The Refined, Brute Strength of the Silversmith

Meet Brandimarte and Pagliai, two workshops preserving a Florentine tradition

Text by Annalisa Rosso

Have you ever stepped into an artisan’s workshop where silversmiths were going about their traditional work? The vibrations that fill the air make you hold your breath. Techniques such as hammering (where the tool strikes hard onto the silver slab or already refined objects), and especially embossing (where a special hammer strives to obtain a high-relief from the previously decorated object), are actions of sheer force and precise control. 

View of Florence from Piazzale Michelangelo

The forge of Vulcan comes to mind: the God of Fire and the blacksmith of the Gods in ancient mythology, forging weapons and arrows on the Aeolian Islands below the Great Crater, still active today. And yet, each one of these gestures, brutal only at first glance, is characteristic to each one of the craftsmen, gifted with an individual and distinctive touch. This, combined with the master silversmiths’ predilection for shaping their own tools to perfectly fit their hand, makes it easy to see that this art is all about uniqueness. 

Sketching a custom hunting scene
Embossed hunting scene

Brandimarte’s heritage

In 1955 the expert craftsman Brandimarte Guscelli, one of the most renowned and talented engravers, set up his laboratory under the name Brandimarte in Florence. His children, Stefano and Giada, understood their father’s important legacy and remain faithful to the family tradition of artistic engraving. Here we discover the secrets of ancient and complex procedures like the process of turning, which is still done by hand. 

Engraving a silver bowl secured in pitch resin

On some occasions, the silversmith is even tied to the machine with a special belt and his body becomes an essential part of the work in a powerful choreography of movements. Some techniques can only be carried out a bit at a time, so effort and concentration are crucial and, sometimes, even unbearable.

Embossed alligator
Hand made silver bowl with fish handle

The forge of Vulcan comes to mind: the god of fire and the blacksmith of the gods in ancient mythology

Silver wine goblets made by brandimarte

Pagliai, master engravers of Borgo S. Jacopo

Another remarkable story comes from Florence, where the Pagliai family keeps the traditional techniques of silversmithing alive, specifically engraving, a tradition that reached its climax during the Renaissance, when the Medici family ruled the city. Since the workshop’s founding in the 1930’s, little has changed. Stefania Pagliai, who, together with her mother Raffaella, is one of the pillars of this important discipline, says: “You need a particular skill to engrave silver as well as specific tools. The gravers we work with are special, since they are used exclusively for silver: here in Florence we call them ciappole.

The Fountain of Neptune in Piazza della Signoria
Stefania Pagliai
Paolo Pagliai

The gravers we work with are special ones as they are used only for silver. Here in Florence we call them 'ciappole'

The gravers work table
Inspired by an original pitcher in the Museo degli Argenti in Palazzo Pitti
Hand made silver artichokes
Silver shell candy dish

Besides a sensitive and stable hand and an extraordinary ability to focus, engraving requires a long apprenticeship. And, even though mistakes might happen and often produce “immeasurable damage, which is almost impossible to mend,” this technique hasn’t lost its appeal. The timeless quality of the ancient art of tracing a beautiful design in silver never ceases to amaze and delight.

The master craftsman refining a knife handle
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