Category Archives: Art

Review: La donna che amava i colori

By Barbara Di Gennaro Splendore

“They [the Italians] seem to commence everything with spirit to get tired of it before it is finished.”[1] Mary Marrifield’s letters from Italy to her husband are full of charming–and if you are Italian sometimes engaging–reflections. The importance of the publication of Mary P. Merrifield’s (1804-1899) letters for the history of recipes will not pass unnoticed to the reader of this blog as well as to those interested in the transmission of the art techniques. Merrifield published the first English translation of Cennini’s Libro dell’Arte (1844),and a few years later, following her journey in Italy, The Art of Fresco Painting (1846), and the Original Treatises on the Arts of Painting (1849), works that have made the history of modern artistic techniques.

Recently found in Brighton by Zahira Véliz Bomford, Merrifield’s letters have never been published in English. Sent by the English Royal Fine Arts Commission, Merrifield travelled in Italy for several months between 1845 and 1846 to collect as many historical manuscripts on painting techniques as possible. The objective of the search was to enhance the English arts, which were called to glorify the British Empire at its acme. The letters are a refreshing, revealing, and entertaining look of northern Italy in the years before the political turmoil of 1848, as well as a dive into Merrifield’s world and vision. Giovanni Mazzaferro now publishes the full text of the correspondence in an enjoyable Italian translation, La donna che amava i colori: Lettere dall’Italia 1845-1846 (Milano: Officina Libraria, 2018. 192 pp. ISBN: 978-88-99765-70-5).

An independent scholar at his second publication –the first being  Le Belle Arti a Venezia nei manoscritti di Pietro e Giovanni Edwards (2015)–Giovanni Mazzaferro keeps a renowned blog, Letteratura Artistica, which started around his rich collection of published sources for art history. Mazzaferro thorough apparatus of footnotes will be of use to the growing number of scholars interested in Merrifield as it spans from the identification of manuscripts and paintings, to individuating the people Merrifield met during her quest, and to secondary literature. In the substantial introduction, Mazzaferro insists that studying Merrifield under a single perspective, such as the artistic or the scientific one, deprives us of a full understanding of the complexity of her character. Merrifield was a multifaceted intellectual, almost the nineteenth-century woman version of a Renaissance virtuoso. A swift but careful overview of her life and works shows this vast breath: she published in the field of artistic techniques and colors, of maritime biology, and, toward the end of her life, for the advancement of women in society.

Merrifield’s familial practices predate her written commitments to the advancement of women. During the journey in Italy, Merrifield travelled accompanied by her son Charles, while her husband stayed in Brighton with their other four children. Husband and sons were all working for Mary, as they were involved in the transcription, translation, and writing of Mary’s books. Such odd family arrangement, at least for the time, presents us with an unconventional nineteenth-century woman. Overall, Merrifield does stand as a complex figure whose progressive private arrangements are parallel to her deep patriotism, her commitments to the English empire, and her Victorian style. Her figure reminds us that intellectual and private identities cannot be easily defined: a progressive stand on the role of women does not necessarily conflict with an imperial vision, the interest in old manuscripts, and color techniques can go hand in hand with a passion for algae.


[1] Mary Merrifield to John Merrifield, November 2, 1845.

Boiling hot oil: on the assessment of temperature in late medieval processing of linseed oil

By Indra Kneepkens

Indra Kneepkens is a technical art historian, specializing in the materials and techniques of late medieval panel painting. She is currently finalizing her dissertation, which is focused on the use of processed linseed oils and paint additives in the painting practice of the fifteenth and early sixteenth century.

Raw linseed – the basis for linseed oil

From art technological sources, such as recipes and manuals for the preparation of paints, and from the analysis of paint samples, we know that late medieval and early modern craftsmen heated oils for use as a binding medium in paints, as well as for the preparation of varnishes. As a technical art historian, I research and reconstruct these oils and varnishes, to be able to establish the effects they have on paints. My aim is to understand how the development and use of these materials influenced the painting process and the final appearance of art works. Unfortunately, 14th-  to 17th-century art technological sources that include heat-treatment of oil typically do not give absolute temperature indications. This is no surprise, because thermometers were developed in different stages between the late 16th and early 18th century. Therefore, craftsmen had to rely on their senses for the assessment of temperature.

Cennini’s handbook has been transcribed an translated repeatedly, most recently by Lara Broecke in 2015

That controlling temperature was important to late medieval craftsmen is illustrated by a remark in the Libro dell’arte (ca. 1390), that was written by the Italian painter Cennino Cennini. In his recipe for a heat-treated oil the writer almost personifies fire, warning us that it would willingly burn down the house if it got a chance to reach into the pan.[1] And indeed, it seems likely that the temperature of oil was sometimes raised pretty high, to the point where potentially explosive gasses form. So how did pre-thermometer craftsmen determine the temperature of their oils?

Even if not in absolute terms, early modern sources do contain clues about the kind of temperatures that were considered useful in oil processing. In most cases, oils were heated over fire, in ceramic, bronze or copper vessels. As wood or peat fires can easily reach temperatures over 500°C, and the vessels were able to withstand these, it was clearly possible to reach the auto-ignition point of linseed oil (ca. 343°C). Most likely, temperature would have varied from case to case, depending on factors like fuel type and the distance between the vessel and the heating source.[2]

Sometimes sources mention a strong reduction of the oil, or they describe the texture of the end result, comparing it to fluid honey for example. In varnish recipes a string-test reoccurs, in which a finger is dipped into, and then lifted from a cooled drop of the mixture of boiled oil and resins, to see if a thread is formed.[3]My own experiments have shown that to reach a sufficient thickening of an oil or varnish, and to dissolve most resins, the materials must be heated for quite some time and at a fairly high temperature. Finally, empirical tests that remind us of everyday cooking may have been used to keep an eye on the temperature of oils. In Arte de la Pintura (1649), Pacheco describes how bread, garlic and feathers were stuck in boiling oil; if they appeared browned or scorched, the cooking process was completed.[4]

During my experiments over the past few years, it has become evident that one can make a reasonably accurate temperature assessment based on how the oil behaves during heat-treatment. A swirling movement for example, was noticed in oils from a temperature of ca. 90°C, while repugnant fumes typically started to develop around 200°C.

Figure 1. Foam developing on oil heated in a ceramic vessel

I also realized that the development of foam, which is commonly mentioned in recipes, may have been a clear indication of temperature. But it is also closely related to the type of cooking vessel that was used. I did not see any foam until I exchanged my glass laboratory beakers for a glazed ceramic pot. Foam appeared when the oil reached a temperature of 100°C. It must have been caused by water evaporating from the clay body, as I had rinsed the vessel before use. Bubbles also formed when garlic and bread were boiled in oil, from ca. 61 and 80°C respectively, with a high point again around 100°C. Although the garlic started to darken earlier, both bread and garlic clearly browned around 180°C, and completely blackened between 230 and 240°C.

In another experiment thirteen feathers, of different size and from various birds, were dipped in hot linseed oil until they started to curl. Surprisingly, all feathers curled within a range of 27°C, between 237 and 264°C. These experiments not only support the relative accuracy of these empirical methods, but also indicates that temperatures of ca. 100 and 200-250°C were meaningful to early practitioners.

Figure 2. Raw linseed oil (far left) heated at 150 (1-4 hours, jars 2-5 from the left), 200 (8 hours, larger jar) and 300 degrees C (1-4 hours, jars 7-10 from the left).

In more systematic tests, linseed oil was heated to 150 and 300°C, for one, two, three, and four hours. Interestingly, the color and thickness of the oils that were heated at 150°C appeared more or less unaltered after the experiment. In tests where these oils were mixed into paints, they behaved very similar to raw linseed oil. At 300°C the oils thickened and darkened considerably. They affected paints in a very significant way, causing them to level, and making it possible to create smooth glossy films without any visible imprint of the brush. Paints with these oils were also less prone to yellowing. An oil that was heated at 200°C for eight hours however, still made paints level perfectly, but it also caused extreme yellowing.

So knowing how to assess temperature and balancing it over time must have been crucial skills for those who prepared heat-treated oils and varnishes. Experiments have shown that knowledgeable individuals would have been able to make a fairly accurate assessment of temperature, using their senses. They could note changes in the appearance and behavior of oil and indicator materials, and manually test its viscosity. Although there are several indications that temperatures of 200°C and higher were preferred, it makes sense that craftspeople would adapt the temperature to the materials at hand and the desired end result. The lack of unambiguous temperature indications in oil processing recipes reflects this adaptive use of temperature and a reliance on the senses that was expected of craftspeople before the invention of thermometers.

[1]Broecke, Lara. Cennino Cennini’s Il Libro dell’ Arte: A new English translation and commentary with Italian transcription.London: Archetype, 2015, 127, chapter 91.

[2]Aldeias, Vera, Harold L. Dibble, Dennis Sandgathe , Paul Goldberg, and Shannon J.P. McPherron . “ How heat alters underlying deposits and implications for archaeological fire features: A controlled experiment” Journal of Archaeological Science67 (2016): 66.

[3]Broecke 2015, 127. Neven, Sylvie. The Strasbourg Manuscript. A Medieval Tradition of Artists’ Recipe Collections (1400-1570). London: Archetype, 2016: 132-135, no. 92-94.

HEAT! A Recipes Project Thematic Series

Astronomy- the Earth and the sun during summer in the Northern hemisphere. Wellcome Collection.

As humans, we want to control heat. We want to create heat, temper or even extinguish it, depending on context and purpose. We have a very limited temperature range at which we are comfortable (some microbes and bacteria can survive temperatures as low as -20C and as high as 130C), so we spend an incredible amount of time managing heat, whether it is our body temperature or that of our homes, offices, laboratories, cars, or food.

When we started planning this series of blog posts in early May, we could not have suspected how appropriate the theme would feel by now. While much of northwestern Europe has not seen rain in weeks and is sighing under a heatwave with temperatures rising to 37C/98F, we have fled to airconditioned spaces to edit the posts. Climate-wise, heat is seasonal in these regions, but it has always played an important role in recipes year-round, all around the world, from antiquity to the present day, in fields as diverse as alchemy, chemistry, art, cooking, medicine, and personal grooming.

The common denominators of heat in all these realms are that it is either internal – emanating from the human body – or external, naturally occurring from the sun, thunder, or lava, or man-made through friction or fire. In the posts in this series, we will see a wide variety of attempts to control these different kinds of heat through recipes and instructions.

Managing natural heat: Venice turpentine is a thick paste (aka sticky mess) at room temperature, but becomes fluid around 25C, and nicely mixes into the rest of the varnish ingredients when left out in the sun. Photo: Marieke Hendriksen

Some of our authors recreate such attempts by reconstructing experiments outlined in historical art technical and chemical sources. Indra Kneepkens recounts how she discovered through reconstruction research that sometimes for a recipe to make sense, it should not only be followed to the letter, but also be read between the lines. Ruben Verwaal and Marieke Hendriksen use their experiments with two reconstructions of small chemical ovens to reflect on the role of experimental heat in the development of theories on the nature of life in the eighteenth century. Working in a similar vein but with culinary recipes, Marissa Nicosia, from Cooking the Archive, examines the problem of heat control in her recipe recreation adventures, outlining the challenges of translating cooking instructions meant for the early modern hearth to the modern gas stove.

The four elements, four qualities, four humours, four seasons, and four ages of man. Airbrush by Lois Hague, 1991. Wellcome Collection.

Other authors in the series took our invitation as an opportunity to investigate heat in medical theories across time and place. Aileen Das kicks off this series by arguing that heat occupied a central place in ancient Greek, Roman and medieval Islamicate theories about the human body and its care. Taking on the smelly problem of perspiration and body odor, Cari Casteel reminds us that this issue is as old as mankind and offers several remedies from Roman authors.  Catherine Rider, on the other hand, examines notions of heat in fertility remedies in medieval England, noting that, whilst popular, heat-based treatments (to either increase or reduce heat in the body) were not the only kind of fertility aid available to English couples. The series concludes with two posts focused on fever and disease. Writing on in Late Imperial China, Marta Hanson introduces us to ideas of fever in Chinese medicine. Finally, Nukhet Varlik turns our attention to the ambiguities inherent in early modern taxonomies of infection diseases, exploring fever as a symptom and as a disease category.

We’ve had a great time editing this series – hope you enjoy reading the posts wherever you are. Happy summer and stay cool!

Marieke Hendriksen and Elaine Leong

P.s. We were so inspired by our contributors’ posts that we’ve decided to dedicate the December issue to (you guessed it) COLD!. If you’re interested in joining the conversation, send a short pitch to recipes@mpiwg-berlin.mpg.de.

Making Senses: Artisanal Practice and Sensory Perception in an Early Modern French Manuscript

By Tillmann Taape

Ms Fr. 640 was written in French by an unknown craftsperson in Toulouse, likely between 1580 and 1600. [1] It is an intriguing and eclectic source, with entries ranging from medical recipes to metalwork and pigment-making, and it forms the core of the Making and Knowing Project at Columbia University, introduced previously on the Recipes Blog in a post by our Director, Pamela Smith.

With its numerous instructions for making things, our manuscript provides a rich case study for the way artisans worked with and thought about materials. As previous posts in this series on Recipes and the Senses have shown, physicians, alchemists, apothecaries, and other craftsmen recognised in their bodies and its senses an important set of tools for understanding and manipulating the material world, and historians pay increasing attention to these embodied and sensory ways of knowing. In this post, I will share a few examples of the rich language of the senses in Ms. Fr. 640. As one might expect from a manuscript including painting and sculpture, the eye often takes precedence over the other senses. However, a discussion of the visual in the manuscript would by itself be far beyond the scope of a single post – we spent much of this year just trying to figure out how the author-practitioner conceptualises different pigments and shades of blue. The aim here, therefore, is to focus on the oft-neglected non-visual senses and what they can teach us about our author-practitioner’s concept of the material world, his ‘material imaginary’.

Smell

A strong smell was often a sign that things had gone wrong – the papier-mâché had turned rotten while being left to soak, or a kitchen pot had been made with too much latten (a copper alloy), which ‘stinks and smells bad’ (fol. 36v). However, smells could also help identify the materials needed for a recipe. The ingredient list for a metal alloy, for example, includes the intriguingly specific ‘congealed mercury with the smell of tin’ (fol. 92v). Musing on one of his favourite topics, the properties of fine sand used for metal casting, the author-practitioner notes that

white sand smells like sulphur when heated, and I believe it would melt. And as the substance has been cast in it, it acquires in the mold a lustre as if it were leaded or vitrified. I believe that glassmakers could use it (fol. 99r).

In addition to his observation of a vitreous glaze on the cast object, it is the sulphurous smell which suggests to the author-practitioner that this particular kind of sand is prone to melt and could even be used for making glass. Throughout the manuscript, sulphur does indeed appear as a material which can easily be melted and used to cast small objects, and even appears to function as a sort of material metaphor for transformation and experimentation.

Listen

The sense of hearing becomes itself the subject of a short entry. Under the heading ‘hearing from afar’, the author-practitioner records one of the tidbits of advice and tricks for daily life which are scattered here and there throughout the manuscript: ‘Make a small hole in the ground, put your ear against it during the night or during a quiet time, and you will easily hear muffled sounds’ (fol. 125r). In addition to facilitating amateur espionage, specific noises could serve as helpful indicators in the workshop. Before casting metal into a mould made from cuttlefish bone, the author-practitioner writes, one has to make sure that it is completely dry: ‘you will know that they are dry enough when, after having held them near the fire a little, their inside and the impression scream & crackle when you hold them up to your ear’ (fol. 145r). If one was prepared to listen carefully, the materials themselves could tell when they were ready to be worked upon.

Cuttlefish bone used for casting metal objects. © The Making and Knowing Project

Taste

The sense of taste could also help to assess and adjust one’s materials. To make ‘essence of sal ammoniac’, for example, ‘the size of two chestnuts of pulverized sal ammoniac suffices in a pot of water, and to the tongue you find the water moderately salty, for too much is not good’ (fol. 111v). The concentration of the sal ammoniac solution was clearly of some importance here, and like in most early modern recipes, the given measurements – size of a chestnut, a pot of water – might not yield very consistent results, so a qualitative sensory indication – ‘moderately salty’ – is added as a further point of reference. As well as checking one’s own procedures, taste could of course be used to assess the quality of merchandise. The city of Toulouse, where our manuscript was compiled, gained much of its considerable wealth from the trade in woad, a blue dyestuff whose French name, pastel, is a likely origin of the term ‘pastel’ colours in English and other European languages. It is not surprising, therefore, that the author-practitioner mentions this sought-after material and tells us how to tell the good from the bad. This involves several steps, including inspection and a dyeing test, but the first step is a taste test: ‘The goodness of the woad is known when, put in the mouth, it gives a taste as of vinegar’ (fol. 39r).

Touch

Perhaps unsurprisingly for someone who clearly worked with his hands a lot, the sense of touch plays a particularly important and intriguing part in the author-practitioner’s practice and writing. Returning to his favourite topic – the different kinds of sand or plaster used for casting moulds – he describes how the addition of a substance called alum de plume (literally ‘feather alum’ – it probably refers to a group of minerals known as feldspars in English) helps the mould hold together because it forms fibrous structures (hence probably the reference to feathers). Its production requires a complex process of heating and grinding up in a mortar. In the margin next to the recipe, the author-practitioner notes that one should grind the alum slowly and in small portions, and finally ‘render it very fine & soft to the touch’ (fol. 108v). The manuscript is full of these kinds of haptic properties to indicate the appropriate consistency or particle size of materials. Another ‘sand’ for casting, for example, is made with ‘the bone of oxen feet, very burned & pulverized & ground on porphyry, until it is not felt between your fingers’ (fol. 84v). Intriguingly, here the reader is told to stop grinding not when they can feel a particular sensation, but when they can no longer feel the material at all with their fingers.

As it turns out, this criterion of eluding the sense of touch was an important technical concept for early modern artisans. Our former Making and Knowing postdoc Jenny Boulboullé and former students, Raymond Carlson and Jordan Katz, have shown that the term impalpable, that is to say ‘un-feelable’ or ‘impalpable’, is central to the way the author practitioner experiences and thinks about different kinds of materials used for casting moulds.[2] Furthermore, they found that he is not the only one: the use of the term ‘impalpable’ is used in published works on metallurgy, such well-known book Pirotechnia by the sixteenth-century Italian founder and metallurgist Vanoccio Biringuccio, and the Secreti, a famous book of secrets attributed to Alessio Piemontese. In his emphasis on the haptic sensation of a material being impalpable, then, the author-practitioner speaks to a sensory terminology apparently widely shared by expert makers.

‘Knead as if you wanted to make bread’: making stucco in the Making and Knowing Lab. © The Making and Knowing Project

Describing specific sensory experiences can be difficult, and it makes sense to refer to well-known parallels from daily life – a smell like sulphur, a taste like vinegar, and so on. When it comes to the sense of touch, too, the author-practitioner relates processes described in his recipes to everyday practices. As our former student Emma Le Pouésard has shown, the practices surrounding making bread were a particularly fruitful source of these kinds of comparisons.[3] To unmould a cast object, one should ‘strongly separate the moulds as if you wanted to tear bread apart’ (fol. 114v). In an age before thermostats, this could even provide a way of gauging consistent temperatures. For one’s domestic taxidermy needs, the author-practitioner writes, one could dry animals ‘in an oven as warm as when bread has been taken out’ (fol. 129v). In a recipe for making stucco, bread making is used as a referent for working up the right kind of consistency: the recipe tells us to ‘knead as if you wanted to make bread’, until the stucco paste is ‘firm as bread dough that is ready for the oven’ (fol. 29r).

When we tried making stucco in the Making and Knowing Lab in the Fall semester, this proved to be very useful guidance. While we were not experienced bakers in the way that many early modern householders probably were, we could draw on our experience from one of our ‘skillbuilding’ exercises a few weeks earlier, when we made bread to use as a mould for wax casting, replicating one of the most intriguing processes in the manuscript. When it came to making stucco and mixing the right amounts of tragacanth gum and rye flour or champagne chalk, the author-practitioner’s instructions about kneading to a consistency like bread dough were very useful, especially in the absence of any other indication of measurements. By adding flour until we achieved a dough-like mass which would ‘stretch enough without breaking’ (fol. 29r), we eventually produced stucco which displayed fine detail and could be detached from the mould without too much trouble.

Even this brief tour of Ms. Fr. 640 shows that much is to be gained by paying attention to the non-visual senses in recipes and practical instructions. In the absence of precise standardised measurements and procedures, sensory descriptions were paramount to articulating a material’s properties, whether it was of good quality, or how much longer it needed to dry, boil, soak, or be crushed in a mortar.

 

[1] High-res digital images of BNF Ms. Fr. 640 are available through Gallica. The Making and Knowing Project is preparing a Digital Critical Edition of the Manuscript. In the meantime, readers may wish to refer to our Minimal Edition prototype (with translation still in progress).

[2] Raymond Carlson and Jordan Katz, ‘Casting in a Box Mold’, The Making and Knowing Project, A Digital Critical Edition of BnF Ms Fr. 640, forthcoming. For more information see http://www.makingandknowing.org/.

[3] Emma Le Pouésard, ‘Pain, Ostie, Rostie: Bread in Early Modern Europe’, The Making and Knowing Project, A Digital Critical Edition of BnF Ms Fr. 640, forthcoming. For more information see http://www.makingandknowing.org/.