Rostov Yaroslavsky lies to the north-east of Moscow on the shores of the beautiful Lake Nero. This eleven-centuries-old town was renowne'd for its outstanding architects and its folk craftsmen who excelled in icon painting, wood-carving, embroidery and pottery.
Today, Rostov is deservedly proud of its unique enamelled paintings. Back in the eighteenth century, the work of the Rostov goldsmith-enamellers was much prized and found its way into the famous Armoury in the Moscow Kremlin.
Enamelling is the oldest technique used in fine metalwork. In Early Russia, both the technique and the enamelled pieces were called finift, a word of Greek origin meaning "shining stone". Enamel is first produced by covering the plaque or object of copper with a layer of white enamel and firing; the design is then applied in delicate colours over this with repeated firings. These are necessary, since the colours fuse at different temperatures. Fragile as it is, the painted enamel endures damp, heat and, last but not least, the ravages of time.
The enamelled articles are usually produced by a painter and a designer working together; the latter adds a setting of filigree and granulation to the painted surface.
Up to the mid-nineteenth century, the enamellers produced mostly objects for religious use: insets for the bindings of ecclesiastical books, chalices, cups, mitres, crosiers, miniature crosses and small icons. These were famous for their lively colours, painterly work and vivid decorative effect, as well as for the traditional folk treatment of the subjects. By the late nineteenth century this ancient craft sank into decline. The unique work of earlier times was superseded by standardized miniature icons and ornaments for ecclesiastical plate.
The enamel painting of Rostov was revived at the beginning of the Soviet period. This was due in large measure to the efforts of the well-known Soviet artist Sergei Chekhonin, who gave a new lease of life to the neglected techniques and forms of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
He himself contributed interesting articles with floral designs set against a deep blue background. These motifs were taken up by many of the young artists. A little box in this style by Nikolai Karasyov won an award at the Paris World Fair of 1937. In 1958 the painters Ivan Soldatov, Victor Gorsky and Anatoly Kokin with the designer Valentina Soldatova won honours at the Brussels World Fair.
At the Rostov Enamel Factory today, veteran masters work with gifted young artists and designers, who have graduated from specialized art schools. They use the traditional techniques while adding bold individual touches; they are also introducing new motifs into the floral compositions and are experimenting with narrative subjects.
A wide range of articles is being produced today, from miniature boxes, powder-boxes, brooches, pendants and ear-drops to large plates, plaques and panels.
The enamelled panels illustrate, in the traditional early Russian style, episodes of the great battles waged by Russian warriors against the invader, as well as popular genre scenes, folklore subjects, romanticized views of Rostov the Great, pastoral scenes and contemporary subjects. The exquisite ornaments feature bunches of wild flowers, gorgeous dahlias, circular or oval, garlands of daisies and bluebells.
An article fashioned by a master craftsman is always a joy to behold. Hence the popularity of the Rostov enamels both in the Soviet Union and abroad, at world fairs in Poland, Bulgaria, Canada, Spain, Japan and elsewhere. The finest pieces go to museums in Rostov, Yaroslavl, Moscow and Leningrad.
Today the vibrant, inspiring enamel painting of Rostov, rooted as it is in the people's ideals of the beautiful, is as delightful as it ever was in the old days.