Greatest Renaissance artists including Botticelli, Ghirlandaio, Fra Angelico and many others used gilding and gold leaf embellishment techniques with mastery and ingenuity.
In fact, Old Master painting collectors, often call Italian Tre- and Quattrocento (14th and 15th centuries) paintings “golden grounds” because of the rich and elaborate gold leaf decorations of both the background and other elements of the composition.
All gilding techniques except shell gold and mecca gilding required the usage of gold leaf: a very thin gold foil produced by hammering gold thin gold ingots between layers of parchment. During the Renaissance, the gold leaf was about 3/4 times thicker than the modern, mechanically produced, leaf.
§ 93. Methods of Gilding.Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574), Vasari on technique; being the introduction to the three arts of design, architecture, sculpture and painting, prefixed to the Lives of the most excellent painters, sculptors, and architects
It was truly a most beautiful secret and an ingenious investigation—that discovery of the method of beating gold into such thin leaves, that for every thousand pieces beaten to the size of the eighth of a braccio in every direction, the cost, counting the labour and the gold, was not more than the value of six scudi. Nor was it in any way less ingenious to discover the method of spreading the gold over the gesso in such a manner that the wood and other material hidden beneath it should appear a mass of gold.
WHAT GOLD IS GOOD FOR BURNISH AND FOR MORDANT GILDING, AND WHAT THICKNESS. CHAPTER CXXXVIIIIThe craftsman’s handbook by Cennini, Cennino, active 15th century; translated by Thompson, Daniel Varney, 1902- ed
Let me tell you that for the gold which is laid on flats they ought not to get more than a hundred leaves out of a ducat, whereas they do get a hundred and forty-five; because the gold for the flat wants to be rather dull. If you want to be sure of the gold, when you buy it, get it from someone who is a good goldbeater; and examine the gold; and if you find it rippling and mat, like goat parchment, then consider it good. On moldings or foliage ornaments you will make out better with thinner gold; but for the delicate ornaments of the embellishment with mordants it ought to be very thin gold, and cobweb-like.
Artists of the early Renaissance had a whole arsenal of gilding methods including:
Water gilding (or silvering) was executed with the underdrawing ready, but prior to the egg tempera painting. On the contrary, oil gilding and shell gold were mostly used on top of egg tempera.
To make sure that drawing doesn’t disappear under the golden leaf, prior to do water gilding, outlines of figures and embellishments to be tooled (punched, granulated etc.) had to be engraved with a metallic point or needle:
HOW YOU SHOULD MARK OUT THE OUTLINES OF THE FIGURES FOR GILDING THE GROUNDS. CHAPTER CXXIIIThe craftsman’s handbook by Cennini, Cennino, active 15th century; translated by Thompson, Daniel Varney, 1902- ed
When you have got your whole ancona drawn in, take a needle mounted in a little stick; and scratch over the outlines of the figure against the grounds which you have to gild, and the ornaments which are to be made for the figures, and any special draperies which are to be made of cloth of gold.
Gold Leaf Decoration Techniques
Renaissance artists created intricate geometric and vegetative motifs and lettering with a variety of sophisticated decorative techniques: