Small “ring” keys with a threefold function opened the coffers and chests of Roman patrician families. As they had no pockets in their clothes, the Ancient Romans usually wore their keys on their fingers, as if they were rings; moreover, the keys doubled also as seals, after the wearer placed the shaped part on hot wax to authenticate documents. The symbolic function of these small objects survives still today, in the traditional exchange of wedding rings: on their wedding day, the husband gave his wife the ring, which was also a key, as a symbol of trust and of his endowing her with the family assets.
The Renaissance workshops created real works of art: sophisticated elegance and attention to detail characterised the Venetian keys. They are an example of extraordinary technical skill, with their rose window-like handle that hint at the typical decorations of Venetian architecture. In this period keys acquire a new component, the small ring at the top to hang the key from the belt.
Europe adopted the Baroque style throughout the Seventeenth Century: everything had to be astonishing, full of wonder. Abundant decorations and the impression of continuous movement are the characteristics that even locksmiths adopted for their keys. All the components of the lock are decorated with curved lines and flower motifs, as even an everyday object like a key was considered something that had to be monumental.
The Nineteenth Century was a century of great economic and social change that saw the ascent of the middle classes and the birth of national states, but it was also the era in which industrial processes spread throughout Europe. The bunch of steel keys comes from England, the country that saw the start of the Industrial Revolution; it is an example of the transformation of this simple object, hand crafted until now, into an industrial product.
Italy, Austria, Germany
Gilded bronze keys, richly decorated with the royal arms and the initials of the sovereigns were once given to the chamberlain, a court official who supervised the private rooms of sovereigns and emperors. The richest and most elegant of these came from Vienna’s Schönbrunn Castle and locked and unlocked the imperial rooms of Franz Joseph I and Empress Elizabeth.
Recently, a padlock, which, by definition, is a portable lock to protect one’s valuables and secrets, has acquired a particularly romantic aura. Heart-shaped padlocks have started appearing on city bridges, to symbolise eternal love and a seal for love promises.
What will the future of keys be? Technology and electronics are changing the aesthetic characteristics of keys, but cannot delete their symbolic value. Keys, in people’s pockets for thousands of years, today are a guarantee of maximum security, as witnessed by Fichet keys for reinforced doors.
This is the only object in the museum coming from Latin America and it is a Mexican trunk lock. Mexican culture was strongly influenced by the Spanish rule that lasted three hundred years, from the XVI to the XIX centuries. Also original artifacts such as keys and locks are inspired by typical seventeenth century Spanish models, characterised by an anchoring bracket and a circular plate with floral decorations.
The start of the English Industrial Revolution and, later on, the birth of the American markets and technologies had a profound influence on the further development of padlocks, which became mass produced, devoid of any specific characteristics.
Keys continued being quite bulky and heavy until 1865, when an American called Linus Jr.Yale patented a new type of lock, the cylinder lock. Thanks to Yale’s invention, keys became slim, smaller and much lighter, and locks could be placed inside a door.
Key cutting machine.
The rarest and most original section of the collection is the one with the key cutting machines. This is the smallest model, and the only one from the United States. It was produced in 1921 and it is an original Russwin model.
The Berbers lived in a vast area of North Africa between the Mediterranean Sea and the southern border of the Sahara and between the western border of Egypt and the Atlantic Ocean Their name means “free people” and they have strong links with their original traditions and are strong adversaries for any foreign conquerors. Influenced by the Arabian culture, they live in villages, in typical Mediterranean terraced buildings. Already in the X century, they used these wrought iron forged keys to open their doors: two of these keys are gaff keys, and one is a map key with five teeth that lift the corresponding pins in the lock.
Dogon granary door
The Dogon, a Mali ethnic group, build square granaries with a straw roof and square or rectangular wooden doors richly decorated with etchings of deities and daily life scenes. In their cosmogony, the representation of people and animals creates a positive energy inside the building.
Decorated with typical Islamic geometric etchings, these forged iron keys were used to open locks built according to the principle of the lifting of mobile pins. This type of key was quite unusual, with a shape that is rather similar to that of modern toothbrushes, usually decorated with geometric lines, and was frequently found in the whole of North Africa.
Door lock and key
The majority of African locks shown in the museum work on the basis of the oldest locking/unlocking mechanism, developed around 6,000 years ago, in the Sumerian age. The lock is fastened to the door wing with iron staples and comprises two crossed wooden elements, the vertical one fastened to the door and the horizontal one that can slide and be fastened by means of mobile pins that come down from above and enter in the corresponding holes. A special map key lifts the mobile pins and opens the door.
Door lock and key
The Bambara people, the main ethnic group in Mali, live in groupings of homes called “lu” whose doors are equipped with sculpted locks etched with female figures, animals and religious symbols. The working mechanism is based on the principle of the lifting of mobile pins and is still in use among the less developed African populations.
The Tuareg people are a well-known nomadic population that have dominated one of the most inhospitable places on earth, with a millennia-old history. Not having fixed settlements, they do not have doors, and so never needed to use doors or locks. However, as they are always on the move, they use padlocks to close their camel leather bags securely. The Islamic influence is shown in the rich geometric decorations on the padlocks and keys: neutral lines and shapes that comply with the teachings of the Quran that forbid any figurative image.
Padlock were quite common in the Middle and Far East, albeit with different cultural and functional meanings. The Indian padlock, influenced by the Nepalese tradition, is massive, a symbol of the importance of its function.
The main difference between Asian and European padlocks, is the closing mechanism: eastern padlocks typically have slide keys with a barbed hook.
One of the most peculiar objects in this museum is a brass Indian padlock in the shape of an antelope, a fast-running mammal living in herds in the Indian planes.
A padlock in the shape of the sun, the centre of the Universe and a symbol of power, graces and lights up the museum thanks to the two rubies in the place of eyes and the topaz in the centre of the forehead. It comes from the birthplace of all padlocks, ancient Persia and is evidence that sometimes a padlock can be more than a simple security tool, it can acquire a more complex symbolic meaning and represent the prestige and wealth of its owner.
Among the Asian zoomorphic padlocks, the one in the shape of a scorpion is really surprising. A scorpion is a symbol of fear and death, but here it acquires a higher symbolic value, as a talisman. As in the majority of Asian padlocks, this one, too, has a slide key.
Padlocks with bodies in the shape of ideograms, graphic symbols representing whole concepts, are typical of the Chinese culture. The tool used to guarantee the security of a container is therefore clad in well-wishing writings and is, in itself, a message.
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