A c. 1850-70 Italian ‘bulla’ locket, the front set with micromosaic renderings of doves, a swan, and a floral cluster; the reverse lettered with “ROMA” (Rome) and “AEI” (ἀεί, Greek for eternity; also an acronym for “Amity, Eternity, Infinity”) in high relief, the bloomed solid 18k gold body decorated throughout with Etruscan revival wirework and granulation. The pendant is not a conventional locket in that it’s hinged at the bail to open vertically rather than horizontally; this form is a revival of the ancient bulla, a neck ornament from the Etruscan, Greek, and Roman periods. Traditionally worn by boys, the bulla served as an amulet meant to protect the wearer from evil spirits and forces. The archeological revival movement of the mid-19th century incited passion for ancient jewelry designs and forms. The revived bulla was not a strict copy of its original prototype, instead incorporating popular Victorian symbolisms and extra ornaments like micromosaic inlay, lettering relief, and dangling drops. Its wearers also shifted from boys to women. For example, the c. 1877 Portrait of Mrs George Henry Boughton by Kate Carr features the subject wearing a revived bulla. Another bulla, also set with micromosaic, is in the Museum of Fine Arts Boston (64.635).
The present pendant bears two ‘papal crown & cross keys’ hallmarks, sometimes erroneously described by the trade as representing that of the Vatican workshops. Prior to the unification of Italy in 1871, much of central Italy (comprising Rome, Bologna, Gerrara, Perugia, Ravenna, Rubino etc) was under direct sovereign rule of the pope and was known as the Papal States (Stato Pontificio). The ‘papal crown & cross keys’ was the standard Papal State hallmark for 18k gold, in use from 1815 and retired in 1870 after Rome was occupied by the Italian reunification forces. It therefore has no specific association with the Vatican, but is more broadly associated with the Italian Grand Tour industry. Transport innovations like trains and steamships had ushered a shift in travel by the mid-Victorian era: the European Grand Tour became available to travelers from a wider socioeconomic spectrum, bringing increased visitor flow to the heritage sites of Italy. A tourism-facing jewelry industry emerged in Italy as a result, producing archaeologically inspired jewelry, as well as micromosaics, pietra dura, carved coral, and cameos. As early as 1817, the novelist Charlotte Eaton noted the popularity of micromosaics: she found “hundreds of artists, or rather artisans, who carry on the manufactory of mosaics on a small scale. Snuff-boxes, rings, necklaces, brooches, earrings, & c. are made in immense quantities; and since the English flocked in such numbers to Rome, all the streets leading to the Piazza di Spagna, are lined with the shops of these musaicisti” (p. 491, Jewellery in the Age of Queen Victoria by Gere & Rudoe). While mosaics are rooted in antiquity, micromosaics emerged during the late 18th c, invented by Roman musaicisti workshops associated with Giacomo Raffaelli. Craftsmen pulled opaque glass into long strips known as smali filati, a process which produced enormous ranges of color shades. Each trip was then cut into tiny slices called tessera, enameling micromosaicists to execute detailed compositions in a wide color palette.