In preparation for the display of this intriguing copper-and-silver nef, one of the Museum’s late 19th century Viennese ornaments, our conservators located previously hidden maker’s marks which prompted renewed attention to the object’s origin, design and function.
Nefs, or table centrepieces, made from precious materials in the form of a sailing ship were made in Europe from at least the 13th century. Traditionally they were placed in front of the most important person at the banquet table. The earliest designs were simpler and could have served as salt cellars or possibly as drinking vessels. Later medieval nefs became more complex and some 200 years later some evolved into automata with moving figures and music. It is those spectacular renaissance showpieces that inspired Viennese silversmiths like Karl Bender in whose workshop this nef was most likely made between 1874 and 1892.
Complementing the intricate detailing of the three-masted galleon complete with a high poop and sailors, a distinctive feature of the nef is its elaborate enamel painting. Various mythological scenes decorate both the exterior and interior, all sails and the foot. These include the scene on the foremast sail ‘The marriage of Neptune and Amphitrite’ who ride in a cockle-shell chariot drawn by hippocampi over the waves of the sea amid a retinue of Tritons, Nereids and Amoretti. A grotesque frieze with mermen and Tritons blowing conch-shell trumpets, decorates the ship’s interior along the rim and above the central scene ‘Neptune rescuing Amymone from the satyr’. Like all sailors and the figurehead of the ship, the silver and blister-pearl nereid (mermaid) which supports the nef is champlevé enamelled.
Enamels are clear or opaque glass that can be fused to metal surfaces at red heat to create coloured smooth surfaces. While enamelling on gold was practised as early as the 15th century BCE (E.Spiel, Painted Enamels, 2008, p. 9), enamel painting on base metals, most often copper, flourished during the renaissance as highly skilled artisans adapted the technique to create brilliantly coloured ornaments. Not surprisingly, enamel painting became integral to decorative metalwork designed in renaissance revival, the most fashionable historical style of the 1870s and the 1880s.
With a long history of the decorative arts industry, the Austrian capital of Vienna became a key centre for decorative enamelling at the time. Particularly striking were Viennese enamels in the renaissance revival style with their rich painterly effects that conformed to the contemporary Viennese taste for opulence. While nefs were among the most dramatic Viennese enamels, popular also were lidded tankards, fanciful mantlepiece clocks, drinking horns, ewers, tazzas and other vessels. They were made to satisfy the needs of home makers and collectors who ‘wanted expensive looking Renaissance objects yet who did not mind whether they were of the period or simply in the style of the original’. (H. Ricketts, Objects of Vertu, 1971, p. 94).
Profusely painted with enamels, the nef is a fine example of the revival of 16th century enamel painting from Limoges, a town in south-western France famous for its production. The widespread interest in Limoges enamels, followed the 1866 retrospective exhibition held in Limoges and reached its peak in the late 1880s when three major exhibitions were held in France and Germany. Competing with such leading Viennese ateliers as those of Hermann Ratzersdorfer and Hermann Bohm, and possibly copying some of their designs, Bender appears to have made a wide range of decorative objects, from miniature clocks to ornate vessels and dishes. Like that of his competitors, his stock varied in quality and his cheaper products were not hallmarked. Proudly stamped with his marks in several places and possibly made for export, this nef must have been among Bender’s showpieces. Today, it belongs to a relatively small number of these imposing and entertaining ornaments which have survived.