It all began in 16th-century Florence, at the height of the Renaissance. Tuscany was governed by the Medici, who commissioned important works of art to celebrate their own prestige. It was during this era that the Uffizi were completed, Forte Belvedere was built, Giambologna adorned the Piazza della Signoria and Vasari transformed the craftsman into an artist. It was during this period that every work was designed to be harmonic and elegant: perfection was the objective of every activity. Florence was in a state of extreme political and economic turmoil and was one of the most important cities in the world: it had bankers with branches in every corner of Europe, traders navigated with enormous amounts of capital and the noble classes with their centuries-old wealth formed the Florentine social fabric. And therefore, driven by the patronage of the Medici, for the wealthy Florentine families, art became a tool to market and promote the family’s good name. Art was a passion, and at the same time, a means for exhibiting one’s prestige. This is why every day new works of art were being commissioned, and Florence was undergoing such a thriving cultural revival that every Florentine family was involved in it. including the Manetti family.
The history of the family as we know it begins with Matteo Manetti, who lived between the late 1400s and the early 1500s. We know he lived with his children and grandchildren in Ouinto, a small village in the Tuscan countryside, a few kilometers away from the Medici Villa, La Petraia. Unfortunately, little else is known of him, since the first baptismal records are dated after 1580. We only know that he had two sons, Antonio and Agostino, of whom little is known for the same reason. It was their heirs Matteo and Paolo, Antonio’s sons, who laid down the original foundations for what we know today as Giusto Manetti Battiloro.
Contrary to what one might think, the Manetti family were not originally goldbeaters, but rather decorators, gilders and goldsmiths. One of the most important family members was Matteo, Agostino’s son, who is still remembered today in the history books as one of the late sixteenth century Italian goldsmiths. Honoured over the years by various scholars including Bruno Bearzi, Matteo began his career in Florence in the famous workshop of Francesco di Jacopo da Empoli. After his years of training, he moved to Rome, the Eternal City, where St. Peter’s Basilica was like a giant building site, overrun with painters, gilders, sculptors, engineers and architects. Here Matteo stood out for his talents as a goldsmith, working together with a man named Battino Bologna on the golden ball which tops Michelangelo’s dome on St. Peter’s in the Vatican. This work gave him such a good reputation that when lightning destroyed the golden ball on the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore in 1602, Matteo was quickly summoned to Florence. Introduced as one of the best goldsmiths of the time by the architect of the Opera del Duomo, Alessandro Bronzino Allori. After winning the selection over other goldsmiths, Matteo agreed to restore the ball, the city’s symbol. This was despite the difficulties entailed by such a dangerous job, particularly, exposure to mercury fumes (the system used for gilding metal at the time). On September 18, 1602, in just one month, the ball was completed and the workers of Santa Maria del Fiore and the Grand Duke of Tuscany’s delegates, after examining Matteo’s restoration work, appointed him Cathedral Goldsmith. This was the first official recognition of a member of the Manetti family and the beginning of a great story.
We do not know whether Paolo and Matteo, Antonio’s sons, managed to garner jobs that were as important as those of their cousin, but unlike Matteo the goldsmith, they can be credited with having passed on the secrets of the trade to their children. This is the case of Maestro Antonio, Paolo’s son, who not only became qualified as a Master craftsman, but probably worked on the renovation and embellishment of the Villa Petraia for Don Lorenzo De’ Medici. He continued to do business in the workshop with his son Matteo, born in 1602 and named in honour of his cousin who brought so much importance to the family surname from Rome to Florence. Matteo, like his father, first became a Master craftsman and later worked for the Medici family. The relationships between the Manetti craftsmen and the Medici patrons grew to such a point that in 1633, Lorenzo De’ Medici became the godfather of Matteo’s son, who bore his name: Lorenzo Manetti. In fact, Matteo was the founder of the first Manetti workshop.
The historical sources date back to the early 1600s, and speak of a workshop of gilders, decorators and goldbeaters, all strictly members of the family as Florentine tradition would have it. In fact, in those centuries, there were numerous requests for works of art and many families organized their workshops like real assembly lines. There is the famous case of Botticelli who is said to have worked as a painter in the gilding studio of his brother. Returning to the Manetti family, it is very likely that they began business a few years before, and in the wake of a Florence that loved art and beauty, the shop had its best years. In those decades, most of the Manetti family moved to Santo Stefano in Pane, a neighborhood just outside the walls of the city. The move is documented to have taken place presumably due to a greater number of commissions from customers in the city. Furthermore, several grandchildren of Maestro Matteo attended the Academy of Drawing, established in 1563 and supported by the patronage of Michelangelo Buonarroti. The workshop’s offer was enhanced by being able to also incorporate painting. This was in the late seventeenth century.
The last Medici rulers, Ferdinando II, Cosimo III, and Gian Gastone, were only capable of promoting closure policies on trade, artistic investments and foreign relations: we were coming to the end of the Medici dynasty. In Florence during that era, the shop went through some difficult years. Meanwhile, in Europe there were ongoing departures for the New Lands, which had become sources of great economic opportunity. And so in the eighteenth century Niccolò Manetti was the main source of pride for the family. Grandson of Master Matteo, in 1732, Niccolò was appointed Consul of the Academy of Drawing. In the meantime, the Manetti family saw no improvement in demand for their business. In the mid-1700s the family transferred the workshop to the San Lorenzo neighbourhood, the artisan heart of the city, and many of the Manetti women worked as weavers, showing a family business that had grown poorer and needed new revenue.
The French Revolution, Napoleon’s Europe and the Industrial Revolution: these were the changes that Europe had been waiting for. In a world that was changing fast, breaking the old social and political patterns in the development of new manufacturing structures through the use of new technologies managed to rekindle the ideals and minds of the people. In those years that were so lively and dynamic for all of Europe, the family workshop existed in a Florence that was still only barely touched by the huge changes, and was unable to grow. The workshop’s management was in the hands of Salvatore Domenico Manetti (1753-1816) who, in this Florentine state of immobility, realized that what was happening in Europe was not to be wasted. And so he sent his son Luigi (1791-1855) traveling right into the thick of all these changes.
Luigi traveled from 1811 to 1816 throughout Europe (Spain, Italy, France and Prussia), and returned home with a great awareness of how the world was changing. At the beginning, he worked for several years as a goldbeater in the family workshop with his brother Giuseppe, a professional gilder, and then he decided it was time to grow. In 1820 Luigi bought a shop in the center of Florence and changed the family fortunes forever. On the strength of the quality of the workshop’s gold leaf, he created his own truly successful trademark: Giusto Manetti Battiloro. This trademark chosen in honour his first-born son, Giusto (1818-1890), began to make its first inroads into a very active Florence, especially in regard to those ideas of independence that were setting Italian politics on fire. In managing the new workshop, Luigi immediately understood the importance of investing in modernizing production and making the business more industrialized. After a few years, the choice began to pay off, and the quality of that activity improved as well, as the tax tables of the city government of the day show.
When the son Giusto (1818-1890) began to work for the company, further innovations were made by introducing mechanized lamination. This made it possible to produce an even thinner leaf, improving its quality and reducing production times. By introducing these industrial innovations, Giusto was able to arrive at the mid-1800s with a net profit with respect to the local competition that had remained as simple workshops. At the First National Exhibition of 1861, held in Florence, Giusto Manetti Battiloro was awarded the medal of merit for the quality of the company’s gold leaf. The exhibition marked an important stage in the company’s growth, also thanks to the fact that Florence had just become the capital of Italy and was undergoing years of drastic architectural transformation. Avenues, squares, villas, palaces, ministries. They seemed to have returned to the fervor of the 1600s. The big commissions had returned and Giusto Manetti Battiloro, compared to the competition, was the only one in step with the times. These were years of enormous growth for the company and the National Events, celebrating the much-desired and hard-won unification of Italy, continued to reward the characteristics of the Manetti gold leaf: first in 1881 at the National Exhibition in Milan, then in 1884 at the Italian General Exhibition in Turin, the gold leaf of the Manetti Battiloro received the Bronze Medal for its quality.
In the years that followed, Europe was living through a period of great dreams, profound delusions and blind faith in progress: it was the time of the Belle Époque. In those years, Giusto’s son, Adolfo Manetti (1855-1926) took command of the company and thanks to new technologies made available by the second industrial revolution, such as automatic hammers, the company finally grew into an industry. There were now a hundred employees and the factory moved to Via Ponte alle Mosse. Innovations to production made it possible to satisfy a greater number of customers. For the first time in its history the Manetti brand managed to reach the European markets. Then, like all European industries of the time, they were forced to suddenly stop producing.
Laborers were called up for military service. Orders diminished and borders were closed. The First World War had begun. During these years, Adolfo’s son, Giusto Manetti (1891-1961), named in honour of his grandfather, enlisted in the Army as a Lieutenant of Cavalry of Lancers of Mantua. Despite being a reserve officer, Giusto chose to go into battle like the other soldiers, immediately distinguishing himself for bravery. In 1915, at the battle of Monfalcone, he was wounded several times and eventually captured by the Austrian army: for two years he was a prisoner of war in Mauthausen. He returned to Florence in 1918 with the War Merit Cross and the Silver Medal of Military Valour. With great determination and ability, he took the reins of the company. Together with his brother-in-law Guido Macchia, he made further innovations in production, employees, who in a few years numbered nearly three hundred, and was exporting the company’s products to all five continents. Thanks to their business, Giusto Manetti Battiloro gold leaf was shining on the most important buildings and monuments, from the Rockefeller Center to Versailles, the Kremlin and Buckingham Palace. Thanks to the results achieved, their management of the company went down in the history of Giusto Manetti Battiloro, particularly because the period following the First World War was the most difficult in Italian history.
During the Second World War, the company again went through very hard times. At first the work force was significantly decreased due to the forced recruitment, which also included Giusto as a cavalry officer. Following that, on July 2, 1944, the factory was most likely mistaken for a freight depot at the Porta al Prato railroad, and was completely destroyed by Allied bombing. Reconstruction took two years, but thanks to the help of his sons (Lapo and Fabrizio) and the craftsmen, in September 1946, they managed to start production of gold leaf once again.
After the Second World War, Giusto’s children went to work in the company. Lapo invented and developed the field of hot stamping, Fabrizio made the company’s global footprint even stronger and Francesca, born in 1938, brought innovation to management and introduced new management controls. Meanwhile Giusto had gained worldwide recognition and was highly sought-after for outstanding skill in working with gold leaf. A case in point is 1953 when the British Museum called on Giusto to give an expert opinion on the degradation of an ancient Egyptian mummy covered with gold laminate. Some time later, NASA called on him to provide advice on the gilding of warheads for space missiles. Giusto passed away in 1961 and a few years later the company went through more hard times: on November 4, 1966, the Florence flood almost completely destroyed the factory in Via Ponte alle Mosse. Lapo, Fabrizio and Francesca decided to use the opportunity to make more renovations in the factory, modernizing the machinery, giving the company management a more dynamic structure and getting back into the game once again. The three siblings managed Giusto Manetti Battiloro until 1996, bringing it to make a turnover of approximately 9 million Euros.
They were succeeded by the new generation consisting of Bernardo, Lorenzo, Jacopo, Niccolò, Bonaccorso and Angelica. Under new management the company has expanded. Today there are nearly 130 employees and collaborators. It has also been rejuvenated; the average age of its managers is 40. And it is investing – plants were opened in Via Panciatichi and Via Petrocchi and now there is a new 8000 square meter plant in Campi Bisenzio. Under their guidance, the group is growing. Now it is also composed of Manetti East and Manetti Iberica which deal with hot stamping, and the total turnover has been increased to reach 27 million Euros in 2013.
In 2002, the younger generation was lucky enough to be able to carry on the family name, signing gold leaf with the Manetti name and financing the restoration of the golden ball of Brunelleschi’s Cathedral, exactly 400 years after the Matteo Manetti’s restoration work, a sign that time passes but tradition continues.