A HISTORY OF NIELLO
The technique of Niello evolved gradually from around 1500 BC. In essence Niello involves etching a design into a metallic object and then filling the grooves created with a metallic alloy. When heated, cooled and then polished the engraved lines should be filled with the alloy and stand out prominently against the rest of the object. A technique of this kind was certainly in use by 1500 BC in Bronze Age Egypt and the Levant, but there is debate as to whether the objects so created at this time should be considered Niello, as the metal alloy employed probably differed from that used in more modern, traditional Niello objects. Typically the alloy in Niello should consist of a varying mixture of sulphur, copper, silver or lead. This mixture generally creates a black Niello engraving which contrasts with the metal around it, usually silver, or sometimes gold.
After these first tentative appearances around 1500 BC we do not find widespread use of Niello around the world of the Mediterranean again until the Early Imperial period in Rome in the first century AD. Pliny the Elder described its use in his Natural History, published in 77 AD when the use of Niello was becoming much more common throughout the Roman Empire. Significantly, he also describes the process as originating in Egypt. Knowledge of the technique of Niello survived the collapse of the Roman Empire and it was used to a considerable extent in Early Medieval Europe, particularly Anglo-Saxon England. During the High Middle Ages of the eleventh, twelfth and thirteenth century it continued to be used extensively in decorating crucifixes, reliquaries and other religious objects. Interestingly, at this time Niellists, the name for craftsmen who worked in Niello, were sharing their work methods with engravers and woodcutters whose designs began to use similar techniques. Thus, as printing spread throughout Europe in the sixteenth century we start to see the appearance of what are now termed ‘Niello Prints’.
This is not to suggest that the use of Niello was confined to Western and Central Europe. Throughout the Late Medieval and Early Modern periods the technique was utilised extensively in Russia, the Byzantine Empire centred on Constantinople (Istanbul), and the Islamic world. Here we again find Niello being used in religious objects, but also more extensively in weapons and everyday objects. Indeed this secularisation of the use of Niello is how it has been used most frequently in more modern times, with objects such as ceremonial handguns, timepieces and walking canes featuring Niello as ornamental design.
R. Newman, J. R. Dennis and E. Farrell, ‘A Technical Note on Niello’, in Journal of the American Institute for Conservation, Vol. 21, No. 2 (Spring, 1982), pp. 80-85.
P. Northover and S. La Niece, ‘New Thoughts on Niello’, in Ian Freestone, Thilo Rehren and Andrew Shortland (eds), From Mine to Microscope: Advances in the Study of Ancient Technology (Oxford, 2009).
W. A. Oddy, M. Bimson and S. La Niece, ‘The Composition of Niello Decoration on Gold, Silver and Bronze in the Antique and Mediaeval Periods’, in Studies in Conservation, Vol. 28, No. 1 (Feb., 1983), pp. 29-35.
Gunilda brings some of these pieces to the market from both Russia and Austria.
Click on the items below for more details:
Gold and Niello Bracelet 5th–6th century
On view at The Met Fifth Avenue NY USA