Tungsten is harder. Rhodium is rarer. Californium is more expensive. Copper was worked earlier. But gold is more beautiful than any of them, and we seem to be born craving it.

The Egyptians called gold "the breath of God." The Inca called it "the sweat of the sun." (The somewhat less poetic Aztecs called it teocuitlatl, the "excrement of the gods.") The ultimate measure of anything, of course, is "the gold standard." And Italian mothers, tucking in their children for the night, wish them sogni d'oro: "Dreams of gold."

While it's possible that Marino Menegazzo's mother also told him this, it's unlikely that she meant it literally. But he doesn't have to dream of gold — as a battiloro, or goldbeater, he has spent 40 years pounding the noblest of the eight "noble" metals into gossamer tissue that gleams from churches, monuments, doors, and domes around the world.

In Venice, where he was born and still works, there once were 340 goldbeaters hammering away in 46 workshops, an extravagant number in a famously extravagant city. The craft came to Venice in about 1000 A.D., brought by masters from Byzantium. Venetians produced sheets of gold to gild icons, Gothic palaces, Baroque picture frames, furniture, books, walls, and the numberless gleaming mosaic tesserae that cover the walls and ceiling of the legendary basilica of San Marco. The façade of one palace on the Grand Canal once shone with so much gold leaf — 22,000 sheets — that it was nicknamed simply Ca' d'Oro, the "House of Gold," a nickname it holds to this day.

Just behind the goldbeaters, other crafts flourished; in the 18th century there were 71 workshops in Venice that did nothing but stamp gold leaf onto leather. There were also scores of gold-cutters, and tiraori, or drawers of gold wire for fabric and jewelry. The drawers and cutters are gone, the gilders are dwindling, and Menegazzo is the last artisan in Europe who is still beating gold the traditional way.

Before beating his gold into almost translucently thin squares of leaf, Marino Menegazzo weighs the gold on a balance scale measured in grams. Knowing the exact weight he begins with lets him judge the leaves' diminishing density as he goes. | (Erla Zwingle/Courtesy Craftsmanship Quarterly)

Like working with spider silk

In the farther reaches of the Cannaregio district is a quiet little lobe of Venice that once resounded with myriad crafts, as the street names attest, but which now counts mainly a florist, a hardware store, and a few stone carvers chiseling tombstones for the nearby cemetery. On a truncated side street is a small courtyard called "Campo del Tiziano," so named because the door at number 5182 opens into what was once the house and workshop of Titian, the immortal 16th-century Venetian painter. Far from being a shrine, the house now contains a few upstairs apartments, while at street level is the small workshop, office, and cutting room of "Mario Berta Battiloro." There is no sign outside, only the name on the doorbell.

Over the years, Marino has learned that he must respond to the gold as much as the gold responds to him. "The gold feels your mood," he says, "especially if you're nervous." | (Erla Zwingle/Courtesy Craftsmanship Quarterly)

At 7:30 on a foggy autumn morning, Marino Menegazzo is already in his minuscule office, having made the daily commute from Spinea, a mainland town 10 miles away. (Like many Venetians, the Menegazzo family decamped years ago for a more affordable and convenient dwelling beyond the lagoon.) His welcoming handshake is firm; as he speaks, his manner is calm and affable. Meanwhile, his wife and twin daughters, Sara and Eleonora, are seated at their worktables in the adjoining room, visible through a large square window. Beating gold leaf is one thing, but without his family's help the results would never leave the lab. The women are deftly taking the leaves that he pounded yesterday, cutting them into precise shapes according to the order (4 by 8 centimeters, 9 by 9, and so forth), then placing them, one by one, into 25-page booklets (libretti), which is how the gold will be sent out.

One of Venice’s greatest Renaissance painters was Titian — or "Tiziano" in Italian. Titian worked in the nearer of the two houses on the right at the end of this small square, where Marino's gold leaf shop, Mario Berta Battiloro, was established in 1926. In Venice, a square is called a "campo," and this one has carried the artist's name since his death in 1576. (Erla Zwingle/Courtesy Craftsmanship Quarterly)

With surprising speed, the women lay each sheet on a square of paper, flicking away the cut-off feathery bits with a pair of tongs that look like wooden tweezers. The discards form a growing pile of crumpled tatters at the corner of each worktable, to be smelted down again later. Random flakes glitter from the floor, to be recovered once a year. With gold costing $1,320 per ounce at the moment, waste is unthinkable.

You don't have to come here, though, to see Marino's gold leaf. In Venice it gleams (even in the dark, I'm convinced) on the golden statue of the Archangel Gabriel atop the bell tower of San Marco, and on the enormous ball supporting the figure of Fortune on the old Customs House building. In France, the cross and crown atop the basilica of Our Lady of the Rosary, at the sanctuary of Lourdes, scintillate with five square meters (54 square feet) of Marino's gold leaf. On a less monumental note, his gold shines on three pairs of 18th-century doors in Venice's Correr Museum. He also produces leaves in silver, platinum, and 17 various alloys of gold, particularly the so-called "white gold" (which is at least 50 percent silver), but pure gold remains, for him, the ultimate metal.

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