The ancient craft of the “batti and tira oro” was imported from Byzantium to Venice around the year 1000. At the end of the XVIII century this art could count 80 headmasters and 107 workers – for a total of 46 workshops – today, in Venice, there is the last family of craftsmen in all Europe which still passes on this thousand-year old tradition.
We paid a visit to the Mario Berta Battiloro workshop, where gold, along with silver and other precious metals, keeps being handcrafted, as ingots get turned into paper-thin layers, following an ancient craft that risks disappearing forever.
In this small workshop in the Cannaregio district, where Tiziano Vecellio resided too, it is important to try and follow as much as possible the manufacturing techniques of the past, left almost unchanged when compared to those recounted or portrayed in old prints. Mario Berta Battiloro was born in 1969 thanks to the wish of keeping this old family-craft alive, which had begun in 1926. Their gold is employed in the bell tower and mosaics of the Basilica of Saint Mark, and in the Madonnina of the Cathedral of Milan.
From the initial phases of fusion and lamination, the final beating is without any doubt the most enchanting moment. With hammers that go from 3 to 8 kilograms of weight and the redundant motions of the arm – accompanied by a subtle push of the bust -, Marino is able to beat metals for 2 hours straight. In this way the product is furtherly laid out, gaining its final appearance. The extremely thin foils – almost see-through – are then divided by skilled hands and organized in booklets.
The gold leaf was employed in various occasions: mosaics, glasses, book bindings and the decoration of sumptuous Venetian palaces. Although it was also requested by crafters of golden leather (the so called cuoridoro), and by textile workers for the weaves of precious fabrics. Nowadays, the two daughters Sara and Eleonora, the youngest of this small enterprise, have decided to follow the steps of their family by innovating the activity and broadening the employment of gold leaves not only for artistic purposes but also alimentary and cosmetic ones.
A sort of family micro-production-line which renders this incredible craft even more unique.
It may seem impossible, but in Venice the decline of this craft began in the year 1700 due to the competition with the craftsmen of the mainland and the arrival of golden paint from abroad – which was considerably cheaper. As of today, the last headmaster able to pass on this art, if not substituted, is indeed Marino.
There is no manual, no classes, nor books to learn these techniques. Gold-beating is an ancient craft that cannot be caught on quickly; it is a job that needs to be understood, absorbed with a lot of practice, dedication and especially with the help of a good mentor. It is also crucial to listen to your own self and the strong link with nature, as the latter lives in symbiosis with materials. In fact, as Marino tells us, and as he himself was told by his father-in-law, you can feel gold subtly changing along with the weather and tides.
Many crafts are now disappearing in Italy: they hold precious knowledge of a cultural heritage to be preserved, and which we feel the need to protect and share. The battiloro craft is one of the few to be open to foreigners. Therefore the desire of the Mario Berta family to draw the attention of new artists, and of whoever wishes to protect this tradition for it to never get lost, or replaced forever by mechanical work.
If you find this story as incredible as we did, then it is time to come forward and spread the word!