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: A Fifteenth-Century Niello Book Cover

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Minneapolis Institute of Arts

Institution Minneapolis Institute of Arts
The early history of the graphic arts in Italy is closely related to a special kind of engraving known as niello. Intended as a highly refined form of decoration rather than as a means of graphic reproduction, niello plates were nevertheless engraved in the same manner and in some cases by the same artists who made prints. For this reason, nielli are highly prized as documents in the history of Italian graphic art, and are also greatly admired for their intrinsic beauty. The recent purchase, through the Lillian Z. Turnblad Fund, of a niello book cover of the fifteenth century (figure 1), adds to the collection a well known example of Italian niello that is of major importance in both of these respects.1Known from antiquity, the art of niello was practiced most actively in Italy in the latter half of the fifteenth century. Nielli were made by engraving a design on a metal plate, usually of silver, and then covering the plate with a black mixture of powdered silver, lead, copper, sulphur, and, most commonly, borax. When heated, this mixture melted and filled the engraved lines. After scraping away the excess and burnishing the surface, the black lines of the niello appeared in sharp contrast to the bright silver ground. While the word niello refers specifically to the black substance used to fill the lines, it is also generally applied to plates that have been made by this process.2In the fifteenth century, nielli were most commonly used to decorate ecclesiastical objects. Small panels were applied to reliquaries, little altar-pieces (majestas), candelabra, crucifixes, or Paxes, the tablets kissed by the priest and the congregation in the celebration of the Mass. Other plates, equally fine in workmanship, were occasionally made for secular objects or, as in the case of the Institute's niello, were sometimes mounted as a group to decorate the covers of books. Our book cover is composed of eleven small niello plates of irregular shape bound together by a silver gilt moulding to form a large rectangle. The center plate, of lozenge shape, depicts the Baptism of Christ. Above this is a representation of Christ's first miracle, the changing of water to wine during the Marriage at Cana, and below the center panel, the last miracle, the Raising of Lazarus. A border containing a group of twelve angel musicians, enclosed by foliate vines, surrounds the rectangle formed by these three panels and, at each mid point, there is a medallion with an emblazoned shield surmounted by a Cardinal's hat, the coat-of-arms of the French Cardinal, Jean Balue. In the four corners of the border there are figures of the four Latin Fathers of the Church, Saints Ambrose, Augustine, Gregory, and Jerome.The Institute's niello is the back cover of a book of the Gospels; the front cover (figure 2) is now in the J. H. Wade Collection of The Cleveland Museum of Art.3 Commissioned by Cardinal Balue after his appointment in 1467, the book was presented as a gift to Pope Paul II sometime before 1469 when Balue was imprisoned by Louis XI. The entire cover remained in the Vatican until the French occupation in the late 18th century when it passed into a series of private collections, among the most noteworthy, those of the Barons Anselm, Nathaniel and Alphonse de Rothschild.While the years between 1467 and 1469 may logically be considered the date of the book cover, the identity of the artist can only be surmised. By far the majority of Italian engravers of this period, whether working as printmakers or niellists, remain anonymous. However, our niello is closely enough related in style and execution to other nielli and to certain contemporary paintings to be associated with the work of a particular atelier. Although such deductions are in no way conclusive, they do serve to place the niello more precisely within the development of fifteenth-century Italian art.The leading niellist of the period, as both Vasari and Cellini tell us, was the goldsmith, Maso Finiguerra. Born in Florence in 1426, he became a master goldsmith at 30 and produced his major work in niello in the years between 1456 and his death in 1464.4 Since his death occurred three years before Jean Balue became a Cardinal, the Institute's book cover could not have been made by Maso. However, Maso's two brothers and his son were also goldsmiths and one of these, Francesco, is known to have been in Florence in 1466. It seems reasonable to suppose that Cardinal Balue would entrust such an important commission to only the best niellists of the day, and assuming that the Finiguerra studio was continued by Francesco and other members of the family after Maso's death, it is possible they received the commission.Essentially craftsmen, the goldsmiths usually collaborated with painters is designing their plates. It is known that Maso worked closely with Antonio Pollaiuolo. The Institute's cover, while unrelated to Pollaiuolo's style, is close to the works of another painter associated with Maso, Alessio Baldovinetti. Two of the panels of the niello, The Baptism of Christ (cover) and the Marriage at Cana (figure 4) reflect a knowledge of a pair of panel paintings of the same subjects executed about 1448 by Baldovinetti, now in the Museum of San Marco in Florence. A somewhat static organization and awkwardness of gesture are common to both, and the rhythmic relationship of the figures behind the long table in the Marriage at Cana, together with the background tapestry and rather stilted action of the two page boys, seem to have their source in Baldovinetti's painting (figure 3). Although we cannot say that Baldovinetti was in fact the designer of the niello, it appears unlikely that another artist would copy his work so closely at a time when Baldovinetti himself was alive and in Florence. Rather, the relationship between the niello and these earlier panel paintings suggests that the engraving was made, probably by an engraver in the Finiguerra workshop, after drawings based on these paintings, and possibly by Baldovinetti himself.The decorative richness of the Balue book cover and its similarity to a group of nielli book decorations not in the British Museum, have suggested to some writers the influence of Benozzo Gozzoli rather than Baldovinetti.5 Stylistically, there are not sufficient grounds to dispute this, although the niello is, if anything, less elaborate in ornament then might be expected from Gozzoli. For example, it is hard to believe that this master of decorative embellishment would have been satisfied with the plain costumes of most of the figures in the niello, or the unadorned surfaces of Lazarus' coffin and the interior of the Virgin's chamber. But if one credits Gozzoli and the leading influence on the engraver of the niello, it is then necessary to explain the source of such panels as the Baptism and the Marriage at Cana. There is little evidence of such compositions in Gozzoli's work, and it is inconceivable that he or a close follower would borrow them from Baldovinetti. Therefore, while Gozzoli's influence may be apparent in some respects, the case seems far stronger for Baldovinetti.Although we can go no further in the matter of identifying the maker of the book cover, there is little doubt that, in itself, it is a masterpiece of decorative and graphic art. The choice and arrangement of subjects that speak of the power of faith are immediately associated, as in the front cover, with the contents of the book. Added to the appropriateness of the subject is the pervasive quality of preciousness conveyed by the glitter of the silver, the gilt binding and rosettes, and the decorative charm of the foliate border with its band of angel musicians. This niello was obviously conceived as an ecclesiastical treasure, designed to command the utmost dignity and respect.As an example of engraving, it is no less striking. The contours are cut with such precision that a high degree of complexity in form is given clarity and order. Many of the figures overlap, and they are concentrated tightly in a limited area, but there is no confusion of drapery or movement, and the space is easily read. In part, this is due to the tonal control of lights and darks, carefully modulated to create the impression of solid volumes. Such three-dimensional effects are gained by a delicate cross-hatching, characteristic of the earliest Italian engraving in the so-called "fine manner," which used shading lines of hair-like thinness. These produce a tone analogous to a wash in ink drawings, and greatly increase the range of gray tones used in modeling.The interest of the subject, the richness of the decoration, and the high quality of the engraving make this book cover a work of major importance in the Institute's collections. With the additional interest surrounding the artist and his times, our niello is also an important document in the history of fifteenth-century Italian art.Endnotes
  1. Dimensions: height 16 1/2 inches; width 11 1/2 inches; depth (as mounted) 5/8 inches. Former collections: The Vatican; Manfrin, Venice; Barker, England; Barons Anselm, Nathaniel, and Alphonse de Rothschild; Österreichisches Museum für Angewandte Kunst, Vienna. Published: Leopoldo Cicognara, Memorie spettanti alla storia della Calcografia, Prato, 1831, Pt. Ia, p. 60; Schestag Catalogueof the Collection of Baron Anslem de Rothschild, 1866, No. 190; Catalogue of the Collection of Baron Nathaniel de Rothschild, p. 80, No. 184; Georges Duplessis, Gazette archéologique, 1888; Eugène Dutuit, Manuel de l'amateur d'estampes, Paris and London, 1888, Vol. 1, Pt. 2, pp.50-54, Nos. 223-232, (ill.); A. M. Hind, Nielli Preserved in the British Museum, London, 1936, p. 28; J. G. Phillips, Early Florentine Designers and Engravers, Harvard, 1955, p. 22.
  2. The term "niello print" refers to impressions pulled from a niello plate, probably as proofs, before the lines were filled, or from sulphur casts of the plates.
  3. See William M. Milliken, "A Niello Book Cover of the Fifteenth Century," The Bulletin of The Cleveland Museum of Art, No. 6, pt. 1, June 1952, pp. 199-121.
  4. See Hind, op.cit., pp. 9-12, and Phillips, op. cit., pp. 8-11.
  5. Hind, op. cit., p. 28; and Milliken, op. cit., p. 120.
Referenced Works of ArtCover. The Baptism of Christ
Detail from niello book cover
16 1/4 x 11 3/8 inches, Florentine, 1467-1469
Lillian Z. Turnblad Fund, 1958
  1. Niello Book Cover
    Florentine, 1467-69, 16 1/2 x 11 3/8 inches
    Lillian Z. Turnblad Fund, 1958
  2. Niello Book Cover
    Florentine, 1467-69, 16 1/4 x 11 3/8 inches
    The Cleveland Museum of Art
    J. H. Wade Collection
  3. Alessio Baldovinetti
    The Marriage at Cana
    Oil on panel, 1448
    San Marco Museum, Florence
  4. Niello Book Cover
    (detail) The Marriage at Cana
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Source: Merrill C. Rueppel, "A Fifteenth-Century Niello Book Cover," <i>The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Bulletin</i> 47, no. 3 (July-December, 1958): 34-39.
Rights: ©MIA
Added to Site: March 10, 2009