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Pewter
 
Pewter is an alloy that is made almost entirely from pure tin. Only in Italy and Great Britain did a special word for pewter emerge: elsewhere, as in Germany and France, the alloy does not have its proper term, but it is simply called "tin", that is "Zinn" and "Etain" respectively. Ancient French had, as a matter of fact, its proper term - peautre - that evidently century by century fall into disuse. In Italy the word used is "Peltro", from Latin "Peltrum", which is also the same common root for pewter and peautre.

Tin is a silver-grey metal, which is mainly obtained from tinstone (or cassiterite). "Cassitèridi", from latin Cassiterides, was the name given by Ancient Romans to present Scilly Islands, probably including also Cornwall, where tinstone mines where discovered by Phoenicians and Carthaginians. It can be found in underground ore deposits, together with other minerals or as alluvial deposits, almost at ground surface. Both metal veins and alluvial deposits may present layers some meters wide.

For its several strengths tin has been mined and used to make objects both decorative and utilitarian for well over 3.000 years. Worth considering, from the technical point of view, is its absolute non toxicity, its resistance to chemical and atmospheric agents, its low melting point, 232 °C, its good fluidity when melted, its suitability to form alloys with other metals, its ductility and its bright silver colour. Being relatively soft and lacking strength, tin, alloyed with the addition of small amounts of other elements becomes Pewter.

Pewter has a pleasant bright colour, does not oxidize, keeping therefore its brightness unchanged year after year, it does not get a green patina like copper and does not turn black like silver. Its qualities find a meaningful supporter in Cornelius Gurlitt (1850-1926), art expert writer, which earnestly states: "You should try just for once to eat from a pewter plate and you will be astonished by how it is pleasant, how you can easily cut the food, how long the food will keep its warmth and how long wine and beer will keep their coolness when poured in a pewter tankard".

To cast our Pewter we use an alloy made by tin (minimum 95%), antimony and copper (maximum 5%). Antimony and copper are added precisely in order to give consistency and strength to tin. This alloy meets European Standard EN 611/ 1-2 and makes therefore our Pewter suitable to contain food and drinks.
 
Pewter history
 
The archaeological finds show for certain that human kind has been using tin for at least four millenniums. During the prehistoric age it was generally used as alloy-metal (12 – 14%), together with copper, in order to obtain bronze. In Egypt, where the most significant achievements in metal working for that age have been discovered, we have finds of bronze statuettes that can be dated back to the age of the Great Pyramids (IV Dynasty, 3600 BC). The earliest known example of pewterware was found in a grave at Abydos and can be ascribed to the period 1350 – 1580 BC. It is a flask-shaped utensil with hinged lid and two handles, and when analysed was found to be comparable with early 19 th century pewter.

Also the trade of tin confirms its ancient and widespread use. At first it was traded alongside carriage tracks from Central to Minor Asia (Anatolia). Later, when Phoenicians took control of the sea, fleets transported it alongside Spanish and French costs towards North Sea islands. In the Isle of Wight and in Cornwall mountains Phoenician merchants discovered rich tin sites. Here later Romans arrived, mined tin and traded it in all their possessions. In the same period tin mining began also in France (Brittany), in Spain (Galicia) and in Etruria (near Campiglia Marittima).

Historiography states that tin was already used in remote ages. The Holy Bible is up to the present the oldest document that mentions also tin among known metals at the time (around 1225 BC), precisely in the Old Testament (IV Moses’ book, chapter 31). Passages of Homer and Hesiod about the War of Troy describe tin ornaments on war chariots and on the shields of Agamemnon and Hercules. Latin playwright Plautus, while describing a magnificent banquet of his period, reports that all food was served in pewter. In the same period pewter bowls, plates and other containers began to be used for food and for preparing and storing medicines. Pliny the Elder in his "Naturalis Historia" reports about tin ampullae and tin mirrors.

The great migrations of Teutonic tribes and all the conflicts that occurred until the XI century hampered the production of pewter in considerable amounts. Only religious pewter objects were then produced. The Council of Reims (813) allowed expressly only the use of tin, besides gold and silver, for the production of sacred ecclesiastical objects. This is also confirmed by sepulchral finds near Capétiennes (France), as at the time of the First Crusades priest were usually buried together with pewter chalices and bishops and abbots with pewter pastoral staffs.

The custom to apply little pewter images on the breast, the so called Pilgrim’s badges, probably began with the Crusade’s period (XI- XII centuries). This badges show mainly effigies of the most worshiped Saints of the various regions. River’s finds show the custom to throw pewter coins into the river as good wish.
 

Holy-water flask, XI century. Monza - Italy, Treasure of the Cathedral

Religious communities used already pewter spoons and cups. Around 1100 the German Benedictine monk Teofilo Presbyter describes, in his industrial arts handbook "Schedula diversarum atrium", pewter items manufacture.

As soon as populations began to stay, besides ecclesiastical objects as monstrances, ampullae and bowls, also plates, pitchers and goblets were manufactured in growing amounts. At home people substituted little by little wood and crockery tableware with pewter, a much more durable material, and around 1200 pewter handicraft developed in importance.
 

Pewter plates and chalices: Saint Otto gives hospitability
to monks of Michaelberg’s monastery and serves them
at tables. St.-Michaels-Kirche, Bamberg

 
This is confirmed by the establishment of Guilds in many European centres: in 1285 we have the first mention to the Guild of Pewter foundry-men in Nuremberg. At the end of the XIII century we have documents concerning pewter foundry-men that worked in Lübeck and Frankfurt. We have documents which date back to 1324 for Augsburg, 1348 for London, 1363 for Strasburg, and 1375 for Hamburg. From 1400 several documents prove that Guilds had been formed in Vienna, Dresden, Regensburg, Ulm, Munich, Cologne, Leipzig and other smaller towns in north Germany, Saxony, Silesia, Bohemia, Tyrol, Swiss and Sweden.

In Italy is Venice the town that has the first official complete Charter of the "Scuola" (Venetian term for Guild), in 1477, and this refers to a former one of 1432, that may also not be the first.


Master Pewterer Wolfhard - anno 1428 The most ancient known representation of a pewterer's workshop. Master Wolfhard pours melted pewter around the wooden model of a flagon.. From the moulding box, filled up with sand or clay, the half flagon is obtained. On the floor the hole with the melted metal. From "Hausbuch der Mendelschen 12- Brüder -Stiftung Nürnberg" Stadtbibliothek Nürnberg



RENAISSANCE
The important rule played by craft guilds during this period contributed to the improvement of wealth and power of the cities, besides to the standard of living. This is the Golden Age for pewter craft.


Table laid with pewter: Last Supper Scene from the Augustinian Monastery of Kreuzlingen. Painter unknown,
about 1500. Museum des Kantons Thurgau - Schloss Frauenfeld

Plentiful sets of pewter gleamed in the kitchen of middle-class and on the cabinets, on the sideboards, on the window-sills of rural homes. Noblewomen’s aim was to have a richly furnished "pewter room". In the Courts of Princes pewter custodians watched over the rich patrimony of pewter tableware.

At the end of the XVI century the art of casting achieved such a technical perfection that the pewter items of the period can be defined as real art masterpieces. Leaves- and pearl-shaped ornaments, floreal- motifs and figures from the Classic period, transformed pewterware in decorative items, which value was not given only by their utilitarian purpose, but mainly by the magnificence of their rich details.

 

Bucket, beginning XVII century
Lonato - Brescia - Italy, Fondazione Ugo da Como


BAROQUE AND ROCOCO

The decades following the Thirty Years War pewter-craft began to prosper again. Not only in the households, hospitals, taverns and in Guild’s halls did pewter items find an increasing demand, but could be also found in the noble’s palaces and churches, and new attractive pieces were continuously manufactured. If during the XVI century the ornamental character of items with their relief ‘s surfaces had prevailed, and at the turn of the century ornaments were limited on handles and spouts of drinking vessels or on rims of plates, at the half of the XVII century there was a return to smooth shapes, that only seldom had chiselled ornaments. The attractive natural charm of tin, its silver-like brightness came out again.
The Baroque and Rococo periods with their delicate, whimsical and asymmetrically ribbed items, show the pewter craft move beneath the silversmith’s world. Thanks to the increased number of wealthy people silver items had a considerable request, and pewter workshops tended to get from these ideas for new models. Mainly tableware, soup-tureens and bowls were manufactured , and due to the increased consumption of new drinks like coffee or tea, also pot-bellied carafes with lids were made. Crucifixes, candelabras and holy-water stoups were manufactured in new harmonious shapes for domestic devotions. The big sized flasks, trays and plates lead to the engraving of figures and mottos. Carafes and tankards were manufactured in a great variety of shapes, with smooth or ornate lids, often with spouts. Handles too were smooth or trimmed with light reliefs. Three feet, shaped as angel heads with wings or as masks, were sometimes welded to the bottom of the tankards.


CLASSICISM, BIEDERMEIER AND FLOREAL
The art of pewter showed a regress from 1800. The strict style of the classicism did not fit pewter shaping, giving pieces lacking in warmth and character. Straight friezes took place of the round lines we had seen since then, with delicate acanthus leaves or oak fronds low-riliefs.
Only during the Biedermeier period demand for pewter items improved again. Compared with porcelain or crystal objects however it was almost trivial.
Towards the end of XIX century the "Floreal" (Liberty) style allowed pewter workshops to manufacture real masterpieces.


PEWTER TODAY
The industrialization and the consequent decline in style could have inflicted a finishing stroke for the art of pewter casting, one might be allowed to think. The economic scenario that followed the II World War certainly interfered with the creative handicraft workshops. Only a small number of Master Pewterers could afford to train young people for their apprenticeship. But we have to thank these small workshops if the old tradition of pewter has been preserved. They have thrown a bridge towards the future, preparing a fertile soil for the resurgence of pewter. Today, as a matter of fact, besides replicas of valuable ancient pieces of various ages and styles, pewter workshops are able to offer pieces of new and sometimes astonishing designs: the versatility of pewter is infinite and can meet a limit only in the designers’ imagination. If ancient pewter items are nowadays of great value and can be admired only at museums or private collections, the new ones produced by skilled artisans are there to give pleasure and a touch of elegance in our homes and are destined to become today’s treasured gifts and tomorrow’s heirlooms.

Artigiana del Peltro
Via Boccaccio, 20
25080 Molinetto di Mazzano (Bs) - Italy
Tel./fax +39 030 2620810
P. Iva IT 00431910173 info@artigianadelpeltro.it

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