R.S. sends me an ornate Renaissance Revival style hand carved 19th century barometer/thermometer marked G & L Guanziroli, who was a maker of optical instruments in London (Hatton Garden) in the mid 19th century.
Searching for similar barometers at auction, I discovered almost all of the fine thermometers and barometers in the collection of the eminent repository at the Alder Planetarium in Chicago were made in England by Italians. Therefore, R.S.’s barometer is a material example of social barometrics.
Storia Dell’Emigrazione Italiana by Bevilacqua, DeClemential and Franzina tells the story of Italians in London 1700-11. But we must go back to the 1500’s when the Venetian Giacomo Verelini monopolized the British glass industry, importing Venetian glass makers. Glass is the first element of R.S.’s barometer: Italians were famous for intricate glass blowing, so necessary to scientific instrumentation of the 19th century. Since the 16th century, Italians in England knew glass.
A wave of Italian immigrants to London in the mid 1700’s brought skilled mirror and frame makers. The carvers and glazers made looking-glasses (uno specchio), ornately carved frames, and carved birdcages. Note the fine carving on R.S.’s barometer: that carver who made those barley twist columns and supporting caryatid griffin mask could make an elegant frame as well. The style is in the typical mid-19th century genre called Renaissance Revival, appropriate to artisans who grew up in Italy. The style evokes the era of the Quattrocento, the florid classical style of the Renaissance. As the Industrial Revolution raged forth, designers pulled back to an era where everything was hand made for the great Medici family. R.S.’s barometer carries all the classic markers of this style in its small presentation: the naturalistic relief carving of the leaves anchored by two volutes to the top of the piece, tapering down to two barley twist columns either side of the thermometer, terminating on a plinth supported by an opened mouth bearded gargoyle mask head. The housing, therefore, for high tech scientific instruments of the mid-19th century was decidedly Antique. The medium was NOT the message in the mid-19th century: exhibiting a scientific instrument in your house was fashionable, but only if displayed in a form that was nothing like the geometry needed to create the science.
The Italian community by the 18th century in London carved frames, blew glass, created the top of the Anglo-Italian labor pyramid: fine makers of optical instruments. Anglo-Italian became the greatest artisans of optics of the 19th century. Other lesser jobs held by 19th century Italians in London included statue carvers, ice-cream makers, street vendors, roast meat sellers and organists, centered in the London Italian quarter.
The London Martinellis were a family in point: leaving Lake Como in 1800; skilled in woodworking, metal crafting, glass/mirror making, frame making came to London, finding a secure place as sellers of barometers and thermometers. The Martinelli family created barometers in London for 100 years. Italophiles.com tells us that “barometers were the must have, high-tech item of their day, first in the homes of the wealthy, at shipping and fishing ports, and then in the homes of the growing middle class.”
Dangerous job, making mercury barometers. The Italian artisans were of the labor class in London: occupying a position in England rather like the Irish in early to mid 19th century America, they were laborers, builders, domestic workers, cooks. The optics industry, however, offered the opportunity for Italian artisans to come and go between Italy and England, returning to the Clerkenwell, London’s “Little Italy” of the time, to shops on Leather Lane.
Leather Lane, mentioned in a survey of 1538, was an ancient street that became the address of the most famous of all thermometer and barometer makers. Leather Lane housed the large shop of the famous instrument makers Negretti and Zambra, which ceased business only in 1999.
In 1841 the Italian patriot Mazzini set up a free Italian school for London’s Italians, who spoke Comasco (Lake Como’s dialect) mixed with English. If they could speak pure Italian, Italy might be improved by their repatriation. Because of Catholic roots, Catholic services were held by Italian priests in London at the embassy of the Kingdom of Sardinia. The Faith drew fresh immigrants to Clerkenwell: over-crowding lead to dire conditions: cholera (carried by drinking water from the polluted Thames), drunkenness, lack of sewers, and no standing police force. Thus, many Italian scientific instrument artisans left for Canada and Australia.
R.S., your piece is a slice of material culture, anthropologically speaking, but is worth $275-300 today.
Certified appraiser for estates, inheritances and trusts.
Dr. Elizabeth Stewart's column appears every week in the Salon & Style section of the Santa Barbara News Press. Email her your questions and high-resolution photos at ElizabethAppraisals @ gmail.com
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