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.
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!
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.
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.
The Recipes Project heads to Basel, Switzerland, to learn about the collections of the Pharmacy Museum. Laurence Totelin spoke with Philippe Wanner, Barbara Orland, Corinne Eichenberger and Martin Kluge.
Could you give us a brief overview of your collections? How and when were they gathered together?
In 1924, when the pharmacist and historian Professor Josef Anton Häfliger began teaching at the University of Basel, he donated his private collection of pharmaceutical objects and historical books to the university. Since then, and until his death in 1954, Häfliger worked hard to collect further objects and money to built up a pharmacy museum. He designed the museum to teach first his students, and, second, the wider public about the historically outdated aspects of the apothecary’s work. Materia medica obsoleta, for instance, is the name he gave the room that until today exhibits remedies, drugs and medicinal objects of the three kingdoms (mineral, vegetable, animal/human), folk medicine and exotica brought from overseas to Swiss pharmacies since the seventeenth century. Häfliger was lucky to purchase further private collections. For instance, he acquired the collection of the Basel apothecary Theodor Engelmann (b. 1851), who had specialized in mineralogy and mineral drugs. Moreover, he was clever enough to impose conditions on the deed of donation. Amongst other things, he determined that the museum should remain part of the pharmacy department and function as an object for study.
You are located in a beautiful building. Can you tell us a little but about its history?
The museum is located in the so-called “Haus zum Vorderen Sessel”. This building was first mentioned in 1296 when it was used as a public bathhouse fed by water from the “Goldbrunnen” (Gold Well). The most famous part of the building’s history began around 1490, when the book printer Johannes Amerbach opened up a printing house, taken over in 1507 by another famous printer, Johannes Froben. A number of noteworthy humanist scholars, such as Erasmus von Rotterdam, resided and worked here. These writers were joined by recognized illustrators, such as Hans Holbein the Younger. Theophrastus von Hohenheim (commonly known as Paracelsus) practiced medicine in this house as the Froben family physician between 1526 and 1527. Subsequently, the house changed hands several times. In 1814, it housed the first public school for girls in Basel. More than 80 years later it became the Vocational School for Women. Finally, the University’s first Institute of Pharmacy was built up here since 1917 until the year 2000. The scientific collection, since 1925 open for the wider public, remained in the building.
You are a University Museum. What is your relation with the University of Basel?
As a donation of one of the pharmacy professors the collection belongs until today the Department of Pharmacy of the University of Basel. The large lecture room is used for history of science seminars and lectures, but it also belongs to the university facilities.
The team working at the museum is interdisciplinary. Can you tell us a bit about how your work as a team?
In our museum we are used to work together over disciplinary boarders. Some studied biology some pharmacy some contemporary dance some history or medieval music. Most of the daily working fields like collection traffic, communication, pharmaceutical safety issues or scientific research are personalised and belong to the field of activity of one or two colleagues. For special events or special exhibitions these fields sometimes get newly organised. It is very fruitful to work in an interdisciplinary context where the borders are fluently between science, arts and humanities.
Can you give us a few highlights from your collections? Do you have favourites?
The museum is home to numerous exotic lures and unusual objects (like stuffed alligators, a porcupine fish, the enormous tooth of narwhal, or ‘unicorn’ horns) that apothecaries formerly used to attract the attention of their customers, but which also demonstrated their interests in natural history. The stocks of exotic drugs and objects that colonization brought to early modern pharmacies is quite large too.
What is the most ancient artefact you have? What is the most recent?
The most ancient artefacts are supposed to be our mummy artefacts. Indeed, crushed and powdered chunks of Egyptian mummies were used as medicine for various illnesses such as ailments of the lung, of the spleen, stitches in the side and external wounds during the 15th century. However, the various vessels with the inscription Mumia vera aegyptica and Mumia vera and wooden boxes in the museum date back to the 18th century; a glass vessel from around 1920 bears the following inscription: “Engelmann ‘s pharmacy, Mumia vera, Basel Untere Rheingasse 2”. In addition, under the name “Mumia vera” the exhibition shows mummified body parts such as a foot, a head and upper and lower legs shown. Other vessels also contain volatile human brain salt (Sal crani humani volatile), small white and pebble-like chunks, which are marked as prepared human brain bowl (Cranium humanum preap.). The Pharmacy Museum commissioned the analysis of such and similar fragments. An anthropologist has examined the substances. With respect to the brown chunks, he concluded that it is material that has solidified inside a skull of liquid form. The other Mumia specimens clearly contained coccyx bone, and parts of a human brain shell, which are filled with a shiny asphalt-like mass. How old these actually are remains an open question.
Some of the most ancient artefacts in fact come from Augusta Raurica – a Roman colony near Basel. Roman medicinal tools, a spatula and copies of Roman cupping glasses, in short, the most important equipment of a physician in antiquity, are dated around 50 AC.
The most recent artefact is a playmobil figure — a pharmacist version with the German pharmacy logo.(Original Packing from 2015).
How can scholars find out what is in your collections? In what ways can they work with your collections?
The best way for scholars is to contact the museum staff. A direct conversation will figure out the possibility of working with our collection and archive.
Hosted at Basel’s beautiful Pharmacy Museum, the conference “Variable Matters” was designed to bring together historians with an interest in the movement of medicinals and knowledge about them between and across societies in the world of the ‘long’ eighteenth century. Participants talked about very different kinds of substances – vanilla, calomel, bezoars – and studied them in rather diverse contexts – anything from the Swiss Alps to the Bolivian Andes – but everyone was reflecting, in one way or another, on the subjects of medicine trade, therapeutic exchange, and epistemic brokerage.
Several speakers engaged with one or another aspect of the communication of medical knowledge about foreign or unfamiliar ‘simples’ to other cultural imaginaries, medical localities, and therapeutic traditions. Quite a few papers dealt with the acquisition, transfer and codification of remedies associated with the ‘exotic’. Emma Spary, in a public keynote lecture, discussed the introduction of vanilla to France. Vanilla, originally from the Spanish Viceroyalty of New Spain, was becoming familiar in France from the late 1600s, and the talk focused on the various issues – of translation, transport, and taste – involved in moving the plant and knowledge about it across vast expanses of space. In another paper, we heard about the growing consumption of tea in the seventeenth-and eighteenth-century Low Countries from Marieke Hendriksen, who was just starting a new project on the role of subjective experience and taste in the acquisition and communication of knowledge about ‘new’, exotic materia medica. Hjalmar Fors’ talk, in turn, discussed the constraints that Europeans operated under in their encounter with ‘exotic’ plants more broadly – what they deemed worth knowing, or valuable about them, on account of those constraints – and on the botanical and (al-)chemical practices that would reduce them to a semblance of – European – order.
Other papers discussed the acquisition, transfer and codification of remedies associated with the ancient, or artisanal. Francesco Luzzini spoke of the Italian physician and naturalist Antonio Vallisneri’s interest in ‘popular’ therapeutics, including his inquiries into the mineral remedies in use among miners, and artisans. Laurence Totelin, in turn, talked about the reception and critique of ancient antidotes like mithridatium and theriac in the eighteenth century, through treatises like William Heberden’s 1745 Antitheriaca. Heberden also figured in other talks, especially in Chris Duffin’s, which explored the contents of eighteenth-century medical chests – including Heberden’s teaching cabinet – that encompassed anything from Mesoamerican cochineal to album graecum.
Other papers engaged with the relationship between homegrown, or ‘indigenous’, medicines and novel, unfamiliar substances. Silvia Flubacher, in a paper co-authored with Simona Boscani, talked about the eighteenth-century market in ‘German bezoars’ extracted from Swiss chamois, or goats, a medical commodity that emerged in reaction to overprized exotic bezoars, as part of a discursive revaluation of the ‘local’. Other speakers engaged with ‘their’ substances’ ontological instability, the many acts of adaptation, customizing and calibration a medical substance’s journeys might entail. Irina Podgorny’s talk in particular, focusing on the example of eagle stones – hollow geode stones worn as amulets with a longstanding reputation for protecting pregnant women, or comforting women grieving the loss of a child – discussed not only shifts in the stones’ nomenclature and therapeutic indications as they travelled from Europe to Spanish America; it also studied how the very name – ‘eagle stone’ – was transferred to various objects that were concomitantly attributed analogous properties: to American fossils, and pietists collections of prayers alike.
Other speakers focused on the formats used to convey medical knowledge. Clare Griffin presented a paper on the gradual incorporation of American herbal medicines into Russian recipes over the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, while Matthew J. Eddy delivered a paper on a series of medical consultation letters between the prominent Edinburgh physician William Cullen and a Quaker woman, and the ensuing give-and-take of their negotiations over the proper medicines. Sabrina Minuzzi’s paper, in turn, studied the correspondence and publications – cheap pamphlets, in the majority – of Johannes Behm (c. 1640–1731), or Giovanni Beni, a physician, plant collector and broker who moved knowledge about medicinals and therapeutic practices around, especially between northern and southern Europe, but also with the East Indies, owing to his contacts with merchants, plant traders and botanists alike.
In-between papers, we had the privilege of a guided tour of the Pharmacy Museum by the organizer, Barbara Orland, and the museum’s acting director, Philippe Wanner, who did their very best guiding a bunch of excited specialists through the collection (what with everyone chatting excitedly, and constantly getting side-tracked, by charred monkey skulls, preserved seahorses, or actual eagle stones!).
As October draws to a close, we feature yet another exciting article from our ongoing series of cross-postings on the hands-on, collaborative research project into recipes for Burgundian Black, organized by Dr. Jenny Boulboullé. Today, Sharifa Lookman provides another fascinating peek into the inner workings of the project (Joshua Schlachet)
For the pre-modern artist, color was anything but random. As both concept and product, it wore many masks: the bearer of symbolic significance, an agent of trade, and a protagonist in histories of politics, economy, and geography. In material, it was the hard-earned product of natural ingredients and arcane, even alchemical processes. Researchers in the Faculty of Design Sciences and the working group ROOHTS (Research on the Origin of Historical Techniques) at the University of Antwerp have returned to historical recipes to investigate these aspects of color. From July 1-5, in collaboration with the ARTECHNE ERC research group at the University of Utrecht, researchers took up the following question: how did pre-modern colorists perceive, manufacture, and master the color black?
The intensive, five-day summer school, “Burgundian Blacks,” brought together artists, scholars, and scientists of diverse backgrounds to investigate black color technologies of multiple media, working from the production of black textile dyes (the focus of a January workshop, the Burgundian Black Collaboratory) and moving into adjacent practices used to produce black inks and paints in and around the historic region of Burgundy. Each day consisted of a theoretical component and a practical one: classes moved back and forth between the lecture hall, with studies on historical contexts, and the laboratory, where recipes were tested through experimental reconstructions, or (re)enactments.
The setting—a university conservation laboratory—was decidedly ahistorical and acknowledged the inherent limits of reconstruction: small sample sizes and anachronistic instruments, for starters. And yet, when all thirteen of the participants and a handful of instructors were in the lab together, we more or less simulated an active ‘workshop,’ complete with masters and apprentices, back-and-forth shop talk, and bustling bodies (Fig. 1). As a participant, I found that the summer school’s give-and-take between the written word and re-enactment emphasized two fundamental ideas in the study of color technologies: the mutability of language in interpreting recipes and the intellectual merit of touch and sensation in reconstructing them; in other words, the valuable cross-fertilization of both mind and body in materiality studies.[i]
In considering early modern writings on color, twenty-first century scholars must first be acquainted with an author’s vocabulary, biases, and technical ‘know-how.’ This was the case in our workshop reconstruction of “Noir de Flandres” (Black of Flanders), a seventeenth-century French recipe for a madder and woad-based dye. Here the compiler of the recipe added in his own hand, “And you will have a perfect and durable black” (Fig. 2).[ii] What, according to our writer, is a ‘perfect black,’ and how did it relate to other early modern colors? Over the course of our two-day dye session we produced a number of dyed textiles, many in various shades of black and others not black at all (Fig. 3). Were any of them ‘perfect?’ We often struggled with terms to describe this range, using words such as ‘fresh,’ ‘saturated,’ or ‘opaque.’ But are these the terms an early modern colorist would use? Our author does tell us that, in addition to being ‘perfect,’ the Noir de Flandres is also ‘durable,’ implying that, even in the moment of its making, it was important that the color last for posterity.
Knowledge of materials, processes, and techniques was also gleaned from sources that were not written down, namely ‘shop talk,’ a kind of knowledge circulated within and across artist workshops. Though the dye recipes we tested ranged in time period (1350-1670) and geography, they often shared ingredients. By analyzing the presence and absence of certain ingredients in black dye recipes, scholars, such as Natalia Ortega-Saez of the University of Antwerp, have classified these recipes into three main groups.[iii] Based on these, a twenty-first century reader can effectively ‘fill in the gaps’ when information in the original transcription of one particular recipe is missing or unclear. Likely, a contemporary would have done just that, having considered particular instructions to be common knowledge. We might think back to the Italian artist and writer Giorgio Vasari who, describing fourteenth-century artist Cennino Cennini’s treatise on painting, wrote, “[Cennini] was anxious to know the peculiarities of colors … and gave much advice which I need not expand upon, since all these matters, which he then considered very great secrets, are now universally known.”[iv] By the sixteenth century certain materials and their properties must have been widely known across Europe, and the disappearance of these procedures in writing suggests that this information was not forgotten, but instead circulated verbally, just as we shared and transmitted knowledge orally in the laboratory.
Where our dye reconstructions were much more ‘experimental,’ some recipes being deciphered and tested for the very first time, our pigment recipes had comparatively fewer unknowns. Instead, we were encouraged to consider the appearance, smell, and feel of our materials as we progressed through the recipes. Simply put, we shifted away from the written and spoken word and towards the sensory experience of color production. We began by roasting our raw ingredients—primarily animal bones and fruit pits—in crucibles in an open flame (Fig. 4). The goal here was to char the materials just until they turned black; too long on the flame risks turning the bones white, the base for another color, ‘bone-white.’
The body took centerstage as we began grinding our pigments. Organic materials, like fruit stones and plant matter, broke down in mere minutes, but sheep and bovine bones were significantly denser and more difficult, some requiring twenty to thirty minutes of continuous grinding. To achieve the kind of fine powder necessary for high-quality pigments, one clearly needed strength and dexterity as well as a cultivated sensitivity to natural materials. Without time specifications in our recipes, we ground our pigments until they felt finely powdered, and mulled them with water until we could no longer feel or hear granules sliding between the glass (Fig. 5). Sensory indicators—touch, smell, and sight—developed into an acquired “skilled vision” and “expert touch” akin to shop talk, one that filled gaps in reasoning.[v]
We considered these ideas even further by applying the pigments to paper: how did the paint feel when applied? What was its texture? Translucency? Facture? Here the term ‘body’ can be dually defined. In addition to referring to the body of the maker, it also suggests the ‘body’ of a color, as Jenny Boulboullé of the University of Utrecht has observed.[vi] The coloristic effects, success, and ‘body’ of our black pigments were not only dependent on its raw material and how we processed it, but also the type of binding medium used; depending on this, a color’s transparency, density, and quality differed considerably (Fig. 6). Because we used only water and gum arabic as binders, I couldn’t help but wonder how, precisely, the choice of binder can modulate the color black. In other words, to quote Ann-Sophie Lehmann, in mixing and applying pigment, what is the “matter of the medium?”[vii]
Re-enactments of historical techniques bring to the surface ideas that are often latent in strictly theoretical approaches to technique and materiality. By investigating recipes for pre-modern black, we engage with color as both technique and concept, as the cross-geographical product of nature and artistic experimentalism, and, above all, as an area of study that has increasingly come to move across disciplines and scholarly domains.
[i] See Sven Dupré’s blog post, “Re-enactment in Teaching Art History (Part 1),” https://artechne.wp.hum.uu.nl/re-enactment-in-teaching-art-history-part-1/
[ii] Original French: “un noir parfaict & durable.” Recipe transcribed and translated by Jenny Boulboullé.
[iii] Natalia Ortega Saez, Ina Vanden Berghe, Olivier Schalm, et al., “Material analysis versus historical dye recipes: ingredients found in black dyed wool from five Belgian archives (1650-1850),” Conservar Património 31 (2019): 1-18.
[iv] Giorgio Vasari, “Vita di Agnolo Gaddi,” in Le vite de’ più eccellenti pittori, scultori, e architettori, nelle redazionidel 1550 e 1568, Vol. 2 , eds. Paola Barocchi and Rosanna Bettarini, 6 vols. (Florence: Sansoni Editore, 1966-87), 248-9; for translation see Angela Cerasuolo, Literature and Artistic Practice in Sixteenth-Century Italy, trans. Helen Glanville, ed. Walter S. Melion (Leiden: Brill Publishing, 2017), 173.
[v] Cristina Grasseni, Skilled Visions: Between Apprenticeship and Standards (New York, NY: Berghahn Books, 2007).
[vi] Jenny Boulboullé and Maartie Stols-Witlox consider these themes in an essay entitled, “Working (with) the corps: bodies of colours, sands and varnishes in Ms Fr. 640 and MS 2052,” which will be published in the forthcoming Critical Edition of Bnf Ms Fr 640, edited by Pamela Smith & the Making and Knowing Project.
[vii] Ann-Sophie Lehmann, “The matter of the medium: some tools for an art-theoretical interpretation of materials,” in The Matter of Art: Materials, Practices, Cultural Logics, c. 1250-1750, eds. Christy Anderson, Anne Dunlop and Pamela H. Smith (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2014), 21-41.