The analysis of twenty Valencian “wire works”, a type of jewellery decoration with wire superimposed on noble metals, confirms that Christian silversmiths from the early sixteenth century decorated in a Moorish-style, a practice considered luxury.
The exams to be a wire master of the Silversmith Guild of Valencia analysed show twenty Christian candidates, as evidenced by their names and experience, half of which had their workrooms in the vicinity of the current Tossal Square. The area, towards the year 1500, was the beginning, within city walls, of the city’s Moorish quarter. The exams have been extracted from the Libros de dibujos (1508-1882), contained in the Municipal Historical Archive of Valencia.
The works that professor Ana Labarta from the University of Valencia has analysed start in 1508 and reach 1538, although most are from the period 1508-1510. The specialist defines which pieces represent the drawings and compares these pieces, made by Christians, with those preserved in museums. The wire works were considered minor works in silversmith craft, although they were aimed at Muslim elites and for a period, also Christian ones. In the analysed examinations, the pieces were not drawn, but stamped after being blackened, which is why their imprint is preserved in real size, in addition to the date of realisation and the name of their authors.
There are four alcorts, identified by the silversmiths themselves, circular motifs, squares and figures that reproduce triangles or three quarters of a circle. The alcorts – a loan from Arabic al-qurt – are earrings of a type of pentagonal profile. Similar copies exist in several museums from the Jewish and Muslim Hispanic necropolis such as the Archaeological Museum of Sagunto or those discovered in the Sant Joanet necropolis in L’Ènova (Valencia). Joan Nadal, argenter e obrer de fil de coses morisques (‘silversmith and wire worker of Moorish objects’), of whom the oldest silversmith exam is preserved in Valencia, manufactured an alcort.
There are parallelisms between the development of a triangular patterned pyramid, another analogue one in the Alhambra Museum and another found in Contraviesa, says Ana Labarta. Regarding pendants, plates and domina de fil – more or less circular pieces – the Valencian goldsmiths made several of these jewels.
In the specific case of square sheets, Ana Labarta highlights the epigraphic decoration that adorns the oblique band that crosses the centre of six of the ten plates stamped by the Valencian goldsmiths. In them it says lā ilāha illā-llāh – There is no god but God – a profession of faith in Arabic, monotheistic, but not necessarily Muslim, since it does not refer to the prophetic mission of Muhammad. The typeface imitates what is seen in the headings of the surahs in the Mudéjar Qurans, but according to the specialist it is evident that the artisans who traced these jewels did not know Arabic.
“The drawings of Valencian silversmiths of the first half of the sixteenth century document that they made pieces of jewellery of the same or similar type as those found in Las Alpujarras treasures hidden around 1568. The way to decorate them, with thread work, and motifs that adorn them are also the same. These examinations reveal, in addition, that at that time the wire and Moorish silverworks, even with inscriptions in Arabic, was only in Christian hands”, said Ana Labarta.
No goldsmith was from the Mudéjar community
According to Ana Labarta’s research, none of the wire masters examined were from the Mudéjar community of Valencia, an aspect that their onomastics would have revealed, being in the period before the conversion. Nor were they Jews – expelled in 1492 – or Judeo-converts, whose last names documented in the fourteenth century do not coincide with those of the Valencian teachers examined in the sixteenth century. In addition, as a result of the publications of professor Francisco Cots, there is complementary news about the silversmiths who report on where they lived or worked, their previous years of learning or the annual payment of the brotherhood tax, among others.
Since the fifteenth century, to be part of the Silversmith Guild, have a workshop and develop and sell silver products, one had to prove certain seniority in the craft, pay a fee and, from the sixteenth century, be examined. The applicant, after passing a theoretical test, had to make a piece of the type corresponding to the branch in which he wanted to enter and draw it on a sheet of paper, which was filed. In several cities there are collections of drawings. The most complete and oldest are the Libros de dibujos of the Municipal Historical Archive of Valencia (1508-1882) and the Llibres de passanties of the Historical Archive of Barcelona (1500-1882).
The goldsmiths of sixteenth-century Valencia
During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries the workshops of the master silversmiths were around the current Church of Santa Catalina. There were also workers in other places, an important group of which was in El Tossal. Some of the silversmiths whose exams are commented on are Ausiàs Foguet, Fernando Freya, Pere Torregrosa, Baptista Manrana, Pere Sanchis, Gabriel Morel, Pere Garcia and their son Jeroni; and Joan Nadal. Their location near El Tossal suggests that wire artisans preferred the proximity to the Muslim suburb, located in the square currently formed by Corona, San Miguel, Quart and Guillem de Castro streets.
In Valencia, after 1538 nobody was examined of that Moorish-style artisan branch. In 1526, for Granada and the Crown of Castile, certain pieces with Arabic inscriptions were forbidden and silversmiths were banned from working as usual. Instead they were ordered to add Christian motives, under threat of jail time for the goldsmiths.
Sixteenth century conflict
That no one took an exam on the Moorish-style artisan branch after the year 1538 should be understood in the context of repression of the cultural traits of Muslims by the Christian authorities from the forced baptism of this community in 1520. This included the attempt to eradicate not only the Arabic language and its alphabet but all the manifestations that in the eyes of the Christians were related to them, even if they were, as in this case, artistic works of Christians and largely intended for a clientele of this community.