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D for Dinanderie

Published on , by Marielle Brie

Dinanderie refers to ordinary as well as luxury items made of copper and brass. Since the Middle Ages, the word has encompassed tableware, cookware and many other everyday objects.

Claudius Linossier (1893–1953), ovoid vase with a light base and wide annular neck,... D for Dinanderie

Claudius Linossier (1893–1953), ovoid vase with a light base and wide annular neck, decorated with a “frieze of spirals and a frieze of triple chevrons”, hammered copper proof, signed under the base, 21 cm/8.26 in.
Lyon, January 17, 2021, Bremens-Belleville OVV.
Result: €28,750

Since the fourth millennium BCE, copper, the oldest metal used by man, has been worked and considered a guarantee of prosperity for the areas lucky enough to possess it. However, copper alone is not enough: several factors must come together to transform it. In the 11th century, the production centers of Bouvignes and Dinant in present-day Belgium’s Meuse Valley were so proficient that dinanderie became the French word for copper and brass craftsmanship. The banks of the Meuse contained large amounts of zinc, a metal indispensable for making brass, and the river provided access to the Hanseatic ports and their economic outlets. In addition, the presence of derle, a type of clay ideal for making crucibles, gave the Meuse Valley a near-monopoly on production in Western Europe from the 13th century. The objects manufactured—mostly copper cauldrons never heavier than five kilograms and, starting in the 15th century, small brass candlesticks—were exported to England and France. Small pots and tubs were made by hammering a round metal sheet softened by heat to make it easier to shape. Depending on the tool used, the object was given a smooth or faceted appearance or enriched with engraved or repoussé decoration. Common objects did not receive such attention: in the 14th and 15th centuries, they were obtained by casting, whose rationalization allowed standardized production. The shapes remained unchanged for centuries, making it hard to accurately date the pieces. Brass items were in higher demand because of their resemblance to gold.

In the 12th and 13th centuries, small, finely crafted candlesticks were made for the elite, their shapes growing increasingly varied in the 14th and 15th centuries. Neighboring areas attracted coppersmiths, especially after Dinant was sacked in 1466 and Bouvignes in 1554. Protectionism, which gradually emerged in modern times, hindered production, which soon shifted to Middelburg, Namur and Nuremberg.

In 13th and 14th-century France, beautiful candlesticks and portable copper candle spikes were decorated with Limoges enamel. These elegant objects were more affordable than their gold counterparts and took different shapes. They could be stacked, jointed, mass-produced and given sliding legs. Their secular decoration, often featuring imaginary coats of arms, targeted a well-off clientele that also liked Oriental-looking pieces. For example, aquamaniles were based directly on the marvelous shapes in Islamic art, which came to the West via the Crusades. The brass, gold and silver-inlaid Saint Louis baptismal font (the Louvre) attests to this cultural cross-fertilization: it was made by Muhammad Ibn al-Zayn, a coppersmith active in Syria or Egypt at the turn of the 14th century.

A Protean Art Form
There is a thin line between goldsmithing and coppersmithing, and in many brass masterpieces, the coppersmith’s dexterity can be mistaken for that of the goldsmith. Two examples include the baptismal fonts of the church of Saint Bartholomew in Liège made by Renier de Huy between 1107 and 1118 and the eagle lectern of Notre Dame de Tongres by Jean Josès de Dinant in 1370. But there are also collection plates, liturgical objects, crosses, burial plaques and bells created for churches or exported, while a host of small ornaments challenged sumptuary laws in the late 13th century. Some order was put into this hodgepodge production in the 17th century. Villedieu-les-Poêles (Manche) produced brass fittings for cabinets and copper stoves, tubs, vats and stills. Tinning was unnecessary for high-sugar cooking but for other uses, corrosion left a layer of verdigris, whose toxicity sowed mistrust in the 18th century and was a strike against coppersmiths.

Ceramics and faience took over, but water fountains, pots for the new beverages of coffee and chocolate and beautiful copper cookware were still legion. Bathtubs appeared but zinc replaced copper in the 1840s. Coppersmiths also made scales, scientific instruments, bird cages, lanterns, vases, torches and artworks. The choir gates of Saint Feuillen church by the Nalinnes brothers in Fosses-la-Ville, Belgium are notable examples of the rococo style popular in the 1750s. Unfortunately, coppersmithing was on the brink of a long period of decline and coppersmiths were few and far between by the late 19th century. However, the copper-clad Statue of Liberty held high the torch of this centuries-old art. Art Deco revived the flame. Talented Jean Dunand and Claudius Linossier breathed new life into copperware. Copper was lacquered, oxidized and patinated, brass polished and inlaid. Smooth or hammered, they decorated furniture, appeared alongside precious materials and were made into jewelry. Dunand created a helmet for soldiers during the Great War. But unfortunately, the 20th century was just a flickering golden age for coppersmiths. Today only a handful are left, including Nathanaël Le Berre and the Chaudrolux company, who are striving to preserve and enrich a remarkable yet endangered craft heritage.

Worth seeing
The Saint Louis baptismal font at the Louvre and the musée de la Poeslerie in Villedieu-les-Poêles.
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