One of the distinguishing characteristics of the 19th century was a reverence for the past. This was the age of the Grand Tour, when the popular imagination was sparked by visions of antiquity, the Middle Ages, and the Renaissance as the refined upper classes returned home bursting with information and purchases from their trips abroad. In Italy, ancient gold Etruscan jewelry was turning up in excavations, and society women were captivated by its beauty. Roman jeweler and art dealer Fortunato Pio Castellani saw his opportunity and swiftly presented the public with an easy alternative to the ancient by developing a chemical method to reproduce the warm, deep yellow tones of the ancient gold. For three generations the Castellani family created what they called “Italian archaeological jewelry,” which was inspired by the precious Etruscan, Roman, Greek, and Byzantine antiquities being excavated at the time. The Castellani jewelry consisted of finely wrought gold that was often combined with delicate and colorful mosaics, carved gemstones, or enamel.
Fortunato Pio Castellani began work in his father’s workshop as a master goldsmith. He soon set up shop at the Palazzo Raggi on the Via del Corso, and the firm quickly became known for designing fashionable jewelry in imitation of contemporary French and English work. During the late 1820s Castellani began to adopt the revival of Classical, especially Etruscan, styles inspired by the ancient jewelry and metalwork being unearthed at such archaeological sites in Italy. In 1836 when the Etruscan Regolini-Galassi Tombs were opened, papal authorities invited Castellani to study the jewelry discovered there. His knowledge of the Classical period was developed through his capacity as restorer and cataloguer of the collection of antique jewelry belonging to his friend the Marchese Giampietro Campana and was further encouraged through his association with Michelangelo Caetani. The dispersal of the Campana Collection, sold in 1859-60, prompted Fortunato Pio to start his own collection of period pieces, which he exhibited at his new premises, Via Poli 88, acquired in 1853.
Using his immense knowledge of classical jewelry design and the new techniques to replicate ancient processes, Castellani became the first 19th-century goldsmith to create works closely modeled after classical Italian and Greek prototypes, thus creating a new fashion trend. Castellani's appreciation of the exquisite craftsmanship displayed in ancient jewelry and his desire to improve Italian craft and design motivated him to pursue the rediscovery of the "lost" art of granulation. This technique of applying tiny granules of gold to an object's surface to create decorative patterns was perfected by the Etruscans in the 9th to 4th centuries B.C. but had long been forgotten. The quest to master the art of granulation absorbed the Castellani family for decades, and the revival of this and other ancient techniques was one of the greatest contributions made by the Castellani to the history of jewelry making.
In the 1850s, Fortunato Pio's two sons, Alessandro and Augusto gradually assumed management of the firm and marketed their archaeological jewelry with great success, not only to the local and international aristocracy but also to educated tourists and artists visiting Rome. Allesandro was exiled from Rome in 1859 on political grounds; he settled in Paris and continued promoting the Castellani firm, subsequently opening a shop at 85, Avenue des Champs-Elyse. At the same time, assisted by his compatriot Carlo Giuliano, he established a business in London, located at 13 Frith Street in Soho. In 1863 he opened a shop in Naples, traditionally a center for the reproduction of antique jewelry. For the first time, the firm also displayed its work at international expositions in Florence, London, and Paris. The widespread acclaim for the pieces increased demand for this style of jewelry and gave rise to imitators throughout Europe. Americans first viewed the Castellani's ancient objects and reproductions in 1876, at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. The following year the much-praised collection was on view at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The distinctive Castellani jewels tend to use simple geometric designs enhanced with patterns made of tiny gold granules, small blossoms, and filigree wire applied with absolute precision. Perfect, miniature mosaics, composed of the smallest, block-like tesserae imaginable, evoke the early Christian masterpieces of Rome, Ravenna, and Constantinople. Gems, cameos, and scarabs-either ancient originals or imitations-provide the focal point of some jewelry pieces, while others achieve their effect from a variety of enamel techniques rendered in a wide range of rich colors.
A key motivation for the Castellani interest in reviving the styles and techniques of the ancient Romans and Etruscans was the rising nationalism that would soon lead to a united Italy. In accordance with their political beliefs, the Castellani were genuinely committed to promoting the cultural significance of Italy at a time when French and English taste predominated. Fueled by patriotic feelings and a desire to educate, the Castellani pursued an ambitious goal of studying and reviving all periods of Italian jewelry. Alessandro was consulted by the French government concerning the purchase of over 900 jewels from the Campana Collection, and he regularly advised the South Kensington Museum (now the Victoria and Albert Museum) and the British Museum, over acquisitions of antiquities, bronzes, terracottas, ivories and jewelry.
In ventures parallel to their jewelry production, the Castellani were active in the trade of antiquities, sponsoring excavations, restoring artifacts, and dealing on a large scale. In an effort to preserve the best works for Rome, the family assembled extensive collections of fine vases, jewelry, and bronzes found at Etruscan and other Italian sites. Augusto Castellani's "museum" was the highlight of his palatial shop next to the Trevi Fountain. A must-see for 19th-century visitors and scholars, this famous historical survey of Italian gold work and other antiquities established greater awareness of Italy's leading role in the cultural history of Europe and helped to promote the firm's business.
The firm’s success peaked in the 1870’s. In the 1880’s, the Rome location was handed over to Augusto’s son, Alfredo. Until his death in 1914, Augusto busied himself with, among other things, attempting to “document the progression of Italian goldsmiths’ art from pre-historical times to the present.” He suggested eight time periods: primitive, Tyrrhenian, Etruscan, Sicilian, Roman, medieval, Renaissance, and modern. Though his categories are not accepted as exhaustive today, it was one of the first modern attempts to divide the history of jewelry design into eras. In 1930, Castellani closed its doors when Alfredo, the last in the line of Castellani jewelers, died. Alfredo had carefully cultivated the family's legacy and arranged for the donation of its important collections to the Italian state upon his death.