The striking fully-manned, full sail ship above recalling Shakespeare’s famous verse on the pleasure of seeing sails “grow big bellied in the wanton wind” is more than an elaborate metalwork. This ornate vessel, known as a nef, actually served the utilitarian purpose of housing spices, cutlery, napkins and even wine at elaborate dinners in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Nef, which is an Old French term for ship, first came into use in the 13th century, most likely as a drinking vessel; references to the “burgundy waggons” first appear in 13th century French romances. The wheels enabled the ship to be passed to guests around the table in great dining halls. The nef was also likely used to hold salt, a very expensive resource in the Middle Ages. The nef was always placed in front of the most prominent guest at the table as a mark of their status.
Nefs were crafted in France, Germany, Spain and Italy with most extant nefs being crafted by master silversmiths in Germany in the late 19th century. As the use of great dining halls waned, nefs became more ornamental and thereby more elaborate with wonderfully conceived details such as the crew so clearly expressive of action on this nef. Nefs were usually made of silver or gold, sometimes with jewel embellishment. By the 17th century, Germany had become one of the first countries in Europe for silver craft with strict guild regulations and highly skilled craftsman drawing patrons from all over Europe. As its utility waned, the nef remained a highly valued continental dining table centerpiece. There are even rumors of nefs being given names (the Duke of Orleans’ nef was supposedly known as “Porquepy,” meaning porcupine). Blum Antiques can be reached for more information regarding this particular exquisite historical piece here.