The World’s Greatest Goldbeater
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.
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.
LIKE WORKING WITH SPIDER SILK
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.
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.
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.
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.”]
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.
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.
A MARRIAGE OF METALLURGY
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.
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.
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.”
LIFE AT THE BENCH
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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).
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.
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.
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”]
“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 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.
Topics: Traditional Craftsmanship, Design, Fashion, and Lifestyle
Locations: Italy, Burma
Materials: Copper, Gold, Silver, Platinum