Marten's Head

photo of gold and precious gem encrusted marten head

Marten’s Head,  ca. 1550–59
Gold with enamel, rubies, garnets, and pearls; modern pelt; synthetic whiskers
L. 3 5/16 in. (8.4 cm) (jewel only)
The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore; Museum acquisition by exchange, 1967 (57.1982)

Known in the Renaissance as zibellini (a term that refers specifically to sable but includes other furs), marten furs like the present example and that depicted in Isotta Brembati were associated with chastity, fertility, and childbirth and, at least since the nineteenth century, were also thought to have served as flea pelts (supposedly to attract fleas from the wearer onto the fur), a popular theory that has been questioned. Above all, these were luxury items that indicated social status. This jeweled head is the most ornate of the few that survive from the Renaissance. Composed of a sheet of gold hammered and chased nearly paper thin, the head is tooled to simulate fur, and much of the exterior surface (including the underside) was enameled, though portions have worn away. The movable tongue is decorated with red enamel, and on either side of the mouth are loops that allowed it to be attached to a chain.