Keeping It Alive: The Venetian Artisan Hammering Gold by Hand

In our photo journal series, Keeping it Alive, we meet the people preserving fragments of cultural heritage across the world. In Venice, a master craftsman with the Midas touch turns 24-carat gold into glittering foils that adorn monuments city-wide

is almost as ubiquitous as water in Venice. It is seen in glittering traces on palazzo
plasterwork, encrusting the interiors of St Mark’s Basilica and
glinting from gondolas and carnival masks. While the Ancient
Egyptians were the first to work gold for ornamental purposes, the
craft reached these shores via Byzantium in the 11th century and
flourished during the days of the Most Serene Republic. By 1700,
the city was home to some 340 artisan battilori (literally meaning
“to beat gold”). But today, there is only one atelier in the entire
lagoon – the whole of Italy, in fact – that’s working gold the
traditional way, by hand.

Mario Berta Battiloro is tucked within the walled
gardens of a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it residential building
(fittingly, the former home of master artist Titian) in the
Cannaregio district. Here, artisan goldbeater Marino Menegazzo
turns 24-carat ingots into foil sheets 200 times finer than human
hair. The metal is smelted, laminated into ribbons using an antique
machine (dating from 1926, when the workshop was founded) and
placed between layers of parchment, then wrapped in goatskin to
form a palm-sized bundle.

Next, the beating begins. Menegazzo repeatedly pounds the parcel
with an 8kg hammer. Working for two hours at a time, he can clock
up 30,000 strokes per session and turn a single 1g ingot into 50
foils. “It’s a contemplative activity, like a meditation,” he says.
Chatting away over the loud, rhythmic thump of the hammer, he
doesn’t even glance down to check the blows don’t land on his bare
fingers – he’s been at this since 1975, having learned the art from
his father-in-law.

Patterns come from the hammer strokes, and the weather, and my emotions; this gold has a soul

It’s still a family affair, with Menegazzo’s wife, Sabrina, and
twin daughters, Eleonora and Sara, carrying out the next steps:
cutting the ultra-thin foils into neat squares and sorting them
into booklets. At lamp-lit desks, the three women handle the foils
solely with bamboo tweezers called canini, their work as silent and
delicate as the initial hammering is noisy and forceful.

As it stands, there’s nobody to take over the craft of battiloro
when Menegazzo retires. “Young people don’t want to do this kind of
tough, physical work; you have to learn from a master and be very
patient,” reflects the 68-year-old artisan. A handful of
short-lived apprentices departed for alternative careers on the
mainland, a symptom of Venice’s wider problem with “brain drain”.

Then, there’s the influx of cheaper metallic alloys and
industrially produced gold leaf from abroad. For Menegazzo, there’s
no comparison in quality: “In the light, our foils have veins,
patterns that come from the hammer strokes, which vary every time.
Even the weather and my emotions affect the result; for that
reason, you can say this gold has a soul.” Eleonora adds that
industrial versions lack opacity: “They’re almost see-through, so
you have to apply many layers.”

That’s why expert restorers – along with mosaic artists and
Murano glassmakers – favour Menegazzo’s gold, which adorns the
angel of St Mark’s bell tower, the giant sphere atop Punta della
Dogana and the Correr Museum’s ornate doors. Further afield, it
graces the basilica of Lourdes and Milan Cathedral.

To boost the relevance of battiloro, meanwhile, the Menegazzo
sisters are spearheading less conventional collaborations, from the
culinary to the cosmetic (including golden temporary tattoos and
anti-ageing face masks). On nearby Mazzorbo island, Venissa Wine
Resort gilds its bottles with the workshop’s gold leaf, while
Venetian designer Silvia Giani applies it to her lagoon-foraged
shell jewellery. “New applications are vital,” says Eleonora,
“because we need to show our craft isn’t only part of Venice’s
past, but also its future.”

An intricately embroidered skirt edge

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