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An ancient art

We hope that you will enjoy reading these few background notes about the history of this ancient art, the origins of which, like few others, are entwined with those of man himself.  Despite the fact that iron is nature’s most abundant element, its diffusion has historically been fairly slow and difficult.  

Discovering the secrets of how to work with this metal had a huge impact on the evolution of man.  The Iron Age (1000 BC), which followed the Stone Age, constituted a huge step forward for mankind.

Despite the fact that instruments and weapons made out of hard metal have been around for a couple of millennia, the story of wrought iron really only came into its own several centuries later, when the men of the day realised that the mass of molten iron needed to be reheated before it could be forged and modelled for use as required.  The blacksmith – wreathed in a magic aura – soon became an important figure in civil society, as many tales from Greek mythology serve to demonstrate.

The same was true during Roman times, when blacksmiths, who had been traditionally more active in the military sector, began to focus increasingly on the civil sector.  Pliny the Elder actually tells us that in his day (I Century AD), iron not only cost more but was also more sought after than silver, and it was at this time that the first corporation of master blacksmiths came into being in Rome.

After the barbarian invasions, it was not until the new millennium, with Europe’s cultural and financial renaissance, that blacksmiths took up their work again in some style. Schools of wrought ironworking sprang up in the monasteries, which became hotbeds of budding artistic talents.

In addition to these established centres, there were also increasing numbers of “itinerant blacksmiths”, masters of the art of forging, who roamed from city to city, offering their knowledge and skills to anyone who would guarantee them a generous recompense. The raw material, molten iron, was produced in a very few large centres, generally in close proximity to the mines.  The new vertical furnaces premiered in Germany in 1200 caused a real revolution, and for the first time in history they enabled large quantities of raw material to become available. 

Florence is regarded as one of the real cradles of ironwork, an activity that was well and truly flourishing by 1200.  At that time most of the blacksmiths, or “maniscalchi” (“farriers”) as they were known, produced utensils as well as various agricultural tools by hand.

The artisan corporation of blacksmiths and ironworking was in fact one of the most ancient in the city, and master blacksmiths belonged to it in order to carry more weight and gain greater representation.  The corporation was one of the “minor guilds”, only later acquiring equal status to the “major guilds” such as that of the Wool Merchants, for example, and came under the heading of a “new major guild”.  During a period of particularly fierce struggle to carve out its own social and economic identity within the city, the Guild of Blacksmiths was represented by 12 rectors,   which later decreased to 6 once the situation had settled down.  Other distinguishing factors also applied to the corporation, unlike others at that time – blacksmiths’ boys in fact occupied a particularly privileged position, they earned an extremely good wage, and they were also entitled to have their say in the corporation’s decision-making.

The objects that were being manufactured during this period were looms for the textile industry, keys, nails, hooks, bolts, hinges, fire shovels, trivets, escutcheons, lanterns, gimlets, buckles and fasteners.

The raw material for these products was supplied by a number of furnaces.  Towards the end of 1200, in order to protect themselves from competition from encroaching country blacksmiths, the Florentine blacksmiths managed to obtain a decree forbidding this sort of rivalry.

The following centuries saw tremendous developments in the art of wrought ironwork in both Florence and Tuscany.  A well-known blacksmith, Niccolò il Grosso, known as Il Caparra, crafted the wrought ironwork for Palazzo Strozzi, during the late C15th.  His name was an embodiment of his abilities and his physical strength, the latter being a prerequisite for work of this kind.  During the C17th and C18th as well, the trends and tastes of the time drove the artistic evolution of wrought ironwork, and the development of increasingly sophisticated techniques enabled even more intricate work to be produced.  Leaves and foliage became fundamental motifs for this artistic genre.

The art and magic of wrought iron, now universally recognised and appreciated, also went through troughs of decline and neglect during a lengthy history that spanned centuries and millennia.  One such period, the last chronologically-speaking, was the C18th, when particularly severe and analytical architectural and aesthetic tastes, striving to emulate the classical perfection of the great Greek masters of Antiquity as closely as possible, were all the rage, leaving no quarter for the blacksmiths’ powers of expression.

Technological progress also seemed to threaten the perpetuation of this extraordinary artform: in fact cast iron fusions became increasingly popular, stealing a further march on the blacksmiths’ activities and powers of expression. It was not until Romanticism took hold, with its altogether different literary and aesthetic predilections, that the blacksmiths’ art began to flourish once more, giving credence to the theory that artistic renaissance went hand in hand with the evolution and affirmation of top quality craftsmanship.  It was the French architect, Viollet-le-Duc who breathed new life and respect into wrought ironworking, with a return to great style with Boulanger.

When the Liberty style, with its references to the natural world, came into fashion, this set the seal on modern wrought ironworking, marking out a new creative niche for farriers and master blacksmiths.  It was with the creation of fruit, flowers, animals, fish, birds and other ornamentation with which to enrich everyday objects that the art of wrought ironworking really came back into its own.

Not even the temporary vogue for trends such as Rationalism, over the last few decades, were capable of standing in the way of these extraordinary artists/artisans and their creative talents.

Effe.Bi was born of and continues to evolve within this context, drawing its life-blood and creative impetus from a unique and matchless past.

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