Jewelry in the Baroque period: a story of power, luxury and opulence

Enamelled cross in gold and diamonds, 16th century A.C.

Starting from end of the sixteenth century, a new artistic style, which questioned the traditional function of art and the concept of beauty itself, revolutionizing the classical proportions, was developed in Italy. The Baroque influenced the entire seventeenth century, connoting itself as a strongly theatrical, persuasive, dramatic and sumptuous style in all Europe.

The sumptuousness and opulence of seventeenth century art was also reflected in the jewel. The connection can already be deduced by the name of the Baroque itself: in fact, the French adjective baroque derives from the Portuguese barroco, which refers to the famous baroque pearl, characterized by an irregular and always different shape, distant from the classic perfection of the pearl, whose quality is usually measured according to the canons of whiteness, size, weight, roundness, and lastly regularity. It is precisely the particularity and uniqueness of these gems that refer to the concepts of extravagance and eccentricity typical of baroque art. The indefinite, atypical nature of the baroque pearl made it very interesting for the creation of increasingly original jewels, as it allowed to imagine more and more inventive models. The imperfection of this gem represented its main element of charm, even more so as it made it unrepeatable.

Indeed, pearls are the undisputed protagonists of the seventeenth century. These gems, throughout their millennial history, have always been surrounded by extremely fascinating myths and legends. For example, in Greek (and then Roman) mythology, they were believed to have a divine origin as a product of the tears of the gods. In Christianity, the association of pearls with Virgin Mary was very marked, representing purity and virginity. This symbolism underwent a change during the seventeenth century, with the partial detachment from the traditional aura of finesse and purity. As a matter of fact, pearls began to be used in seductive or even erotic contexts, for example through breast jewelry. On the contrary, the symbolism of wealth and high social rank represented by pearls always remained alive: during the Baroque they were worn more and more abundantly, not only by women but also by men, with an evident intent to flaunt their status and prestige. To the point that real court competitions were created on who wore the most.

Ritratto di Elisabetta I, artista ignoto, 1588 ca.
Portrait of Elizabeth I, unknown artist, around 1588

The magnificence of the jewels was continuously exhibited by important personalities, who loved to be portrayed in all their splendor. In fact, portraits are the greatest testimony that has come to us today about the jewelry of the time. Indeed, even though it was the beginning of the Baroque, just by looking at the last portraits of Elizabeth I, Queen of England and Ireland from 1558 until her death in 1603, the abundance of pearls, worn to communicate the wealth of the kingdom, is already evident. Charles I of England, who became king in 1625, also used to be portrayed by wearing a single earring with a large pendant pearl.

It is particularly interesting to examine the depictions of high-ranking personalities of the court of the French royal family: it was in fact in the majestic palace of Versailles that the fashion of the time was dictated. The French seventeenth century is identified with the reigns of Louis XIII and the Sun King, Louis XIV. These kings commissioned numerous artistic works for celebratory purposes and favored an opulent, eccentric and theatrical style, in line with their greatness. In those years, French jewelry affirmed its supremacy over the whole world. In addition to pearls, diamonds were also central for the French royal taste. Anne of Habsburg, wife of Louis XIII, was portrayed by Pieter Paul Rubens in 1625, while wearing a large number of magnificent pearl and diamond jewels. It can be observed how in many female portraits of the time the use of a pearl choker and large drop pearl earrings are combined with diamonds: for noblewomen it was a real must have. Also famous is the portrait of king Louis XIV, by Frans Pourbus the Younger, who depicted him when he was still very young, at the beginning of his reign (he was crowned at the age of only nine): in the background, you can see the hat of Louis XIII, decorated with a marvelous diamond coat of arms.

Dettaglio di uno dei cancelli della reggia di Versailles raffigurante il Re Sole
Detail of one of the gates of the palace of Versailles depicting the Sun King

The French crown jewels had already surpassed those of any other European monarchy in magnificence, but with Louis XIV its wealth increased much further. For example, the king acquired two of the most famous diamonds in history. The Grand Sancy, the largest known diamond, which belonged to the richest piece of jewelry of the time, Mirror of Great Britain, worn by the English king James I, was given to him by the Italian Cardinal Mazarin. Louis XIV also bought the Diamant Bleu, the largest blue diamond in the world.

Equally fascinating is analyzing the figures of the lovers of kings: no less than the legitimate spouses, they were honored with very rich jewels by the sovereigns, who satisfied their every wish. In particular, the Sun King had numerous “favorites”, including the most beautiful and passionate, Madame de Montespan. As reported by Bernard Morel in his work The French crown jewels, the woman seems to have requested, to satisfy one of her many whims: “a pearl necklace that I want to be beautiful, two pairs of dangling earrings, one of diamonds and the other of all the stones, a box with accessory diamonds, a box with various accessory stones, so that they can be modified.”

The intense contemporary artistic activity demonstrates that the desire for originality, creativity, to emphasize beauty is always present. The hope for the future is that more and more artists will renew with originality the inspiration of the Baroque style, which has adorned our cities for eternity and, apparently, returns more and more also in our jewels. In conclusion, the narrative of Lady Arabesque, the necklace that is the protagonist of Barocko collection by Bulgari, fits perfectly here: “If the result is splendid, inviting and full of joy, then nothing is ever too much.”

Madame de Montespan
Madame de Montespan