The dazzling and almost lost art of gold beating
Gold leaf implies one of the finest manufacturing methods and the result is incomparable.
The word gold is perhaps used more in metaphor than in direct reference to the precious metal: The golden age, a heart of gold, silence is golden… With a similar dazzling metaphor, one could say that a gold thread crosses the whole tapestry of history, from the prehistoric peoples who exchanged gold grains to the stunning temples of Cleopatra, from the paintings of Klimt to our present-day finances. But with regards to its forms, gold leaf, that which has historically been used to cover buildings, sculptures, manuscripts and furniture, is the most beautiful and literally finest of all.
In ancient times this art was called lamination by fire, and perhaps its two periods of greatest splendor were, first of all, in the Middle East during the time of Cleopatra, and then in France, when Louis XVI wanted to show to the world the splendor of his country and to establish it as a world leader in the decorative arts. A sheet of gold leaf should ideally measure 0.5 microns thick, (200 times thinner than a human hair), and although to obtain it only a small amount of material is required, each piece requires the most diligent and careful artisan. In fact the profession of gold beating dates back around 4,000 years to North Africa, when laminates were applied to wood to make it look like solid gold, and continues to this day in almost all parts of the world. There is of course no gold paint that resembles the result of gold leaf; the shine it gives off is a terrestrial analogy of the sun’s purest brightness, and is where the ‘lamination by fire’ description comes from––it gives the impression of turning everything it covers into solid gold. For that reason, while there is gold in the world there will be gold leaf in its maximum artistic manifestations. But its beauty also lies in its creation.
In a traditional gold leaf workshop, of which few are left, the only machinery is a tilt hammer. The gold ribbons are beaten, which measure around 11 meters in length, until their thickness is reduced to an eighth of a millimeter. Then the sheets are cut into small pieces that are placed on top of each other, separated by parchment paper. The following blows are struck by hand with a hammer weighing around 3kg, with the final blows hit home with one weighing 8kg. Finally, the sheet of just 0.5 microns thick and a package of 1,000 pieces weighs around 20g.
This handcrafted method of gold beating could be today completely replaced by machinery, but, in the words of Marino Menegazzo, one of Italy’s last gold beaters, “hand-beaten leaf is softer and more malleable, it is not metallic and stiff. Let us say that hand-made golf leaf has a soul to it.”
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