A Brief History of Enamel
THE FORERUNNERS OF ENAMELLING
Objects and jewels made of glass and ceramics were already in use during the third millennium BC, colored and often ornamented with elements in noble metal or enriched with gemstones. The direct forerunners of enameling are, anyway, the production of glass, often used in the form of stones set in the metal, and niello, whereby the artisan produced a black compound of sulphur, copper and silver, using the same techniques and technologies that were later adopted by the enameling process. Some Egyptologists associate the Land of Pyramids with the invention of enameling. Despite there might be some presumed works with glass inlays fused on metal from the 18th dynasty (1543-1292 BC), it is not clear if they count as true enamel, since the latter must be permanently bound to the metal surface through a vitrification process at high temperature. It seems, in fact, that the Egyptian goldsmiths put glass stones inlays and fired them in the cells rather than grinding the glass-based material and applying them on the surface, as required for true enamel.
As the famous Egyptologist T.G.H. James himself wrote regarding the Nekhbet pendant of Tutankhamun (1332-1323 BC):
“In many of the pieces of jewelry from Tutankhamun’s tomb a cloisonné technique with glass inlays has been observed. True cloisonné enameling consists in filling the cloisons with powdered glass which is then fired in position, this results in inlays which completely fill, and are closely fixed in, their little gold enclosures. It has yet to be confirmed by close scientific examination that the technique was used in this case."
The homeland of the first real enamels is more likely the Mycenaean civilization at about 1500 BC, when the goldsmiths and glassmakers developed a glass similar to the gemstones with the property of perfectly binding to gold upon firing.
Amongst the most ancient findings of this kind, we must mention a Mycenaean dagger dated to the 15th century BC, and those from the land of Cyprus (1400 – 1000 BC). Noteworthy examples are the six golden rings from Kouklia (13th century BC) and the wonderful Golden Scepter of Kourion, with a 16 cm long handle and dated c. 1200-1100 BC, whose knob has decorations with white, lily and green enamels fused in semi-circular cells. In this case, we can already notice a surprising skill, both in the working of the gold and in the enameling technique. Many centuries later up to this day, the name of this technique became cloisonné, from French word “cloison”, which means cell, compartment. The rings of Kourion and the scepter of Kouklia are in the Museum of Cyprus in Nicosia.
One of the six golden rings of Kouklia (1400-1100 BC).
Scepter of Kourion (1100 BC)
THE ENAMEL ROUTES
We do not have significant findings for the period between the 11th and 8th centuries BC, as if the knowledge of enameling had gone extinct. Nevertheless, the technique resurfaces in Azerbaijan during the 7th century BC amongst the Scythians as a variation of cloisonné known as filigree enamel. The execution of the enamels is so accurate that we might suppose the knowledge of the technique was still in existence albeit not yet documented for the previous centuries. Even in Etruria (Central Italy), Magna Graecia (Southern Italy) and Seville (Spain), we can witness the production of high quality enameled objects dated to the 7th – 4th centuries BC. In Cadiz (Spain), we have found the Necklace of Gadir (5th-4th century BC) and in Seville the pendant from the El Carambolo Treasure.
Dove-shaped Greek earrings from Milos, filigree enamel, 6th century BC
Etruscan earring, cloisonné enamel, 6th century BC
In Gaul (France) and in the La Tène culture (Switzerland) the Celts produced enameled objects with brilliant red enamels in the typical technique of champlevé on cast bronze; in the Celtic British isles, on the contrary, enamel developed in the 3rd century BC. In Greece, enamel came in the form of traditional filigree cloisonné on gold, the same technique used by the Scythians and witnessed by the Kul’-Oba treasure in Crimea.
Detail from a Scythian bracelet, Kul-Oba (Crimea, Ucraine), cloisonné enamel on gold, 4th century BC.
It is in the 1st century BC (late Egyptian epoch, Meroë era) that enamel reached its highest in the Nubian region with the Treasure of Queen Amanishakheto (35-20 BC) after two centuries of experimentations. The most ancient examples of enameling in Germany consist of the findings in the Rhine region at the time of the Flavian dynasty, between 69 and 96 AD. During his sojourn in Rome c. 240 AD, the Greek historian Philostratus of Lemnos wrote that the Northern Barbarians settled on the coasts of the Atlantic Ocean “apply colors on incandescent bronze”, once again a case of champlevé on cast bronze.
Bracelet from the treasure of Queen Amanishakheto, Nubia, cloisonné enamel, 35-20 BC.
It seems that there two separate “Enamel Roads” in antiquity from its cradle in Cyprus: a first one going through Egypt, Mesopotamia, Persia, the Caucasus and Crimea, and another one to Greece, Magna Graecia and Etruria, and hence to Celtic Gaul or through the Balkans towards the Germans. Celtic enamel, in the form of champlevé on cast bronze, reached Great Britain from this way. These routes will intersect in the time of the Barbarian invasions.
Staffordshire Moorlands Pan, Britain, champlevé on bronze, 2nd century BC
Apart from the finding of enameled daggers and scabbards used by the army, few are the historical witnesses and findings of enamel in Ancient Rome. In reality, both Romans and Barbarians played a vital role in the spreading of enamel on bronze. Thanks to the expansion of the Empire, the Romans spread enameled objects of unknown origin everywhere. There was the birth of a hybrid Gallic-Roman style of champlevé on cast bronze with a somewhat rough technique, we might say barbarized. The findings of medieval objects with compositions identical to those of Roman millefiori glass have revealed that the enamels from Ancient Rome have been recycled in medieval times for the creation of new works after the conversion of the Empire to Christendom, thus explaining the apparent lack of findings in the Imperial period. This is the same destiny as that of other construction materials of the time. We will deal with this phenomenon and its documentary and chemical proofs a propos of enamel in the Middle Age.
In the 4th century AD, the Huns from the east invaded Western Europe, forcing the Germans and Goths to flee, and re-introduced the Barbaric-Roman cloisonné enamel.
Shoulder clasps from the burial ship of Sutton Hoo (7th century)
EARLY MIDDLE AGES
During the 6th century, the Lombards drove the Ostrogoth people away from Italy and settled in Ravenna, where they absorbed the Byzantine cloisonné technique. One of the most important objects left by the Barbarians (Ostrogoth, Lombard and Frank), we shall remember the famous Iron Crown, created over different stages from the 4th to the 8th century. The traditional version of its origins has been partly confirmed by the analysis of the University of Milan: the gold of the Crown comes from the age of Constantine the Great (c. 350 AD), its first owner, while it was king Theodoric who commissioned the addition of the original 24 potassium-based enamel plates c. 500 AD. The Lombards restored and modified it over time, but it was an order of Charlemagne that had 21 of the 24 enamels replaced with new soda-based enamels on occasion of his coronation on 25 December 800 AD. The Italian laboratories at the time became very famous for their perfect Carolingian style enamels, exported throughout the Holy Roman Empire during the period 10th – 11th century. A witness of great importance of the late Carolingian era is the Antependium of the Altar of St. Ambrose in Milan, produced about 850 AD by great goldsmith Volvinius and from a team of artists known as the “Masters of the stories of Christ”.
In Eastern Europe, it is in Georgia that we find some cloisonné enamel icons, today exposed in the Museum of Fine Arts in Tbilisi, together with the later triptychs of Martvili and Khakhuli, dated to the 9th-12th centuries.
The Iron Crown, created over the 5th - 9th centuries, Cathedral of Monza.
Byzantine cloisonné from the antependium of St. Ambrose (Milan, 850) by goldsmith Volvinius.
In the German regions, we can see the same evolution between the 8th and 9th centuries, when the import of Byzantine cloisonné enamels gave a push to the German goldsmiths in the production of true works of art, especially in the form of reliquaries. Amongst the most important works from the Ottonian era (887 – 1000), we must mention those commissioned for Egbert, archbishop of Trier (950-993). In particular, we remember the Reliquary of St. Andrew’s sandal, the Pastoral Staff of St. Peter and the reliquary of the Holy Nail, who are still part of the Treasure of the Trier Cathedral.
Portable altar of St. Andrew's sandal, 45 x 22 cm, 10th century
Over this period, both in the East and in the West, the technique of “émail mixté” (mixed enamel) or “Senkschmelz” (sunk enamel) appeared, where the goldsmith carved the figures in the metal base before adding the cloisonné wires to mark the details of the drawing. This is a first step towards the true champlevé on engraving. A classic example of this technique is the Crown of St. Stephen, the national symbol of Hungary, made of two diadems (one Western with Latin inscriptions and another of Greek origin), and dated to the 11th century.
Crown of St. Stephen of Hungary, sunk or mixed enamel, 11th century
Despite the presence of a few Byzantine-style works in the High Middle Age, it was only after the end of the Iconoclast controversy (9th century) that the combination of iconography and cloisonné enamel art led to the Golden Age of Constantinople and Byzantine enamel. Considered to be the greatest and biggest work of this kind is the “Pala d’Oro” or Golden Altarpiece of St. Mark’s Cathedral in Venice. Commissioned by doge Pietro Orseolo I (976-978) as an antependium and later rearranged by Ordelaf Falier (1105) to make it a retable behind the main altar in St. Mark’s, the Pala went through two successive expansions under Pietro Ziani (1209) and Andrea Dandolo (1342). At present, the Pala counts 250 cloisonné enamel, the work of Byzantine goldsmiths.
Pala d'Oro in St Mark Cathedral, Venice, cloisonné enamel, 10th-15th century, 3.84-1.40 m.
FROM CONQUES TO THE MEDIEVAL SCHOOL
During the 11th – 12th centuries, in Milan, Trier and Limoges, gilded copper began to replace gold. About 1080-1100, a new manufacture flourished in Conques, dedicated to the production of religious-themed enamel objects, under the guidance of abbot Begon III. It was here that the technique of champlevé on engraving finally developed, where the enamellist chiseled the copper base or engraved it by acids and filled the engravings with enamel. Conques decayed c. 1130 and its heritage passed to four new schools: the Limousine in France; the Mosan in Belgium; the Rhenish in Germany; a fourth school in Spain. These schools had their home cities in Limoges, Liegi, Cologne and Silos respectively, all of them laying on the Way of St. James, which favored the success of enameled religious objects in Europe.
Position of Conques, Limoges, Cologne and Silos on the Way to Santiago de Compostela.
It was at this time that some Rhenish and Mosan artists became famous, such as Elbert of Cologne, Roger of Helmarshausen, Godefroy de Claire and, in particular, Nicholas of Verdun, the author of the Shrine of the Three Kings in the Cologne Cathedral and of the altarpiece of the Klosterneuburg Abbey in Austria.
Pastoral staff, champlevé on gilded copper, Host container and reliquary, 1150-1200, Castello Sforzesco, Milan
It is interesting to note that the composition of enamel was originally the same as the ancient millefiori glass, as we have already mentioned before. A contemporary author who might be a pseudonym for Roger of Helmarshausen according to a few authors, Theophilus the presbyter, witnesses in his Diversarum Artium Schedula that the glass used for enameling was recycled from the ancient Roman pagan works and used to produce sacred Christian works. About 1200 AD, anyway, the resources of recycled Roman glass were exhausted and the enamellists in Limoges had to rely on a new soda-based formula with a higher content of lead.
Shrine of the Three Kings (1190-1220) - Nicholas de Verdun, Cologne Cathedral.
The School of Limoges was in fact unique in that it was the only school surviving to this day even after some periods of decadence. This was made possible because the Fourth Lateran Council (1215), on request of Pope Innocent III, decided that the Eucharist had to be reserved in tabernacles or other specific key-locked containers, and the 1229 Winchester Synod decided that the Eucharistic doves – produced since the 4th century at least, were valid for this purpose. At the time, Limoges produced fine and low-cost Eucharistic doves made of gilded copper, which reduced the costs with respect to the temple-shaped tabernacles of gold and silver, granting a long-standing success to the so-called Opus Lemovicense but at the same time, reducing its creative impulse in favor of a more standardized “mass” production.
LATE MIDDLE AGES
At the half of the 14th century, Limoges began a period of inexorable decline and it was in Siena (Italy) that a new technique appeared. The so-called champlevé basse-taille or translucent enamel on bas-reliefs consists of the chiseling of complex bas-relief figures and the application of translucent colored enamels, so that the different depths produce different color shades and the silver or gold base shines through the enamel.
A restorer at the Vatican Museums writes,
“The creation of translucent enamels is due to the fusion of two different technological experiences: the first one is the French tradition of working the metal base in relief; the second one is the Byzantine use of semi-transparent enamels”
Flavia Callori di Vignale, “Il Calice di Guccio di Mannaia nel Tesoro della Basilica di San Francesco ad Assisi”, page 133.
The first work of champlevé basse-taille is the Chalice of Nicholas IV, today in Assisi, created by Guccio di Mannaia, made of gilded silver, 22 cm high and decorated with 96 translucent enamels of little dimensions. The technique of Guccio di Mannaia gained immediately a great success and many silversmiths from Siena adopted and improved it for the creation of chalices and patens. We remind in particular Duccio di Donato, Tonino di Guerrino and Andrea Riguardi. In 1337, another artist from Siena, Ugolino di Vieri, created another masterpiece, the great Reliquary of the Corporal of Bolsena, in the Orvieto Cathedral, 139 cm tall, composed by 32 enamel scenes.
On the left: Reliquary of the Miracle of Bolsena, Cathedral of Orvieto, Ugolino di Vieri (1337-1339).
On the right: Chalice of Nicholas (1288-1292) by Guccio di Mannaia (Church of St. Francis, Assisi). This is the first example of basse-taille enamel.
The translucent enamel technique arrived in Spain under the influence of Catalan king James I of Aragon (d. 1276). In particular, Maiorca grew to prominence with a manufacture settled by goldsmiths from Provence, Siena and Naples, but also Valencia, generally associated with the name of Pere Berneç, a goldsmith active in the days of Peter the Ceremonious (d. 1387) and author of many sacred objects, including the golden altarpiece of the Girona Cathedral.
Altarpiece of the Girona Cathedral, art by Pere Berneç
About this time, Iran becomes the home of a new important production of enamel under the reign of Ghazan Khan (1271-1304). The enamels are in the style of miniature painting on white enamel with geometric and flower motifs, in the traditional Islamic style. The technique is commonly known as minakari, which means “paradise” from the prevalence of blue colors.
THE EXPERIMENTS AT THE TURN OF THE 15th CENTURY
The first documented proof of the existence of plique à jour enamel is an inventory of Pope Boniface VIII dated 1295, where it is referenced in Latin as smalta clara. Anyway, the first example that reached us is the Mérode Cup with cover, made of vermeil (gilded silver) in Bourgogne around 1400. The object takes the name of the ancient Belgian family Mérode, the original owners.
The Cup of Mérode, vermeil with plique-à-jour enamel, produced in Bourgogne about 1400.
In the years 1380-1420, the artists began to experiment on new forms of enamel decoration, more “courageous” than the previous techniques. In particular, this is the moment of the ronde bosse enamel, developed primarily in Paris and London. A possible reason for these new developments is that, following the Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453) and, in particular, the Massacre of Limoges (19 September 1370), the School of Limoges had gone in decay and some of the enamellists found refuge in Paris under the patron John of Valois, Duke of Berry. The ronde bosse enamels of the time are the Reliquary of Montalto (1377-1380), created in Paris by the goldsmith and valet Jan du Vivier and modified by a Venetian goldsmith’s atelier 60 years late; the Reliquary of the Holy Thorn (1380-1387), and the Golden Pony of Charles VI, and the Table of the Trinity, 44.5 cm tall. Noteworthy is also the famous Dunstable Jewel.
Three of the earliest "ronde bosse" enamels. On the left: Reliquary of the Holy Thorn, 1380, British Museum (London, United Kingdom); at the center, Golden Horse, 1404, Church of St. Anne (Altötting, Germany); on the right, Table of the Trinity, 1411, Louvre Museum (Paris, France)
In the early 15th century, Persian enamel came from Iran and Pakistan to China, where it was known as “Islamic ware” in the book Ge Gu Yao Lun.
THE RENAISSANCE: ENAMEL PAINTING & PAINTED ENAMEL
During the 15th century, Northern Italy, Venice in particular, switched from champlevé to painting on enamel, an imitation of painted porcelain.
Examples of painting on enamel from Northern Italy (Milan and Venice), 15th century
The greatest renovation in the field of enameling was the creation of painted enamel, almost contemporary in Italy and France. Jean Fouquet learned the art of enameling from Italian master Filarete and was the first to ever produce an enamel cameo with a technique similar to painted enamel and grisaille, a few years ahead. Enamel was now ready to become pure art: the plain and stylized figure typical of cloisonné and champlevé were abandoned in favor of the depths of design, as for the oil on canvas. The brightness improved even more with the transparences of the thin paillons of silver and gold. By the end of the 15th century, we have some 40 works attributed to the same author or atelier, known to the experts by the name “Pseudo-Monvaerni” after an inscription found on some of these works. The style has already the distinctive traits of émail peint, but nothing comparable to the more evolved paintings of the 16th century.
Self-portrait of Jean Fouquet, c. 1446
Flagellation, Pseudo-Monvaerni, painted enamel, 14x16 cm, (late 15th century)
The earliest pure painted enamel work is a Crucifixion, by Nardon Pénicaud (1470-1542), dated 1503. Nardon was the head of a dynasty of enamellists from Limoges. The work, commissioned by René II, Duke of Lorraine (1451-1508), is now in the Museum of Cluny. In this period, the technique Grisaille is also born around 1530. The best creations of the period are hybrids with translucent enamels, grisaille, painted enamel and paillons. This technique will lead to the rebirth of Limoges. Amongst the best artists, we mention Pierre Courteys, Pierre Raymond, Nouailher, Jacques Laudin, Jean de Court and his daughter Susanne de Court, the first woman enamellist recorded by name. There are also a few anonymous artists such as the so-called Master of the Aeneid.
Crucifixion by Nardon Pénicaud, painted enamel, Limoges, 1503.
The most famous enamellist is certainly Léonard Limosin (1505-1577), the first to be officially recognized as valet and court painter. Limosin had been admitted to the School of Fontainebleau and he was able to produce hundreds of paintings with portraits or based on his own sketches. That is why he is considered one of the best exponents of Limoges enamel in the Renaissance.
Two works by Léonard Limosin.
On the left: Flagellation, enamel on copper, 18x25 cm, 1550. On the right: Portrait of the Count of Palatinate, Jean Philippe, 1550.
Grisaille Technique. On the left: Folly, by Jean Laudin (1616-1688). On the right: Florentine school mythological work.
About 1500, Man Singh I, rajah of Amber, welcomes the enamellists from Punjab (Pakistan) to Jaipur (present-day Rajasthan, India), turning the city and the nearby Lahore and Delhi into the main center of minakari enamel in India.
Towards the end of the 16th century, enamel art went into decline once again, both for a change of tastes and for the low quality of mass productions. The technique in use at the time, known as enamel painting, was almost an imitation of porcelain. We can see a triumph of miniatures on snuffboxes or table clocks and jewelry. The pictorial technique was perfect to interpret the new rococo taste for luxury items.
FROM THE 17th CENTURY TO OUR DAYS.
A new technique called “enamel miniature” appeared in Switzerland and France at the beginning of the 17th century. Jean and Henri Toutin from Genève invented the technique in 1632, when they began to apply a transparent enamel on little copper medals and decorated them with color oxides by brush on transparent enamel. One of their disciples, Jean I Petitot, is known as the Raphael of enamel for his perfect works, especially those produced from the sketches of Anton van Dyck using a color palette invented by chemist Turquet de Mayerme. The greatest portraitist was presumably Jean-Etienne Liotard (1702-1789).
Portrait of Louis XIV the Sun King, enamel miniature by Jean Petitot during the period 1649-1691.
In 1753, the first industrial manufacture of enamel opened in Battersea (England).
During a diplomatic travel across Western Europe in 1697-1698, Emperor Peter the Great of Russia met Charles Boit, a French-Swedish enamel miniaturist working at the court of William III of England. Fascinated by the technique, Peter began to invite Western enamellists at his court in the newly founded Saint Petersburg. The first Russian enamel miniaturist was Grigory Semyonovich Musikiysky from Moscow (1670-1740), who painted the first enamel portraits of the royal family. Another important name is that of Andrey Ovsov, who adopted a stippling (pointillé) style akin to the French and English miniaturists.
Finally, in 1763 the Orthodox archbishop of Rostov opened the first atelier to produce enamel miniature icons: it is the famous finift technique that rapidly passed from a purely religious purpose to a wider profane use.
From 1845 to 1872, the famous porcelain manufacturer in Sèvres opened an atelier of enamel art. René Lalique was the last great enamellist at the time of the Art Nouveau.
Meanwhile, a Japanese former samurai, Kaiji Tsukenichi, discovered how to reproduce the Chinese cloisonné enamels and opened his famous manufacture in Nagoya, so important that it was recognized by the State. Enamel had already come to Japan a first time in 1620, but never enjoyed the same success that will continue till the 1960s with a flourishing of different techniques. Enamel is known in Japan as Shippō.
A pair of vases by Kaji Tsunekichi, Yūsen-Shippō (Japanese cloisonné), late 19th century
The end of the 19th century saw the art of portraits being abandoned because of the invention of the daguerreotype. A noteworthy exception was Carl Fabergé in St. Petersburg, who invented a new use of enamel, the guilloché technique, a sort of basse-taille on a metal base worked mechanically with a specific machine. He is famous for the Fabergé Eggs, jewels of great value under the Russian tsars.
An Italian representative of Art Nouveau, Vincenzo Miranda, goldsmith and silversmith from Naples, had one of his jewels exposed at the Universal Exposition of 1900.
In Austria, on the contrary, we can find the enamel paintings of Viennese silversmiths Hermann Ratzersdorfer and Hermann Böhm.
Amongst the greatest names of enamel artists of the 20th century, we can remember Robert Barriot in France, Egino Weinert in Germany, Giuseppe Guidi (1880-1931), Giuseppe Maretto (1908-1984) and Mario Maré (1921-1993) in Italy. These masters adopted a style that Maretto called "taglio molle" (soft cut) champlevé, where the contours were engraved in the raw enamel before firing, so that the enamels are separate from each other and the figures emerge in bas-relief.
Also in Italy, many designers such as Gio Ponti, Armando Pomodoro or Sottsass combined their forces with great enamellists such as Paolo De Poli, Franco Bucci, Franco Bastianelli or the Studio del Campo atelier, producing innovative effects for everyday design objects.
The foundation of C.K.I. in 1979 was one of the most important events that helped in the rebirth of enamel at an international level, through the cooperation of artists from around the world.
Over a period of 35 centuries, many enameling techniques have developed, passing through many populations distinguished by culture, religion and social background. They have been absorbed into and spread by many schools and artistic movements; yet the special fascination for this applied art has overcome every kind of obstacle, reaching our era almost untouched. It remains a difficult art for an élite of artists who have a passion for amazing results which become visible only after tens of firings in a kiln at 800°C. An unknown design of destiny has preserved these techniques and reached us almost unchanged.
Let’s imagine Leonardo using enamels to paint one of his masterpieces, the Mona Lisa at the Louvre, today protected due deterioration from time: it would be as if it were still “new”, keeping its original bright colours just extracted from a kiln with the Maestro’s expert hands.
Comparison between the Mona Lisa or "Gioconda" by Leonardo da Vinci, 1503-1517 (on the left) and the enamel portrait of Mary Stuart,1558-1560 (on the right) probably by Leonard Limosin. While the enamelled skin of Mary Stuart is unchanged, the Gioconda's wrinkles are quite visible.