GERMAN SILVER OF THE SEVENTEENTH AND EIGHTEENTH CENTURIES
By, Alice Riggs
The Possession of gold and silver has always been a measure of wealth and position. Pharonic treasures and other ancient kings’ tombs were overflowing with gold and silver jewelry, goblets and ceremonial objects. Throughout history, the search for the silver ore has obsessed kings, princes and explorers. Silver was the more usual material for both church silver and domestic plate.
Prior to the eighteenth century, goldsmiths were as important to a community as bankers are today. Gold and silver plate could be melted down and immediately turned into money at a moments notice. Consequently, much beautiful silver of the Medieval and Renaissance periods have been lost to us. Objects that survived the widespread melting’s throughout Europe were generally wares made in Germany, Holland and England.
During the fifteenth century, Augsburg and Nuremberg were important artistic and commercial centers. They were on the major trade route to Northern Europe; their wealth and culture were famous and its goldsmiths’ work was exported throughout Europe.
Distinctive in both conception and design, German silver in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was among the most lavish and magnificent in Europe. Following the end of the Thirty Years’ War in 1648, industry, commerce and confidence in the national strength was in grave disrepair. The internal structure of the country was chaotic; there were approximately eighteen hundred different states, all governed by an emperor with limited powers and an inefficient government. Leopold 1 (1640-1705) saw his position solely as a means to promote the interests of the Catholic Church. As admirable as this was, it did little to strengthen the internal structure of Germany or restore an earlier sense of optimism.
Fortunately, there are always those who seek to make themselves greater, more powerful and richer. One of the most obvious displays of this was the spectacular rivalry of lesser princes. Nothing was more suitable for ostentatious display than silver. Obvious splendor was what mattered. The majority of the plate produced was partially or totally gilded.
No startling new designs or techniques were developed within the country. Designers stuck to the old traditions. Towards the end of the seventeenth century, French influence, aided by the immigration of the Huguenots, gave new life to the production of silver. The Huguenots introduced elements of the baroque taste into the tradition of their new homeland. The techniques at which they excelled, included ornamental piercing, casting and cut-card work.
The standard of execution remained high throughout the seventeenth century and the quality of engraving equaled the products of other European countries. There was an undoubted tendency towards excess in ornamental detail, and this was lavishly displayed on drinking vessels. These vessels form a great part of seventeenth century German silver.
It was the custom to give a cup on an important occasion and the variety is boundless. The Riesenpokal was unique to the German silversmiths; a large cup, sometimes forty inches high, it was intended for display only. The pineapple cup (ananaspokal) is more familiar, with the stem often shaped as a tree trunk or figure. Another form of surface decoration was the imitation of faceted diamonds which owes its inspiration to Venetian glassworks.
A type of drinking-vessel indigenous to the country was cups modeled as animals. They probably originated as three-dimensional representations of the owner’s crest or part of his coat of arms. Each has a detachable head and their forms included those of the chamois, griffin, panther, swan and pelican. They continued in their popularity until the end of the seventeenth century. They occasionally were adapted to serve another purpose, such as, a salt cellar.
The surfaces of tankards provided a great opportunity for German silversmiths to use their imaginations. Mostly, they chose to decorate them with chasing, the scenes often represented by a being of mythological or biblical nature, and sometimes a combination of the two. Even in
the last years of the seventeenth century, there were examples of Renaissance ornamentation, swags of fruits and flowers, garlands and strapwork. Never the less, these pieces remained as expressions of distinct German individuality in concept and design.
There long existed in Germany an interest in natural history and by the seventeenth century museums had been established devoted to this subject. A satisfactory manner of displaying natural objects to good advantage was mounting them in silver or silver-gilt, carnelian, chalcedony, agate, ivory, mother of pearl and stoneware were also used for this purpose. Equally, crystal, with its supposed ability of divining the presence of poison, was popular.
The zenith of this art form was reached by Johann Melchior Dinglinger; by 1708, he completed his greatest work, a baroque creation called “The Court Of Delhi On The Birthday Of The Great Mogul Aureng-Zeli.” Made for Augustus the Strong, it was housed in the Green Vaults at Dresden. Dinglinger, through his use material and extraordinary technical ability, transcended the limitations of his craft. Aided by his brothers, Georg Friedrick as enameller, and Georg Christoph as jeweler, he influenced some French designs of the day.
France was not the only outside influence on taste in the eighteenth century. England influenced taste and stylistic similarities, particularly after the ascent of the Hanoverian Elector to the throne of England. This connection resulted in the direct copying of English designs by Hanoverian goldsmiths.
By the middle of the eighteenth century, Frederick The Great (1740-1786) became a great patron of the arts. He was a collector on a lavish scale and had a passion for snuff boxes mounted in gold and silver. An edict by Frederick in 1740 forbade the importation of French boxes and contributed to the eminence of Berlin silversmiths in this field.
Until Augustus The Strong established the Meissen Factory in 1710, the goldsmiths were unrivaled in their ability to produce an enormous array of luxury goods. If a gift was required. it took the form of a piece of silver. This continued until the invention of true porcelain in Europe and accounts for the gradual decline in the prestige of German silver during the eighteenth century. The artistic emphasis in Germany was towards producing ever more magnificent examples of porcelain. The variety of silver produced was narrowed down-goblets, beakers, tankards, candlesticks, boxes and ecuelles were produced, but the fountains, andirons and large dishes common in the late seventeenth century became rare. It was a time of consolidation and adaptation for the goldsmith.
Wars greatly influenced the decline in the output of silver. In particular the Seven years’ War (1756-1763), in which Frederick The Great took on the combined armies of Austria, France, Russia, Saxony and Sweden. Although victorious, it was indicative of a time for retrenchment and not expansive display.
Emergence of the German Rococo style as around 1730 and peaked the following decade. The German version of the Rococo is distinctive. It was often crude in conception and marred by over-elaboration of detail. Often, whimsical designs were lost in the ungainly shapes used. The Rococo dies slowly, continuing until about ‘780. Products of the later years were stiffly executed and lacked the earlier exuberance.
By this time, England and France were under the influence of neo-classicism; Germany, however, remained almost untouched by it. Few examples exist utilizing loosely draped figures, wreaths, urns and landscapes. They remain examples of an international style as opposed to a means of nationalistic expression. This feeling lasted out the eighteenth century and explains the decline in quality and quantity associated with its last decades. The strong feeling of German silver couldn’t complete with the lightness of design and intricacies of the English silver.
This topic is not, in any way, to be construed with the term “German silver” used for an imitation silver alloy developed circa 1824, sometimes referred to as nickel silver.
After visiting museums in Berlin, Potsdam and Dresden, I was awe-struck with the unparalleled beauty and magnificence of German silver pieces from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
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