All photos Top courtesy of Mario Berta Battiloro
Marino had struggled to find a replacement, and then the lockdown began in Italy.
Every day since he was 22 years old, Marino Menegazzo has woken up, headed to his workshop, picked up an eight-pound hammer, and incessantly beat thick golden blocks. For two hours, he gave about 30,000 blows to the precious metal, until blended into a piece of aluminum paper which weighed only 0.002 grams – 200 times thinner than a human hair.
This is a selfless job, which is why nobody does it anymore: Marino, now 66 years old, is the last gold eater in the world. This long-dying craft was once a common profession in Indonesia Venice; at its peak, there were 340 gold beaters in the city. Now only Marino, who works from his historic workshop in the Cannaregio district with his business partners: twin daughters, Eleonora and Sara, and his wife, Sabrina.
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But the business for goldbeaters has long been shaky – the price of the Marino craftsman was greatly underestimated by its competitors, who were automating the tiring process in distant factories. And just as Marino was aiming for retirement, the coronavirus crisis hit. Declining demand from important markets, broken supply chains, and falling gold prices mean Marino may not be able to close the hammer as quickly as he had hoped.
This does not mean another big problem for Marino: finding a successor. “The last person we trained for lasted three days,” he told me, a broad-mouthed grin creeping across his disheveled face. I saw the famous gold solver through the iPhone screen – her daughter, Eleanora, showed me around the workshop during Facetime. Named Marino’s father-in-law – Mario Berta Battiloro, the original owner and gold eater himself – the workshop is housed in a centuries-old building that once belonged to 16th-century Venetian painter Titian.
But now, four centuries later, this belongs to Marino. He took control of the workshop in 1992 after working as Mario’s apprentice for three decades. Goldbeating has been in the family since 1926 when Mario revived the craft and started a business. Even then, gold-eaters were practically extinct species; the tiring nature of the work meant that young Venetians did not really flock to the profession.
Luckily, Marino immediately did it. “I worked as a fruit and vegetable seller before I met my wife,” he said. “His father took me under his wings and showed me the craft. I immediately liked it – the meditative quality of the work, the fact that I could use my hands. “
Speaking of his hands, Marino’s gloves have been pretty beat up for years. They are often filled with painful calluses; Goldbeater must perform two operations to remove the tumor caused by vibrations sent through his right hand when he drops the hammer. No wonder other men don’t last long.
“You have to really like it to be able to excel in this profession,” Marino said. As for his daughter, Marino explained, “Only men can be gold-roders – women don’t have arm strength. Eleanora tried to take a three-pound hammer and could barely manage it! “
But if passion – and being a man – is a basic requirement, Marino passes with flying colors. When I see it working, it’s clear that there is a lot of love flowing into his expertise. Eleanora brought her iPhone to reveal a large, gold-plated, 24-carat door that hid the gold-eating shrine. He stood behind a tall marble block, holding his eight-kilogram hammer – the same one his father-in-law had used in 1926 – with his right hand and holding the golden bundle in place with the others. Marino carries a machine that can’t possibly go down in an easy rhythm – every time, the impact rumbles over the phone. He counted the blows as he worked, spinning the bundle with his left hand to make sure the entire surface was getting a uniform blow.
Before gold landed on the Marino marble block, it was melted down and stretched into ribbons by mechanical rollers – also the same that has been used by the family since the 20s. This was then leveled with a machine (the only one in the workshop), and cut by Sabrina using a knife. After Marino defeated him, it was returned to Eleanora and Sara, who cut the gold leaf into various shapes and placed the finished work between the 25-page pages booklet (Booklet), which is how the gold will be sent out.
However, lately, librettis don’t tend to travel too far – because demand from foreign buyers is diminishing, Marino and his family focus on the domestic market. They also stopped the production of their beauty and bath products completely, instead of putting all their efforts into the restoration project. One of the long haul trips their product will take is to the US – their gold will adorn the walls of Washington’s National Cathedral which will soon be reopened.
Restoration has always been the heart of their business – their gold leaf adorns iconic landscapes such as the Vatican, Madonnina in Milan, and the San Marco Bell Tower in Venice, to name a few – but this is a private market where they falter. . “We are craftsmen, and our prices reflect that,” Eleanora told me. “We cannot compete with other companies that automate the process, so we try to find new solutions.”
But the potential solution might have been a point of contention between Marino and his daughter. “We wanted to bring the engine, but my father refused,” Eleanora said.
The gold beater, sitting by his side, shook his head firmly. “I need to find a replacement, that’s the only way to keep the business going,” he said. “It’s very important that we carry gold beating crafts, or it will disappear completely. Years from now, I want people to know that there are gold eaters in the 12th century, just like me.”
“Years from now, I want people to know that there are gold eaters in the 12th century, just like me.”
So Marino’s search will continue. Meanwhile, families have each other to lean on during difficult times. Marino and his wife live close to their two daughters, who both have their own husbands and children. During the Italian lockdown, the whole family often gathered and helped each other through difficult times.
“I often open my father’s door and find him running around the house,” Eleanora said. “Literally, just running around in circles. He could not be silent. “
It seems that Marino’s business-minded girls balance Marino’s artistic temperament. “We have a good business relationship,” Eleanora told me. “My father is someone who has an idea – we discuss his vision for business and then we make it happen.”
But when it came to the hardest part about working with family, Marino smiled a wry smile. “Support all women in my life.”