Fernando Izzi - The iron

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Metamorfosis of Iron.

The art of wrought iron has its origins in the remote past. The first instruments date back to the year 3000 a.C.. The Ittiti from Asia minor fought against the Egiptians with arms in wrought iron. But the real era of wrought iron dates back to, about 1000 a.C.. The Greeks and the Romans named the craftsman of iron HOMO FABER, giving a kind of magical -and alchemical significance to these terms. The Faber, with his ability to mould and transform the raw material into something purer and beautiful, was considered a superior human being, protected directly by the gods Efesto and Vulcano, gods of the underground fire considered to be his putative fathers. He was therefore considered to be privileged and this creed went on until the late medieval era. In the roman era the working of wrought iron underwent a radical change.

The Romans created an actual industry of construction of arms in the various provinces of the empire, whereas in Rome grills, bolts, locks and various objects were produced. Plinio the old (23/79 d.C.) informs us that forged iron cost more than silver. The iron mould was a "strong man" and thus could afford luxury and transgression not permitted to other categories of handycraft men.

He could for example let himself go to the joys of the effect of wine. Numerous vases from the Greek era have the drawing of the Faber tipsy with wine but held up by Efesto, his inseperable protective god. With the Barbaric invasions the tribes of a very backward civilization emerged. They had no knowledge of architecture nor of laws, but they were very skilled in the art of working iron: think of the elaborate swords and the silver entarced ones of the Longobardi.


The Medieval times mark the triumph of the art of working iron: around the year l 000 the working of iron follows criteria not only utilitarian, but esthetic; iron becomes an element of decoration for churches, convents, houses, and its use expands and increases. One of the oldest and most significative examples is the portal of saint Anna, in the church of Notre-Dame in Paris, with its floral decore, its birds, dragons and fantastic creture ciselled with immense skill. Another admirable example is the grate of San SWITHIN in the cathedral of Winchester.

At that time it was the actual clergy who installed in the major convents examples of iron works, so that the art of iron was cancelled from the legend that made of the blacksmith a handycraft man surrounded by a diabolic aura, protected and perhaps encouraged by the devil himself. It will be the same Smithies, who will later produce the horrible and complicated torture weapons of the Holy Inquisition.

At the end of the 1200 ovens at low temperature fell in disuse (on beds of refractory earth lay iron minerals and coal in a fine powder). In Germany vertical ovens called STUCKOFEN were experimented with great success; these ovens were in the shape of vats, and they functioned on idraulic energy with bellows, and consented the production of great quantities of iron. In this way, use of iron in architecture and in decoration spread very quickly.


In that period the profession of blacksmith branched out into two different specializations: the FABER FERRARIUS who took care of architectural structures, and the MAGISTER CLAVARIUS who took care of keys, locks, decorative works, gates and fences. In Italy, the first examples of handycraft to be remembered are the Comunichino in the church of Santa Chiara of Assisi (sec.XIII), and the iron of the scaligere tombs in Verona (XIV sec).

The XIV century with the development of the gothic marked the exaltation of the working of iron; the prevailance of the vertical dimension, pointed arch, the abundance of the sculptural decoration find a natural complement in the art of iron.

Every handyman competes, in the cathedral, for the construction of the work, and through his work he goes through the spiritual walk which puts man above human poverty: each one will find his place in the multitude sculptured on the sumptuous portals. In these last years the panes obtained by hammering became decorative: they were pierced, and engraved by incision. Nails and screws gave way to simple groove and tongue. The advent of the renaissance art, which grew and developed in Italy, marked a further flourish of the art of wrought iron: there developed a tight bond of collaboration between handymen and architects with mutual respect for the reciprocal competence. Among the most significant examples one recalls the irons of the cathedral and palace of Siena,designed probably by Jacopo della Quercia, and the lanterns of the Strozzi palace and the Guadagni palace in Florence, opera of Niccolo named il Caparra, one of the best known smiths of the time. In Toscana the art of iron was particularly refined, to the point that even the manufactures of a war type have the signs of an extreme perfection and of a continuous search of beauty. Lorenzo the Great chose il Caparra as his chosed blacksmith, but others were just as skilled: think of the marvelous gates of the cathedral of Orvieto, and of those of the Oratory of Lorentino in San Miniato, works of Jacopo di Lello Orlandi from Siena; the gates of the chapel of the Town Hall of Giacomo di Giovanni di Vico.


With the rising of the Barocco era, architecture moves towards a sought after and complex theatricality and the european capitals suffer real transformations: the historical centres are completely disemboweled to make room for foreshortenings of a spectacular type. In this contest yet again wrough iron adapts to the requests of the new architecture: the lines become more contorted and full of ornaments; the foliage becomes plentiful and the shape increasingly important and virtuous. Les grilles d'honneur, that is the gates of the royal palaces and of the nobility, are curtains to all effects ready to open up onto complex architecture, such as the royal palace of Versailles, the castle of the Belvedere in Vienna, the hunting palace of Stupinigi at the doors of Turin and many others. In the 1700 gates and fences are further enriched. The foliages become flowered branches and miniature trees. Leaves, first engraved in wrought iron, now is cut from corrugated iron. But more frequently painted, it suffocates the shape and the pureness of the objects, depriving them of expression. In the neoclassical era, everything that the Renaissance had conceived to give maximum expression to wrought iron is in part neglected. To the blacksmith there remains the gratefulness of the public, but the charm constituted his prestige and his mistery, disappears; he is now only a great maestro, specialized in an art who everyone admires and seeks. In 1800 all the artistic expressions of the past converge and are summed up but now the cast iron fusions prevail: this tecnique fills the balconies of Paris and other european capitals. But the majority of blacksmiths still express themselves through copying the masterpieces of the past, mainly the renaissance ones which were so much loved and appreciated.


At the end of the century, and then in the beginning of the '900, when the romantic aspirations which suggests to the blacksmith the rievocation of the romantic and gothic motives had been abandoned, the Modernist style reintroduces the like for wrought iron: this gave way to the so called "Liberty" period which picks up the study of rich decorations, of embellishments and of curved motives, adding of its own sinuosity taken from the barocco era. Our best known expressions of the Liberty style are the works of Alessandro Mazzucotelli (1865 - 1938): the gates and other furnishings in iron built for the Clinica Columbus in Milan. Later on, further attention must go to the splendid sculptured gates of the Fosse Ardeatine in Rome, the work of Mirko Basaldella (1910 - 1969); but in general, firstly in the first and then in the second half of the century, after two devastating wars and the subsequent difficult reconstruction, the blacksmith is certainly present, but it is as though he is incapable of expressing himself at his best. His art, tighten from the tough necessities of the moment, does not mature, and gives way to manufacture of a terrible quality and of similar terrible taste.

In the beginning of the the third millenium, the tecnology appears very promissing because enormous progresse has been carried out: a new situation has been created which should be very favourable to the category. Certainly, it will be difficult to build masterpieces even remotely similar to those of the magnificent Maestri of the Renaissance. It is possible that, if the effort of the artists is towards a simple style, adopting tecniques of working the iron and simple joints malefemale (a tecnique already in use in the gothic 14 century), a first step will be carried out towards the rebirth.


When we admire an iron object, when we intend its beauty..it is necessary to reflect on the creative effort carried out by our ancient maestri. It certainly wasn't easy to bring the hard iron to be moulded, and shape it to the form desired. We must not vanify this important heritage. To these distant maestri there is all our gratitude: the matter has been completely transformed by them, it has suffered a docile metamorfosis which has rendered it worthy of gathering the finest vibrations of our sensibility and the most admirable appearance of our dreams. That hard material now is alive and talks. With my sculptures, I myself have tried to transform material into life. With my work I would like to call back to life the charm expressed by the blacksmiths in now ancient times; I would like to wake up the HOMO FABER as far as it is possible from his already too long sleep.

(Fernando Izzi)

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