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Niello: an Historical and Technical Survey

  • Susan La Niece

Niello is a black material composed of one or more metal sulphides. It contrasts particularly effectively with the metal when inlaid or fused into a recessed design in gold or silver, but is also found on bronze and brass. X-ray diffraction analysis of niello from 180 objects spanning the period between the first century A.D. and the present, from Europe and the Middle and Far East, has established that, as a general rule, Roman niello is composed of the sulphide of one metal only, either silver or copper and, furthermore, the niello is usually made of the same metal as that of the object into which it was inlaid. Sulphides made with silver and copper together were introduced at the end of the fifth century, though silver sulphides were still being made, particularly in the areas dominated by Rome. The manufacture of niello of more than one metal represents a technological advance as, unlike the single sulphides, they can be fused into an engraved design without damaging the metalwork. Lead was added to the ingredients as early as the eleventh century A.D. in eastern Europe. This composition will flow well when melted and therefore can be used to fill more complex designs. Leaded niello superseded the other types almost completely and is still made today. Gold silver sulphide, a hitherto unrecognized type of niello, was found on a number of gold items of various dates.

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2 Marinatos, S. and Hirmer, M., Crete and Mycenae (London, 1960).

3 Cooney, J. D., ‘Siren and Ba, birds of a feather’, Bull. Cleveland Museum of Art, lv (1968), 262–71.

4 Schaeffer, C. F. A., Enkomi-Alasia, nouvelles missions en Chypre, 1946–1950 (Paris, 1952), pp. 379–89, figs. 116–22, pl. cxvi; technical report by H. J. Plenderleith on p. 381.

5 Claringbull, G. F. and Moss, A. A., ‘The Enkomi silver cup’, Nature, clxxxvii (1960), 1051.

6 Lucas, A. and Harris, J. R., Ancient Egyptian Materials and Industries, 4th edn. (London, 1962), pp. 249–51.

7 Hind, A. M., Nielli in the British Museum (London, 1936).

8 Ashbee, C. R., The Treatises of Benvenuto Cellini on Goldsmithing and Sculpture (New York, 1967), pp. 79.

9 Shelagh Weir gives the reason for the great popularity of niello amongst the Bedouin as the erroneous belief that the niello decoration will not take on low-grade silver: The Bedouin (London, 1976), p. 61.

10 Moss, A. A., ‘Niello’, Studies in Conservation, i (1953), 4962, and Antiq. J. xxxiii (1952), 75–7.

11 The author, however, has found no difficulty in fusing this type of niello to well-cleaned bronze.

12 Craddock, P. T., Lang, J. and Painter, K. S., ‘Roman horse-trappings from Fremington Hagg, Reeth, Yorkshire, N.R.’, B.M. Quarterly, xxxvii, 1–2 (1977), 917.

13 Schweizer, F. in M. Lazovic, N. Durr, H. Durand, C. Houriet and F. Schweizer, ‘Objets byzantins de la collection du Musée d'Art et d'Histoire’, Genava, xxv (1977), 562.

14 Dennis, J. R., ‘Niello: a technical study’, Papers Presented by Trainees at the Art Conservation Training Programs Conference (Center for Conservation and Technical Studies, Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University, 1979), pp. 8395. Also, Newman, R., Dennis, J. R. and Farrell, E., ‘A technical note on niello’, J. American Inst. Conservation, xxi (1982), 80–5.

15 Rosenberg, M., ‘Niello bis zum Jahre 1000 nach Christi, Frankfurt’ (1924); reprinted in Rosenberg, M., Geschichte der Goldschmiedkunst auf technischer Grunḍlage (Osnabruck, 1972).

16 Oddy, W. A., Bimson, M. and Niece, S. La, ‘The composition of niello decoration on gold, silver and bronze in the antique and medieval periods’, Studies in Conservation, xxviii (1983), 35.

17 Translation by H. Rackham from the Loeb edition (London, 1956), p. 99.

18 Brailsford, J. W., Guide to the Antiquities of Roman Britain, British Museum (London, 1964), p. 54, no. 12 and pl. 14.

19 Berthelot, M. P. E., La chimie au moyen age (Paris, 1893); facsimile reprint, Amsterdam, 1967.

20 Translation from Smith, C. S. and Hawthorne, J. G., Mappae Clavicula, a little key to the world of medieval techniques’, Trans. American Phil. Soc. n.s. lxiv, 4 (1974), 57.

21 Ibid., 58.

22 Ibid., 36, 40 and 58.

23 Dodwell, C. R., Theophilus. De Diversis Artibus (London, 1961), p. xiv.

24 Merrifield, M. P., Original Treatises Dating from the XIIth to XVIIIth Centuries on the Arts of Painting on Oil (London, 1849), 2 vols.

25 Moss, op. cit. (note 10), p. 52.

26 Hawthorne, J. G. and Smith, C. S., Theophilus: on Divers Arts (New York, 1979), chs. 28 and 29, pp. 104 and 105.

27 Ibid., ch. 31.

28 Ibid., pp. 104 and 105.

29 Ibid., p. 108.

30 Ashbee, op. cit. (note 8).

31 Allan, J. W., Persian Metal Technology. 700–1300 A.D. (London, 1978).

32 Ibid., pp. 19 and 20.

33 Maryon, H., Metalwork and Enamelling, 5th edn. (New York, 1971), p. 164.

34 Untracht, Oppi, Metal Techniques for Craftsmen (London, 1969), p. 191.

35 Azaroff, L. V. and Buerger, M. J., The Powder Method in X-ray Crystallography (New York, 1958).

36 Soren, R. K., ‘X-ray diffraction techniques for small samples’, American Mineralogist, xlv (1960), 1104–8.

37 Op. cit. (note 10), pp. 50–2, for description of how this was made.

38 Op. cit. (note 18), p. 38, no. 6 and pl. 18.

39 Skinner, B. J., ‘The system Cu-Ag-S’, Economic Geology, lxi, no. 1 (1966), 126.

40 Deer, W. A., Howie, R. A. and Zussman, J., Rock Farming Minerals, v (London, 1962), pp. 180–5.

41 Berry, L. G. and Thompson, R. M., X-ray Powder Data for Ore Minerals, the Peacock Alias, The Geol. Soc. America (New York, 1962).

42 Djurle, S., ‘An X-ray study on the system Cu-S’, Acta Chem. Scandinavica, xii (1958), 1415–26.

43 Ibid., 1427–36.

44 Roseboom, E. H., ‘Djurleite, Cu1.98S, a new mineral’, American Mineralogist, xlvii (1962), 1181–4.

45 Hall, E. T., Schweizer, F. and Toller, P. A., ‘X-ray fluorescence analysis of museum objects’, Archaeometry, xv no. 1 (1973), 5378.

46 Die Zeit der Staufer, exhibition catalogue (Stuttgart, 1977), no. 652.

47 Walters, H. B., Catalogue of the Silver Plate (Greek, Etruscan and Roman) in the British Museum (London, 1921), no. 154.

48 Card no. 20–461 in the JCPDS Powder Diffraction File. The mineral, utenbogaardtite, has been identified in silver-gold deposits from Nevada and Indonesia. See Barton, Mark D., ‘The Ag-Au-S system’, Economic Geology, lxxv (1980), 303–16.

49 Dalton, O. M., Catalogue of Early Christian Antiquities in the British Museum (London 1901), no. 253–4.

50 Dalton, O. M., Catalogue of Finger Rings in the British Museum (London, 1912), nos. 867 and 1777 respectively.

51 Card no. 26–575 in the JPCDS Powder Diffraction File, op. cit. (note 18), pl. XVII, p. 56, no. 4.

52 See note 12.

53 Avent, Richard, Anglo-Saxon Disc and Composite Brooches, Part II, B.A.R. no. 11 (Oxford, 1975), no. 110.

54 Unpublished except in the Victoria and Albert Museum's jewellery gallery handlist (room 92, case III, board A). Bought in 1858, source unknown.

55 Dalton, O. M., A Guide to the Medieval Room, British Museum (London, 1967), p. 14, pl. II.

56 Ashbee, op. cit. (note 8), p. 9.

57 Unpublished.

58 Bought by Dr. P. A. Andrews in Istanbul or Ankara.

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