting edge, the practice has been around for thousands of years. With certain conditions, gold does seem to help; with many others, not so much. [For more on gold’s purported health benefits—in medicine, cosmetics, and cuisine—see our sidebar: “Gold as a Rejuvenator: Myths and Facts”]

Gold leaf doesn’t always gleam. To restore these doors in Venice’s Correr Museum, Venetian gilder Massimiliano Scarpa applied Marino’s leaf in a manner that would replicate the original matte appearance. “I’ve only ever used Marino’s leaf,” says Scarpa. “The industrial leaf is different. It’s like a pizza, showing how it’s been worked one way or another. If you look at the leaf against the light, the texture” (he uses the word for dough) “is different, but I can’t describe how.” photo by Erla Zwingle

“THAT’S MY GOLD”

With age comes experience, but also comes…age. After 40 years of hammering gold Marino has undoubtedly perfected his technique. But is it becoming tiring? After all, he still beats gold three to four hours a day, every day except Sunday. He smiles.

“It’s not so much that it’s tiring, but I can feel that sometimes I’m beating a tiny bit slower,” he says. “And the strike doesn’t always have the same force as before, so sometimes it takes longer to finish.” He accepts this—not only because he must, but because he knows this is a craft that does not improve with speed.

For the basilica of Our Lady of the Rosary, at the sanctuary of Lourdes in the French Pyrenees, Marino beat five kilos, or 11 pounds of gold, to cover five square meters—53 square feet. From remotest antiquity, gold has represented divinity; the chemical symbol for gold, Au, stands for Aurora, the Roman goddess of the dawn. Gold itself was thought to be the color of heaven. photo by Arterra/UIG

For all their beauty and perfection, Marino Menegazzo’s little masterpieces don’t exist for themselves; he gives “all of himself,” he says, to making something whose sole purpose is to make something else—a statue, a person, a mosaic, a plate of blinis—look good. No one can tell who made that gold surface that’s gleaming from mosaics or chandeliers; there is nothing identifying it as his. But he doesn’t think of it that way.

“To see the transformation of the gold,” he told me, “and to see where your work goes, and used by certain artists, is what gives satisfaction. I look at the statue atop the bell tower, and I tell myself: ‘That’s my gold—it’s still there.’”

Erla Zwingle, a longtime contributor to National Geographic, is a Contributing Writer for Craftsmanship Quarterly. She is based in Venice, Italy.

© 2018 Erla Zwingle, all rights reserved. Under exclusive license to Craftsmanship, LLC. Unauthorized copying or republication of this article is prohibited by law.

Published: May 2, 2018

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