The Fire and the Furnace: Making Recipes Work

By Thijs Hagendijk

While working on the Ars Vitraria Experimentalis (1678), the principle book on seventeenth-century glass, I came a across a peculiar remark. The author of the book, the German alchemist and glassmaker Johann Kunckel (1630-1703) composed a commentary on a series of Italian glaze recipes, and somewhere along he dropped the following line: “reproducing this glaze requires as much Art as inventing it” (p. 193). I was struck by this remark and have been thinking about it ever since. What is it that Kunckel tried to tell us here? What does it tell us about recipes, these miraculously concise pieces of text? And how do these written instructions fit into workshop practices? After all, when reproducing a recipe becomes an investment that equals its invention from scratch – why bother with books at all?

That people bothered is in fact beyond dispute. Recipe research from the past years has come up with ample reasons why people engaged with practical texts. People were working on their reputation, tried to organize experiential knowledge, or were concerned about the epistemic status of their crafts. And indeed, all these elements instantly return in Kunckel’s Ars Vitraria Experimentalis. Kunckel is particularly keen on stressing that everything in his book has been vetted through experience. His book reads as an attempt to apply for a good position at the Brandenburg court, and he openly runs down his main competitor, Friedrich Geißler, who worked on a similar book project. “Lieber Herr Geißler, I am sorry that you are so utterly unfortunate in your judgments and comments” (p. 188). In the end, however, we should not forget that the Ars Vitraria Experimentalis was born out of practice. It finds its basis in the workshop, amidst the radiant heat of furnaces, brightly glowing glass, skilled labor and the stinging smell of smoke.

Back to the glaze recipes. While the Italian glassmaker Antonio Neri (1576-1614) originally conceived the glass recipes some seventy years earlier, Kunckel now presented a German translation of these recipes, lavishly annotated with his comments. In an attempt to better understand how this concoction of recipes and commentaries would fit into actual workshop practices, I teamed up with Márcia Vilargiues (Universidade NOVA de Lisboa) and Sven Dupré (Utrecht University) to rework a couple of recipes. We gathered and prepared the ingredients and spent days around furnaces trying to reproduce the recipes.

Figure 1. One of the wood-fired furnaces we used to reproduce the glaze recipes. Note that the fire is stoked from the sides. Location: Telheiro da Encosta do Castelo, Montemor-o-Novo, Portugal.

We dragged wood, stoked furnaces and patiently waited for the heat to come. We tried to control the smoke and played games guessing temperatures from different shades of bright orange. Showers at the end of the day invariably turned my white bathtub into a deep brown. During these days, our main occupation was fire. Ingredients for the glaze, their quantities and the order in which they had to be combined became mere side issues.

Figure 2. The furnace opening was closed with bricks to keep in the heat. Bricks were only temporarily removed to move samples.

It was in this smoky atmosphere that we began to see a fundamental characteristic of Kunckel’s commentary. The focus of commentaries, annotations and marginalia in practical texts had traditionally been the testing, correcting and improving of recipes, but Kunckel took a slightly different approach. He started to dress up Neri’s recipes in his commentary and added new and previously unarticulated layers to the original recipes. What layers? Well, think for instance about the role of fire. While Neri straightforwardly communicated ingredients, ratios and the different steps in his glaze recipes, nothing prepared us for the important task that fire management turned out to be, which went far beyond sending some wood up in flames. Kunckel, on the contrary, emphasizes this very issue in his commentary, and repeatedly argues that “the Fire is the principle thing to observe” (p. 194).

Figure 3. To work efficiently, we reproduced several recipes at once.

Indeed, while working with different furnaces, we learned that furnaces are more than simple and inert providers of heat. Instead, wood-fired furnaces become a tool by which the quality of the glass is shaped in addition to the ingredients and the quantities prescribed by the recipe. Temperature, atmosphere and position in the furnace are all partly responsible for the end result. In the end, reworking the same recipe in three different furnaces left us with three sets of glazes in different qualities. See how Kunckel cleverly shifted the perspective in Neri’s recipes? Kunckel made his readers aware of the circumstances they had to navigate when putting a recipe into practice, something for which Neri left them unprepared.

Figure 4. Two samples of the red roischiero glaze.

Making processes can be understood as processes of growth, the anthropologist Tim Ingold tells us. And this stance on making has significant consequences for how we understand the position of texts in these processes. Makers stand in an ecological relation with their environment, their materials, tools, and the forces they work with. To make a glaze means that the molten glass, the furnace, the smoke, etc. act in correspondence with an observant and anticipating glassmaker. Crucially important here is that ideas, designs or written instructions cannot simply be imposed onto reality. Recipes need to become part of it instead. To make something means to adapt and respond to the local and unique joining and intertwining of forces, materials and elements – and written instructions form just one strand in this creative process. Seen in this light, Kunckel’s remark was not so much a pessimistic note on the possibly superfluous nature of glaze recipes, but rather a reminder that reading and reproducing a recipe is an all-encompassing effort to make the recipe work in the unique constellation of the individual workshop. Reproducing a recipe is reinventing the wheel.


Thijs Hagendijk is a lecturer at Utrecht University. Earlier this year, he defended his dissertation on reading and writing practices in the early modern arts, with a specific focus on text usage in historical glassmaking, painting and metalworking. He works on the intersection of technical art history and the history of chemistry, and is interested in performative methods, such as reworking, re-enacting and reproducing historical techniques, materials and processes.

*You can read more about this project in Thijs’ recent article in Ambix.

Colouring metals in the Far East

By Agnese Benzonelli

How far can someone go in the name of research? In my case quite a long way. For a month, I loosely taped tiny plates of metal to my hands and woke up every morning with green stains on them. I was investigating craft recipes employed in the far East since the fourteenth Century to create coloured metal and alloys used for beautiful small artefacts. Whereas Western taste preferred the natural colour and the polished lustre of metals, the Eastern preference was to use the process of chemical patination, where different chemicals react with the surface of copper and copper alloys to form new coloured compounds.

Fig.1: Left: a tsuba (handguard of Japanese sword) made of shakudo and gold; BM-TS244. Right: a Chinese gu-tong box; BM-1992,1109.2. Photos made by A. Benzonelli.

The Japanese created a whole class of coloured alloys, called irogane. They added small amounts of different elements to the copper and simmered it in a solution containing copper salts, alum, vinegar and other ingredients, to form coloured patinas on the surface. The most beautiful patina, shakudo, was made with copper and gold and achieved a deep blue-black colour. Combining a variety of alloy compositions and solution ingredients, they were able to create hues ranging from pale brown to black. Inlaying different irogane, gold, silver, and lacquers, they were able to create small artefacts and swords fittings with complex and visually impressive designs and patterns.

Fig.2: Picture of the 13 Japanese solutions created and tested taken from Japanese recipes reported in Eastern books.

Later on, Chinese craftspeople imported the technique from Japan, possibly through travellers or trying to copy the Japanese artefacts, and, from the Ming period (1368-1644), they used it to colour ink or tobacco boxes. In contrast to the Japanese irogane, the Chinese would patinate a gold-silver alloy only, which resulted in a dark colour similar to that of shakudo, which they called gu-tong. In both cases, the precious metal content was 1-3%, a larger amount would not affect the final patina colour.

There’s not a lot known about the two different recipes the Chinese craftsmen employed to produce their patinas. However, we do know that one process they utilised was similar to that used by the Japanese to produce the irogane,butwe have no precise recipes for the solutions. Another involved handling the metal until the perspiration from their hands corroded the surface.

Creating and play with metal colours has always fascinated me. Why using gold and silver to achieve that dark colour, instead of cheaper alternatives? What was the role of the different ingredients used in the recipes? Could sweat really be used as a patinating solution? Why did Japanese recipes tell not add precious metals to bronze (copper alloyed with tin) but only to pure copper? Could it be confirmed through scientific analysis that the technology was really transmitted from the Japanese to the Chinese culture? To find answers, I needed to conduct a systematic experimental research which could explain the reasons behind the technological choices of Japanese and Chinese craftsmen.

 I reproduced a series of alloys with tin, gold and silver, which I then patinated, following the recipes for shakudo and gu-tong from available texts. These are not numerous, as the recipes were mainly kept as secret and passed from father to son. We have city records, information sheets given by dealers and, in Japan, technical texts on metal working. I analysed the resulting patinas with techniques borrowed from modern material science, and used the experimental data as reference for the interpretation of historical patinated artefacts in museum collections.

I found that, for both the Japanese and Chinese recipes, the presence of gold in the alloy did, in fact, change the colour of the final patinas, which resulted in a better, more uniform and darker hue. I also noted how parameters such as the fine grade of surface polishing prior to the patination, the use of tin-free alloys, the selection of copper acetate as a main ingredient and the addition of vinegar are all processes and actions that led to a reduced patina growth. And as it turned out, sweat was indeed an effective patinating solution in the Chinese patination (as it can be noticed by the green corrosion products left on the hands), but the presence of gold in the alloy composition is nonetheless essential to obtain a dark hue, not achieved in gold-free alloys. Sweat is a slightly acidic solution, similar to that of used by Japanese craftsmen, essential to create a coloured copper oxide on the surface in just 48 hours of handling. Similarly, in both technologies cleaning of the alloy before or after the procedure suggested in Japanese texts and the abrasive action of the hands in the Chinese method are both similar and crucial steps in the patination process. I concluded from these findings that a dark patina was not the only feature that the craftsmen of both cultures had been striving for. They also seemed to be after a shiny appearance, given by the metallic lustre coming from the alloy.

Fig. 3: Alloys of different compositions patinated with Chinese patination.

In combining experimental and historical observations I gained an understanding of the intentions behind the technological choices made by the Japanese and Chinese artisans. My analysis confirmed the deliberate nature of these choices made to achieve dark and shiny blue-black colours otherwise impossible. This confirmed the importance of colour as a driver of these artisanal processes, and supports the idea that the knowledge was transmitted between the two cultures.

Was it worth in the end – the green hands and other discomforts suffered in the name of research? It was the first study to provide a scientific basis to our knowledge of the methods and choices made by those people, the ingredients they employed in making dark patinated artefacts, and contributed to our pool of knowledge of the artisanal methods and practices described in historical sources. So yes, it definitely was, and I would definitively do it again.

Visualizing the Plate: Reading Modernist Mexican Cuisine Through Colonial Botany

Lesley A. Wolff

Fig. 1: José Jernónimo Triana, Zamia muricate Willd, from J.C. Mutis, Drawings of the Royal Botanical Expedition to the New Kingdom of Granada (1783-1816), Royal Botanical Garden, Madrid.

The eighteenth century’s Age of Enlightenment signaled an era of standardization for the visual and textual colonial taxonomies of resources in the Americas. These illustrations were intended for export to European elites, many of whom would never touch foot in the Western hemisphere. In his late eighteenth century illustration of the species zamia, for example, José Jernónimo Triana showcased the rows of fleshy seeds hidden below leaves on the cusp of unraveling from the core (Fig. 1). Created for José Celestino Mutis’s Royal Botanical Expedition to the New Kingdom of Granada (1783-1816), this image and others like it (Figs. 2-3) appears at once orderly and geometric, a generalization of the species, with only minor imperfections providing specificity.

Fig. 2: José María Carbonell, Heliconia latispatha Benth, from J.C. Mutis, Drawings of the Royal Botanical Expedition to the New Kingdom of Granada (1783-1816), Royal Botanical Garden, Madrid.

These Enlightenment era illustrations, intended to train the European eye to “assess, possess, and order” the natural world of the Americas (Bleichmar 2009, 449), quietly espouse the slippery power of “visuality” (Mirzoeff 2011), in which the gaze is harnessed as a vehicle to control historical and social imaginaries. By demonstrating what we “know,” these illustrations also promote an amnesia of that which the Spanish empire does not want to remember. What at first glance appears to be an objective rendering of an indigenous cycad is instead a subjective, highly editorialized image that conflates stages of floral maturation and form (Bleichmar 2017, 146). Further, by extracting the species from its ecological context and setting it upon a bare, white background, Triana depicts the flora as nomadic, readily removed from its natural landscape and ripe for intellectual export to Spanish imperial stewardship. I suggest that the manner in which these imperial spectacles supplanted the realities of colonized lands and peoples have again today resurged in the zeitgeist by way of the scientific and objective knowledges that underscore global Modernist Cuisine.

Fig. 3: Francisco Javier Matis Mahecha, Brownea Rosa de Monte, from J.C. Mutis, Drawings of the Royal Botanical Expedition to the New Kingdom of Granada (1783-1816), Royal Botanical Garden, Madrid.

From the colonial era onward, Mexican cuisine has held a privileged place in the global and national imagination as a material signifier of the nation’s layered cultural past. In 2010, the nation’s foodways were declared Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO. Simultaneously, the new gastronomic guard of Modernist Cuisine took hold over restaurants across Mexico City. Most notably, chef Enrique Olvera’s modernist Mexican restaurant, Pujol, has been a consistent occupant on the list of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants since its opening in 2000 and has launched Olvera into global fame as the ambassador of Mexican cuisine to the Western gastronomic consumer.

This modernist attention to the innovation and intellectualization of cuisine has led the popular media to ask, “Is food art?” This question signals a curiosity about the chef-artist as facilitator of emotive and intellectual experiences rather than, or in addition to, gustatory ones. We see Olvera couched within this discourse in television shows like Chef’s Table (Netflix 2016), which depicts Olvera crafting dishes to the tune of classical music, like a sculptor modeling a Neoclassical figure. This grappling with the “genius” of the chef, however, masks complex relationships between the plated dishes and the cuisine’s perceived value. Much like colonial botany, modern gastronomy is not only about the pleasures of the palate, but also about the production of cultural knowledge rooted in extraction and re-contextualization.

As defined by Nathan Myhrvold, Modernist Cuisine emerged out of the striving toward innovation, discovery, and revelation of the original modernist restaurant, elBulli, in Catalonia, Spain, where chef Ferran Adriá became known for translating cookery into “concepts” (Myhrvold 2011, 39). Myhrvold invokes the term “Modernist” to equate this cuisine with the avant-garde artists of 19th century Europe. This is an approach to foodways that purports to be about newness and “discovery.” Yet, these notions are as old and fraught as “modernity” itself and the violent power structures upon which today’s globalized world was built (see Mignolo 2011).

Although Pujol resides in Polanco, the most exclusive neighborhood in all of Mexico City, the chef roots his gastronomic narrative in the impoverished economy of means out of which Mexican cuisine evolved. In short, the visual program that underscores Olvera’s modernist culinary empire has been built on the idea, the imaginary, of Mexico City’s working class—a community and landscape to which Olvera purports to be our guide. In his 2015 cookbook Mexico from the Inside Out, Olvera juxtaposes photographs of his dishes with portrayals of Mexican street vendors and outdoor markets. The viewer oscillates between elegant, closely cropped views of Olvera’s compositions and vibrant scenes of Mexico City’s working-class neighborhoods. These photographs offer up Olvera’s dishes as specimens for study, much like those of Spanish scientific expeditions three hundred years earlier.

Fig. 4: Green Salsa Salad. From Enrique Olvera, Mexico From the Inside Out (London: Phaidon, 2015), page 44.

The Green Salsa Salad shows the plate from above, such that the composition appears to be an ecology, a world unto itself (Fig. 4). The individual ingredients that comprise the dish, such as cilantro, fried scallions, and purslane sprouts, make themselves known, but the internal cohesion among the items also exhibits careful, deliberate composure. Nothing appears too heavily manipulated—even the small dices of serrano chiles and onions can see be discerned cube by cube, and individual flakes of kosher salt sparkle atop the white plate—such that the viewer can recognize the dish as an amalgam of its discrete parts, parts that harken back to the foodstuffs sold at the informal, open-air markets sporadically pictured throughout the cookbook. Likewise, the Bass al Pastor (Fig. 5) as well as the Fried Pork Belly (Fig. 6) showcase a taxonomy of ingredients that, rather than being wholly new, actually draw upon the artifice of colonial order seen in the Royal Botanical Expedition’s illustrations with blank backgrounds, overhead vantage points, and recognizable parts that comprise the whole.

Fig. 5: Bass al Pastor. From Enrique Olvera, Mexico From the Inside Out (London: Phaidon, 2015), page 54.

There is a frankness to Olvera’s dishes and the illustrations alike that render them self-evident, as though the images have been presented to us at their most honest, most vulnerable, and therefore most knowable state. We feel a connection to the “discovery” of these specimens as the triumph of human mastery over nature. Thus, societal values and morals reside at the very heart of these seemingly scientific renderings, a testament to the oft-overlooked reality that if food is indeed art, then it, too, is equally as capable of shaping the “visuality” of our socio-historical gaze.  

Fig. 6: Fried Pork Belly, Smoked White Kidney Bean Puree, and Purslane Salad. From Enrique Olvera, Mexico From the Inside Out (London: Phaidon, 2015), page 52.

Touching the Perfect “Noir de Flandres”: a visitor’s experience at the Museum Hof van Besleyden

By V.E. Mandrij

The colour black is the reason why I became an art historian specialising in Netherlandish oil painting. From the backgrounds of 17th-century still-life paintings, to nocturnal representations with strong chiaroscuro and portraits of rulers dressed in fancy velvety clothes, black shades are omnipresent and mesmerizing. I always wonder: How can a colour be so deep, intense, and vibrant?

If painters could represent in painting cloths with black pigments, it means that people in the past could dye their fabrics in such dark tones. Which materials and processes can produce this colour so rare in Nature? The Museum Hof van Besleyden, in Mechelen, tries to answer these questions in the research-driven exhibition “Back to Black”. This  exhibition presents some of results reached by the interdisciplinary research project ARTECHNE.

Black as a Time Machine

After walking for a while in the museum, which is dedicated to the history of Mechelen, visitors are welcomed in a small room by old portraits of Flemish dignitaries. Their elegant black clothing and severe glance remind us of the power they once held. A little further, the visitor encounters a contemporary installation consisting of long and irregular pieces of black wool suspended from the ceilings. There is a common thread between these artworks: the flaps’ colour is produced by a similar dying process to the one used five centuries earlier to dye the clothes depicted in the paintings.

This room informs us about the making of black dyes that has been transmitted in French, Dutch, German, and Italian over the centuries through recipes and through masters in artists’ workshops. The choice of Mechelen as a location for this exhibition is perfect:  the city was well-known for its production of “Burgundian Black”, or “Noir de Flandres”, in the 16th century.

Installation by Claudy Jongstra. Image credit: Sophie Nuytten

Artistic Process, Natural Ingredients

Objects and documents illustrate the transhistorical voyage of European knowledge regarding black colour technologies. On one side of the room, a sample book with pieces of silk, wool and linen dyed in black shows the results of (re)enactment of historical techniques learnt and tested during workshops organised as part of the ARTECHNE project. The dyed fabrics are presented together with the list of ingredients and the illustrated recipes providing these shades. The black colour offers a wide variety of nuances depending on the recipes’ components, materials’ reaction while drying, and the fabric.

On the other side of the room, jars with ingredients such as plant-based materials necessary for the experimental reconstructions of black dyes are displayed on shelves. For the 21st-century viewer, who tends to forget how and with which materials the final products sold in stores are manufactured, it is useful to remember that it originally comes from natural elements!

Recipes and samples. Image credit: Sophie Nuytten

Recording the Making

A short movie shows footage shot during the Burgundian Black Collaboratory in Claudy Jongstra’s atelier in Friesland, where the artist has been experimenting for a long time with dying techniques involving natural ingredients. Dressed in winter clothes, participants are stirring liquids in boiling cauldrons, while other are mixing together strange ingredients. As if it were a secret rally of alchemists, apprentices follow directives of experts, artists, practitioners, and dye specialists, who master old techniques. This video provides visitors with an overview of the different steps to follow in order to obtain the results they have in front of their eyes. Moreover, this recording reminds us that the success of a recipe does not only rely upon one’s ability to understand textual sources, but also on the discussions with knowledgeable and experimented people, as participants described in previous posts.

Touching Black Stuff

The curators offered visitors the thrilling opportunity to touch objects in the museum. On a table, pieces of black fabrics invite them to give their opinion about the final products by manipulating the samples and filling a questionnaire. Viewers can decide which textile looks and feels the most expensive, elegant, or beautiful. This interaction between people and objects in the context of a museum provides an agreeable feeling of playing a role in the research. Alongside, visitors can write down on paper cards some concepts that they associate with ‘black’ to create a contemporary overview of the collective imagination connected to this colour.

Visitors touching samples of black fabrics. Image credit: J. Boulboullé

Binding Together Academic Research and Public Institutions

For those who find academic research difficult to grasp, bringing the results of interdisciplinary projects into a museum builds bridges between public institutions and academia. Moreover, it highlights the importance of collaborating with different protagonists of the art world, such as art historians, artists, artisans, conservators, curators, and art technologists.

This exhibition is therefore likely to attract a large public to the museum. The black colour remains a favourite colour in the textile industry nowadays and continues to fascinate people. Furthermore, the focus on the technical making allows a large potential of interactive activities.

In brief, I left the museum with a mind full of new sensations and an impression of having participated in something special.

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