Post 736 -Gautam Shah
Niello is a metal embellishment craft. It is an inlay material, as well a surface treatment (as commonly called ‘oxidized’ silver). For both, silver is the preferred base-metal, and involves use of some form of sulphide. The Niello, is just deposition that affects the top layer of metal.
The infused colours for both techniques are various shades of Black. Objects treated with Niello, are also called nielli, and silver objects treated with Sulfides are called ‘oxidized’ or ‘blackened silver’ (though the word ‘oxidized’ is a misnomer). Niello (Italian), derives from, nigellum, nigellus neuter, niger, which all relate to the Black.
Niello is a black mixture of sulphur, copper, silver and lead, used as an inlay or filler material over engraved, chased or etched silver metal. It is added in powder or paste form and fired until it melts or at least softens. As it flows, is pushed back in the engraved pits. It cools, hardens and turns black, which with controlled application, provides colours like blues, purples, yellows, brown reds. The surface of silver is polished bright, leaving the Niello colour in the pits intact. The black colour of Niello is metal surface tarnishing but a hastened process, which left to nature would take years. Jewellers use a chemical called ‘liver of sulphur’ (potassium sulfide).
There are also several mixed-media techniques, often called metal-malerei (German =painting in metal), which involve applying gold and silver inlays or foils, over the Niello covered bronze. Niello was used as the adhesive base to apply thin gold and silver foils in place.
The earliest use of Niello was in late Bronze Age, around 1800 BC. in Syria. Niello has been used in many parts of the world, including Russia, India, and Islamic countries. In Russia Niello is called Tula work.
Gothic art from the 13th C saw Niello as a pictorial art. Use of Niello, which reached its high point in the Renaissance. Niello was popular because small goldsmiths used it for decorating simple ornaments. The art of Niello reached its peak in 15th C Italy.
During the Renaissance, at the height of its popularity, the technique was widely used for the embellishment of liturgical objects, cups, boxes, knife handles, sword hilts, bracelets, rings, pendants, and belt buckles. Later in Romanesque period Niello was used in densely engraved pieces.
Renaissance goldsmiths in Florence in Europe, decorated their works in silver, by engraving the metal with a burin, and filled up the hollows with Niello, to achieve much higher visible contrast. Some pieces such as paxes (liturgical objects) were effectively pictures in niello.
Niello was hardy and cheaper, and for that reason, in competition with costlier and superior painted enamel work. Painted Enamel, though offered wider colour range and very delicate details.
Niello crafts-persons exploited their talent to make flatter objects like engraved plates, which before the filling in with Niello were used for print making on paper. These were known as ‘Niello prints’. Originally such paper prints were made by engravers to record their work. By the late 16th C soft mastic compounds were devised for engraving.