The coral of Selvaggia Sassetti’s necklace would not have travelled far from its once plentiful source in the Mediterranean sea. Precious red coral grows in a characteristic branching plant like form from the rocky sea bed, preferring the darkness of deeper water or underwater caves — for hundreds of years its main trade centre has been Torre del Greco, south of Naples.
In Greek mythology the story of the hero Perseus who slayed the Gorgon Medusa, having placed her severed head on the water’s edge while he washed his hands, saw that her blood had turned the seaweed into red coral.
Since ancient times, the population surrounding the Mediterranean has used coral decoratively, medicinally, and spiritually. Branches of coral were commonly hung around children’s necks to protect them from harm.
Relatively soft and one of the few organic gems, coral can be worked with saw and file into carvings, cabochons and beads. As today, Selvaggia’s coral beads would have been simply strung on knotted silk thread. Perhaps a gift upon reaching maturity, her necklace is enhanced with a gold pendant set with an oval faceted ruby and a smaller dark square cut gem. Further embellished with white enamelled rosettes and three precious white pearls each set to swinging freely, adding playful movement to the jewel.
Barbara Heath is a Brisbane-based jewellery designer
LIST OF WORKS: Discover the artworks
DELVE DEEPER: Read more about the exhibition
THE STUDIO: Artworks come to life
Who is Selvaggia Sassetti
This elegant portrait depicts eighteen-year-old Selvaggia Sassetti, the fifth of seven daughters to Francesco Sassetti, director of the Medici bank in Florence. It beautifully captures the promise and potential of a young woman immediately before her marriage.
Simply yet richly dressed in apple-green silk, Selvaggia wears a striking necklace of red coral — a symbol of virtue, consistent with the painting’s role as a wedding portrait. The artist repeats this palette more subtly in the tones of the young woman’s skin. Looking closely, we see long strokes of a warm blush pink, interlaced with areas of pale green and cream.
The slanting direction of the fine brushstrokes indicate that the work was painted by the left-handed Davide Ghirlandaio, younger brother of the more widely known Domenico. Three years prior, Domenico had painted Selvaggia and many of her family members gathered together in a mural commissioned for the family chapel.
This Australian-exclusive exhibition was at the Gallery of Modern Art from 12 June until 17 October 2021 and organised by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, in collaboration with the Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art and Art Exhibitions Australia.