Two Lovers, a niello print

Italy, late AD 1400s

Niello is a type of black enamel, made by fusing a powder of metal oxides and sulphur, which was used for filling the lines of an engraved silver plate. When polished, the finished metalwork displays a black design on a silver ground. Sometimes goldsmiths in fifteenth-century Italy used to record their compositions by printing proof impressions of the engraving with ink on paper before completing the niello process. This led later Italian historians to believe that printed engravings originated in Italy with niello. However, all surviving niello prints are later than the first German copperplate engravings and none now believes that Italy invented the engraving before Germany.

This miniature print has great charm. The youth rests his hand on the girl's knee, and she covers it with her own hand. Their intimacy, and the delicacy of their feelings, have an obvious appeal. The two figures are copied from an earlier Netherlandish drypoint, or from intermediate engraved copies, of which three have survived. The popularity of the image depended partly on its appeal to the medieval ideal of courtly love. In the northern prints, the girl holds a lapdog (a symbol of fidelity), and is flanked by a bowl of carnations. A glass and a jug of wine in a wine cooler stand beside the couple. Despite its exquisite craftmanship, the niello print was too tiny to include these details.

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More information

Bibliography

A. Griffiths, Prints and printmaking: an int, 2nd edition (London, The British Museum Press, 1996)

Dimensions

Height: 40.000 mm
Width: 16.000 mm

Museum number

PD 1908.6.16.60 (Hind 237)

PPA55663

Location

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