Man seems always to have had a propensity for incising images into hard, intractable materials. In Paleolithic times, stone implements were used to scratch symbols and figures of animals and human beings into rock surfaces. The quality of the traces cut in the Old Stone Age suggests that early man had a profound understanding of the visual world around him.
The art of engraving on various metals for decorative purposes was highly developed many thousands of years ago. Metalworkers in bronze, silver, and gold learned early to incise fine lines with cutting tools. They used their skill to embellish weapons, armor, horse trappings, elegant household furnishings, and jewelry—all with stylized patterns, elements from nature, and scenes from every aspect of human life. It is known that these craftsmen sometimes “proved” their designs by taking reverse impressions from the metal in soft clay or by blacking the incisions and pressing the work against some absorbent material. These tests, however, did not constitute “prints” in the sense of multiples from a master matrix. The niello print seems to be the first use of the idea to make a multiple image from an incised, inked image.
A niello is a piece of engraved metalwork (usually silver), the lines of which have been filled with a black metallic amalgam. This method of decorating metal has been used continuously since antiquity, but was especially popular in Florence and Bologna in the years between about 1450 and 1520. It is of interest to the print historian because these metal plates, before being filled with niello, were sometimes printed onto paper to preserve a record of the design (a niello print).
For a long time following Vasari (1511-1574), these were thought to explain the beginning of intaglio printing in Italy. A niello print is distinguishable from a normal engraving by its very small size and its minute manner of working. They were presumably originally printed to guide the silversmith in his work or to preserve a record of a design, but so many prints survive, some of their lettering in the correct direction, that it is certain that plates were also made in this style for printing.
The class of intaglio prints is defined by its particular technique of printing from a metal plate, usually of copper but occasionally of iron, steel or zinc. Incisions are made in the plate in various ways, and it is the different techniques used to make these marks that distinguish the various processes of the intaglio family, of which the most common are engraving and etching. But in whatever way the lines are opened in the plate, the method of printing is the same.
Unlike woodcuts and wood engravings, which are inked so that the ink lies on the uppermost surface, intaglio plates are wiped clean so that the ink is left only in the incisions. They are then printed under great pressure so that the paper is forced into the grooves to pull the ink out.