Unknown artist, Etruscan
Pin (fibula), 7th century BCE
Length: 9.8 cm (3 7/8 inches)
Museum Appropriation Fund 30.051
This fibula (pin), used for closing or securing garments, is a masterpiece of ancient gold-working. Tiny animals and figures, mythical and real, cover the pin. They were formed using tiny beads of gold (a process called granulation) fashioned in a fluid, curving style reminiscent of pottery of the seventh century BCE, when the Etruscans reached the height of their technical virtuosity in granulation. In the center of the decoration is a figure common in Etruscan art: the ‘master of the beasts,’ a winged man with two faces. The figure originated in the Near East and became especially prominent in Etruscan art during this period.
This pin (fibula), used for closing or securing garments, is a masterpiece of ancient gold-working. Tiny animals and figures, mythical and real, cover the pin. They were formed using tiny beads of gold (a process called granulation) fashioned in a fluid, curving style reminiscent of pottery of the 7th century BCE, when the Etruscans reached the height of their technical virtuosity in granulation. In the center of the decoration is a figure common in Etruscan art: the master of the beasts, a winged man with two faces. The figure originated in the Near East and became especially prominent in Etruscan art during this period.
Hackens, Tony. “Ancient Jewelry from the Museum’s Collection”. Selection VI. Providence: Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design,1976.
Selected Works. Providence: Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, 2008.
About the work
The Etruscans used fibulae, the ancient predecessors of safety pins, to fasten cloaks and dresses. This particular fibula is a marker of the ascendancy of the Etruscans as the main power on the Italian peninsula, and was most likely made in northern Italy in the seventh century BCE. During this period, Etruscan traders made contact with their Greek counterparts in southern Italy and became part of a trading network spanning the Mediterranean and beyond. The wealth brought from trade stratified Etruscan society, with the upper classes displaying their affluence with expensive jewelry and art. These riches were usually buried with their owners after death.
Gold was prized in the ancient world for the same practical and aesthetic reasons that make it so valuable today. It is the easiest metal to work with, malleable enough to be hammered into sheets so thin they are translucent and ductile enough to be twisted into wires fine enough to be used as embroidery thread. Because gold does not chemically react to most other elements, it does not tarnish or corrode. Its bright yellow color and shine are eye-catching, and it is very rare.
This fibula was not only valuable because it is made of gold, but because of how it was manufactured. Because gold is soft, the ability to twist it to create a springing pin—just like the coil at the end of a modern safety pin—requires both great skill and a knowledge of metallic properties. Etruscan craftsmen were renowned for their mastery of the technique of granulation, a process of decorating metalwork with small, almost dust-sized, granules of precious metal. Granules were arranged on this fibula and coated with glue and copper salt. The copper lowered the melting point of the granules and the glue kept them in place and formed a buffer, during firing, between the granules, so they didn’t melt together. The ability to create works of art such as this one set Etruscan metalsmiths apart in their communities, giving them an almost priestly status.
The granulated bits of gold on this fibula depict lions, sphinxes, and a two-faced winged crowned goddess. These forms are examples of the new ideas merchants brought via the sea-lanes; art from the ancient Near East was a popular import with the Etruscans, who began appropriating its motifs and iconography, like the winged Mistress of the Animals (or Potnia Theron, a Greek term from the Iliad) on this pin.
This pin is an ancient example of conspicuous consumption, the practice of displaying social status through expensive non-essential items. What are some modern examples of conspicuous consumption?
Fibulae are commonly found in burial contexts. Other objects that have been found in Etruscan tombs include bronze mirrors and cosmetic boxes. What were these objects used for? Made from? What scenes are depicted on them? What similarities do these objects have in common?
The ancient Greek historian Herodotus lived from about 484 to 425 BCE, approximately two centuries after the fibula was made. Notice the different forms gold takes in this passage from Herodotus’s Histories (chapter 1.50):
After this, [Croesus, king of Lydia] tried to win the favor of the Delphian god with great sacrifices. He offered up three thousand beasts from all the kinds fit for sacrifice, and on a great pyre burnt couches covered with gold and silver, golden goblets, and purple cloaks and tunics; by these means he hoped the better to win the aid of the god, to whom he also commanded that every Lydian sacrifice what he could. When the sacrifice was over, he melted down a vast store of gold and made ingots of it, the longer sides of which were of six and the shorter of three palms’ length, and the height was one palm. There were a hundred and seventeen of these. Four of them were of refined gold, each weighing two talents and a half; the rest were of gold with silver alloy, each of two talents’ weight. He also had a figure of a lion made of refined gold, weighing ten talents. When the temple of Delphi was burnt, this lion fell from the ingots which were the base on which it stood; and now it is in the treasury of the Corinthians, but weighs only six talents and a half, for the fire melted away three and a half talents.
What measurements are mentioned and why? What does the passage reveal about the religious and political uses of gold? Ask students to circle either single words or phrases that stand out to them in this passage. Then—using pencils, paint, or other materials—create a visual composition of the most prominent images in the text. Ask students to compare their results. Discuss their decisions and interpretations of the text, using their compositions as reference.
Hackens, Tony and Rolf Winkes, eds. Gold Jewelry: Craft, Style and Meaning from Mycenae to Constantinople. Louvain-la-Neuve, Belgium: Art and Archaeology Publications, 1983.