Metal crafts, printmaking and the acquisition of a nielli print

Looking at a work of art on paper, it can be difficult to imagine the close relationship between a print, and metal craft. Yet printmaking owes much of its legacy to metal arts and this affiliation was more apparent in early western prints as many of the masters learned their art from the metal smiths, such as Albrecht Dürer who was the son of a goldsmith and was familiar with that art.

In the 15th century and early 16th century, many experiments and innovations in printmaking took place in the design of metal (from which printed impressions are taken). Some of these early techniques were short-lived and are now unfamiliar to 21st century audiences.

One such technique thought to have developed in Italy is nielli printing which was practiced up to the 16th century. This technique utilises an engraved decorative design on silver in which lines are filled with ‘niello,’ a black chemical substance, which contrasts with the silver. Before niello is applied to the metalwork, the lines are filled with ink and an impression taken, and this is a neilli print. The Baillieu Library Print Collection has acquired its first example of a neilli print and like most of these impressions it is tiny work measuring only 4.2 centimetres diameter. More

Neptune from Grotesques à Fond Noir en Forme de Croix de Lorraine, 1573. Baillieu Library Print Collection, gift of Dr J. Orde Poynton 1959

Image: Neptune from Grotesques à Fond Noir en Forme de Croix de Lorraine, 1573. Baillieu Library Print Collection, gift of Dr J. Orde Poynton 1959