Roubo and Watin: The Sweet Scent of Early Modern Varnishes

By Érika Wicky

Fig. 1: Nécessaire, wood and leather, ca 1760, 8,4 x 6 cm (closed), Grasse. Courtesy of Musée international de la parfumerie.

If the decorative arts of the eighteenth century shine so brightly, it is thanks to the innovation and mastering of techniques such as gilding and varnishing.[i] While the latter may have given surfaces the shiny appearance that was particularly desirable at the time, both were above all essential to protect wood, especially against insects. Varnishes were used not only for furniture, but also for small painted objects such as snuffboxes, fans, and boîtes à mouches or fly boxes (Fig. 1). Varnishes’ appealing visual characteristics and protective properties were marred, however, by what was generally perceived as their unpleasant smell. The recipes for some of these varnishes have been passed down to us, and with them, the possibility to retrieve their odors. Some of these recipes continue to be in use, such as the varnish described by French cabinetmaker André-Jacob Roubo in L’Art du menuisier-ébéniste in 1774 (Fig. 2), whose use remains frequent in restoration[ii] so that the same recipe is regularly remade at the Center for Research and Restoration of Museums of France. While current olfactory accounts of these products are much more nuanced, they do persist, which is a sign that olfactory sensitivity has certainly evolved, but also that the smell of the varnish remains a major part of the experience of its manufacture and use. What are the substances that have given varnishes such a characteristic olfactive identity through the centuries? And how has the meaning attributed to these smells evolved?

Fig. 2 : André J. Roubo, L’Art du menuisier-ébéniste, Board 11 (Paris: 1774). Courtesy of WikiMedia Commons.

There are a number of recipes for varnishes found in eighteenth-century texts, and all essentially contain aromatic plant resins. For instance, the varnish used by Jean Félix Watin (1773) was prepared as follows: “Two ounces of mastic in tears and half a pound of sandarac in a pint of wine spirit, when the materials are well dissolved together, incorporate four ounces of Venice turpentine.”[iii] Similarly, Roubo’s (1774) was “composed of one pint or two pounds of wine spirit, five ounces of sandarac, two ounces of mastic in tears, one ounce of gum elemi and one ounce of oil of aspic.”[iv] Essentially, the process involved Venice turpentine (the name given to the resin of Melese[v]), mastic in tears, sandarac and other more precious resins such as copal, or of lesser quality such as galipot, which were generally dissolved in alcohol (wine spirit), and then heated. This gave off such a strong and unpleasant odor that the practice was forbidden within city walls.[vi] Indeed, this smell could be significant during the process of preparation, and Jean Riffault, for example, recommended that cooking copal should be stopped when it gave off an empyreumatic or burnt smell [vii] (Fig. 3).

Fig. 3: Hendrik van Reede tot Drakestein, India Copal (Vateria indica L.), colored line. Courtesy of the Wellcome Collection.

Although the smell of varnish released during firing is still considered strong and dangerous today, our current perceptions seem to accord less significance overall to the smell of varnishes. For example, the sensory-aware description of a varnish recreation at the V&A mentions that the smell of lavender dominated that of turpentine.[viii] That the smell of turpentine could be camouflaged was well known in the eighteenth century, when aspic oil was often adulterated with turpentine, which was much less expensive. To ensure the quality of the aspic oil, Watin recommended approaching a soaked cloth to a fire, which dissipates the lavender oil quickly and allows the detection of the odor of any turpentine that may have been added.[ix] Since most of these raw materials were subject to adulteration, the artisans could, in fact, evaluate their quality thanks to their sense of smell. For example, according to Baudeau’s Encyclopédie méthodique (1783-4), an unpleasant smell from gum elemi (which is usually pleasant) can reveal that it was substituted with galipot.[x] The olfactory consensus here seems to rest on the fact that the artisan knew enough about the agreeable smell of gum elemi not to be tricked. Similarly, olfactory references in professional treatises, such as Roret’s guide, often rely on experience, invoking “characteristic” or “particular” odors rather than defining them by analogy, like when elemi gum is described as smelling like fennel.[xi]

Far from being a mere nuisance, the smell of the raw materials thus made it possible to identify them, in the same way that wood, whose different species were characterized by their smell, was sometimes considered when choosing materials. Odour could be so defining that, as Cheng He has shown, the concept of lacquer was long associated with a range of odorous resins rather than with a finished object.[xii] For example, objects decorated with Martin varnish [xiii] were simultaneously prized in the eighteenth century and dreaded for their bad odor. They were distinguished in particular by the use of copal, a plant resin whose use as an incense in Mexico is often mentioned in technical treatises.[xiv]

The manufacture of varnishes thus intersects with other types of olfactory knowledge. The resins used for the varnishes are found in many other recipes, in particular for perfumes. Louis Peyron’s 1986 compilation of recipes for perfumes to be burned, which had been recommended as a way to defeat the plague in the 1720s, reveals that the components of varnishes were all found in these recipes and that their strong odor was believed to have the prophylactic virtue of keeping miasmas away.[xv] The connection between varnish and perfume can be further explored in eighteenth-century perfumery treatises: in 1761, the royal perfumer proposed a “varnish” for the complexion made with sandarac spirit, whose protective and preserving virtues aligned with those of wood varnishes.[xvi]

The negative connotations associated with the smell of varnish seem to have faded with time; tear mastic was used in perfumery into the nineteenth century, [xvii] while, according to perfumer Lucile Lefranc-Gallo, gum elemi is now experiencing renewed interest in perfumery, alongside a range of spicy raw materials. The scent of varnishes produced according to eighteenth-century recipes, such as Roubo’s or Watin’s, takes us back to a time when smells had specific connotations and were part of a network of knowledge provided by olfaction, particularly with regard to the identification of materials. It is not only the sensitivity that has evolved, but also the entire olfactory culture.

 

[i] My warm thanks to Marc-André Paulin (C2RMF), Lucille Franc-Gallo and Ersy Contogouris for their advice and comments. This text forms part of the work conducted for the Marie Sklodowska-Curie research project PaintOdor (845788).

[ii] Nathalie Balcar, Frédéric Leblanc et Marc-André Paulin, “La protection de surface pour les meubles en marqueterie de métal du musée du Louvre : étude d’un vernis, entre formulations anciennes et expérimentations actuelles,” Technè, 49 (2020).

[iii] Jean Félix Watin, L’art du peintre, doreur, vernisseur (Paris: 1773), 229. Watin claimed to have discovered the secret of an odorless varnish, but he does not give its recipe in his book.

[iv] André J. Roubo, L’Art du menuisier-ébéniste (Paris: 1774).

[v] Pierre Chomel, Abrégé de l’histoire des plantes usuelles (Paris: 1712), 190.

[vi] Watin, 224.

[vii] Jean Riffault, Manuel théorique et pratique du peintre en bâtimens, du doreur et du vernisseur (Paris: Roret, 1825), 254.

[viii] “This time, despite both ingredients being very strong smelling, the scent of the lavender oil completely overpowered that of the turpentine.” Simona Valeriani, “Recreating Sixteenth-Century Varnishes on the History of Design Course,” June 23, 2017, https://www.vam.ac.uk/blog/projects/recreating-sixteenth-century-varnishes-on-the-history-of-design-course.

[ix] Watin, 202.

[x] Nicolas Baudeau, Encyclopédie méthodique (Liège: 1783-1784), 63.

[xi] Riffault, 229.

[xii] Cheng He, “Understanding the Fragrance of Lacquer in Early Modern Europe,” University of Toronto Art Journal 9.1 (2021): 68-76. https://utaj.library.utoronto.ca/index.php/utaj/article/view/36618

[xiii] Anne-Solenn Le Hô, Céline Daher, Ludovic Bellot-Gurlet, Yannick Vandenberghe, Jean Bleton, Myrtho Bonnin, Léa Drieu, Juliette Langlois, Céline Paris, Marc-André Paulin, “French lacquers of the 18th century and vernis Martin,” ICOM-CC 17th Triennial Conference, September 2014, Melbourne, Australia. hal-01279161

[xiv] Chomel, 512.

[xv] Louis Peyron, Odeurs, Parfums et parfumeurs lors des grandes épidémies méridionales de peste Arles 1721, Talk presented at the Arles Académie on March 23, 1986.

[xvi] Le parfumeur royal (Paris: 1761), 115.

[xvii] Auguste Debay, Nouveau manuel du parfumeur-chimiste (Paris: E Dentu, 1856), 37.

 

 

 

A Taste of Tamarind

By Allison Fulton, Amara Santiesteban Serrano, and Jeannette Schollaert

Sturdy Contradictions

The grand and imposing hard-wood tree Tamarindus indica, commonly known as the tamarind tree, has long been a contradictory plant: it is at once a place of refuge and site of danger, a medicinal purgative and a culinary shape-shifter, an ingredient in a thirst-quencher and a drought-tolerant species. And while the tree has been documented across historical and literary genres for millennia, its place of origin remains scientifically obscure. Genetic studies do suggest an African origin, though wood charcoal analysis confirms that the tree has inhabited India since at least 1300 BCE, leading some to argue it is indigenous to the region. The tamarind narrative is rooted in so many singular places, but its global circulation speaks to the plant’s long history and steadfast ability to grow in dry and hot climates.

Black and white botanical drawing of tamarind
Botanical drawing of tamarind from Hortus Indicus Malabaricus, 1679. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Such contradictions have been explored through storytelling: the tree serves as creative inspiration, thematic motif, and simple theatrical site across myth, legend, and fiction. The tamarind got its small leaves, according to a Bihar tribal story, when the exiled Lord Rama, Lakshmana, and Sita came upon a tamarind grove, where the tree’s large leaves provided shelter. But Rama was convinced that they were meant to suffer during their exile and so he ordered Lakshmana to shoot at the leaves with his bow and arrow—the leaves have been split ever since. 

Though many cultures venerate the tree as sacred or home to gods, some purport the tree’s curses and dangers; some Indian and Caribbean communities warn that the tamarind is home to spirits. A Hindu legend illustrates how the tree became cursed: one day, Radha, goddess of love and compassion, was on her way to meet Krishna when she stepped on a piece of ripe tamarind fruit bark and cut her foot. Now late for her meeting with the god, she cursed the fruit to fall from the tree still unripe, as it does today. The sheer pervasiveness of the plant in visual, oral, and written cultures across the globe speaks to its mythological status as both sprawling and rooted, exemplifying the sturdy contradiction that is the tamarind tree.

Image from book.
Krishna Woos Radha: Page from the Dispersed “Boston” Rasikapriya (Lover’s Breviary). Image Credit: Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Tamarind’s Medicinal and Culinary Uses

Virtually every part of the tamarind tree—seeds, fruity pulp, bark, root, and leaves—is edible in some form. Its fruit contains the rather unusual tantric acid that makes it simultaneously the “most acidic and sweetest fruit.” The acid’s sweet-sour flavoring has a cooling effect in hot weather which makes it a valuable ingredient in a wide variety of dishes and beverages and inextricably links the fruit to warm climates. Moreover, as French botanist Joseph de Tournefort (1656–1708) conjectured, the fruit’s acidity lends itself to uncountable medicinal uses, such as a “purging medicine,” a laxative, an aid in facial paralysis, and a flavoring to make more bitter or unpleasant medicines taste sweeter. 

Tamarind’s resilience has made it a central part of herbal medicine practices across history.  A seventeenth-century oil painting created after a design by the French printmaker Nicolas de Larmessin II portrays three men as the personifications of medicine, pharmacy, and surgery. At the center of the composition, the physician personifying medicine is cloaked in garb that bears the names of medieval authors central to traditional Western medicine, including Avicenna and Mesue, two Persian polymaths credited by Tournefort as key to the spread of knowledge about tamarind. Taking a closer look, just beneath the medicine man’s hand, is a written prescription to treat medical ailments, and nestled within the text that includes “cassia” and “rhubarb,” is none other than “tamarind.”

Tracing the appearance of the tamarind tree’s commonly used parts across materia medica, travelogues, and cookbooks, is a means to track the dissemination of traditional herbal Ayurvedic medicinal knowledge through the peak of colonial expansion, to call attention to the colonial economic interests in T. indica, and to foreground the diverse religious and culinary cultures that the plant sustains.

Windward Islands, Barbados: The Pavilion, Queen’s House, showing the verandah of the Artist’s bedroom (the upper windows) and the covered way to the left leading to Queen’s House, July 28, 1881. The tree in the foreground is a tamarind tree. Image Credit: Yale Center for British Art

Cooking and Empire: Tamarind Recipes

Tamarind is most known for its culinary uses and is a staple in Indian cuisine. During or following their time in the British colonies, white women colonists like Mrs. Carmichael would often feature tamarind in English-language colonial cookbooks. Flora Steel and Grace Gardiner’s 1909 The complete Indian housekeeper & cook, for example, instructs readers to use tamarind water to quench their thirst in the course of their missionary work. The authors refer to tamarind using the Hindi term “Imli,” suggesting that their knowledge of the plant comes either directly or indirectly from those speaking Hindi. The cookbook does not offer any insight into how the British women gained access to the tamarind itself–there are no instructions for harvesting the pods from the trees or even directions for how best to acquire the plant from a market. This suggests that British women could easily obtain tamarind. Some British cooks noted that when unable to import tamarind, they “had to rely on lemon juice (and sometimes sour gooseberries) as a substitute.” British cooks like Eliza Acton even advocated for the importation of tamarind “in the shell – not preserved” in an effort to replicate the cuisines made in India.[1]

[1] Lizzie Collingham, Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors, 144.

Cassava: From Toxic Tuber to Food Staple

By Christina Emery, Rachel Hirsch, and Melinda Susanto

When eaten raw, cassava is likely to leave a bitter taste in one’s mouth. Worse still, the unprocessed plant, containing high levels of cyanide, is poisonous to humans and can paralyze when eaten. Despite these deterring properties, cassava has long been culturally and nutritionally significant. And because Indigenous peoples of Meso- and South America discovered a way to render it edible through extensive processing, today cassava is enjoyed by 600 million people worldwide. One of the world’s major food crops alongside maize, rice, and wheat, cassava is cultivated as far away from its native habitat in South America as Southeast Asia. Nigeria is the world’s largest producer of cassava, where it is a primary source of carbohydrates for many and is consumed as part of a popular dish known as fufu.

How did cassava come to occupy this pride of place in the global food system? How did it transform from a poisonous tuber into a major food staple, and from an exclusive dweller of South America into a cosmopolitan citizen of the world? To answer these questions, this essay considers how human interactions with cassava helped to shape the plant into the significant food crop that it is today. We first look at the elaborate method of processing cassava developed by the Indigenous peoples of Meso- and South America and then turn to the codification and spread of this knowledge, facilitated by European travelers to the so-called New World. This meeting of Indigenous and European knowledge systems, combined with cassava’s tolerance for drought, resulted in a food crop that would create new hope for global food security in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Furthermore, as knowledge of cassava and its specimens circulated to different parts of the world, the plant took on additional cultural meanings through novel culinary uses and artistic representations.

Botanical drawing of cassava surrounded by caterpillars and other insects.
Drawing of cassava by Maria Sybilla Merian. Image Credit: Wellcome Collection

Of Frogs and Cassava: Early Cultivation in the Andes

Wild ancestors of the domesticated Manihot esculenta—known more commonly as cassava, manioc, or yuca—were likely introduced into Meso- and South-American agriculture by Indigenous farmers around 8000 BCE. Cassava was domesticated in these early agricultural plots, and the plant’s seeds and stem cuttings were traded over short distances.

Archaeological evidence suggests that cassava became an important food staple for several ancient cultures in present-day Peru, including the Chavin (1000–200 BCE), Nazca (200 BCE–600 CE), Moche (250–750 CE), and Chimú (1000–1470 CE).[1] 

Representations of cassava made by Moche artists provide clues as to how the plant was understood and appreciated by Andean peoples in the first millennium of the Common Era. Moche artists often represented cassava together with Leptodactylus pentadactylus—a frog found throughout the Amazon—as shown in this ceramic from Dumbarton Oaks’s collection. The smoky jungle frog, as this species is commonly called, was likely associated with agriculture, and representations of frogs may have been used in harvest-related rituals. Indeed, while cassava roots are the most commonly eaten part of the plant, they go bad quickly when dug up from the soil. However, if cassava is left in the ground, it can survive for up to four years and be harvested periodically.[2]

Indigenous Knowledge: How to Process Poison

While storing cassava in the soil addresses the issue of perishability, additional steps need to be taken to ensure that its roots can be safely eaten upon harvesting. In the Amazon, cassava is popularly divided into two major types—sweet and bitter—depending on the level of toxicity. Sweet cassava can be eaten simply by peeling and boiling it. Bitter cassava must be processed using a specific method before it can be safely consumed. The danger lies in cyanogenic glucosides, which vary in amount depending on the type of cassava, the climate, and the season in which it is cultivated. Women in Meso- and South America are primarily responsible for the processing of cassava and transforming the poisonous plant into flour for casaba, or cassava bread, and into a fermented beverage known as chicha. It is a multi-step process that includes washing and grating the cassava root, mashing it into a pulp, then hanging, dehydrating, and finally baking the dried pulp on a hot surface.[3]

1856 watercolor, “Saliva Indian Women Making Cassava Bread, Province of Casanare” by Manuel María Paz. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Despite the amount of work required to process cassava with high levels of cyanide, bitter cassava is more popularly cultivated than sweet cassava in the Amazon today. The indigenous Tukanoans of the Yapu village in the northern Amazon, for example, grow 100 different types of cassava, 98 of which are bitter. Archaeologist Warren Wilson and anthropologist Darna Dufour have demonstrated that bitter cassava yields a higher harvest than does its sweet counterpart, possibly due to its resistance to disease and insects.  It is perhaps for this reason that bitter cassava is favored as a food crop over sweet cassava, despite the additional processing required to render it edible.

[1] Donald Ugent, Shelia Pozorski, and Thomas Pozorski, “Archaeological Manioc (Manihot) from Coastal Peru,” Economic Botany 40, no. 1 (1986): 99.

[2] Donna McClelland, “The Moche Botanical Frog,” Arqueología Iberoamericana 10 (2011): 40.

[3] Darna L. Dufour, “A Closer Look at the Nutritional Implications of Bitter Cassava Use,” in Indigenous Peoples and the Future of Amazonia: An Ecological Anthropology of an Endangered World, ed. Leslie E. Sponsel (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1995), 151.

The Power of Peony

By Ashley Buchanan

The Secret Ingredient

In 1735, a Viennese baroness wrote to the last Medici princess, Anna Maria Luisa de Medici (1669—1743), to thank her for sending a miraculous infant convulsion powder. Anna Maria Luisa’s recipe for infant convulsion powder contained a precipitation of a human skull (of “a man who died violently but was never buried”), a precipitation of “Oriental pearls,” a precipitation of red coral and white coral, as well as yellow amber and peony roots and seeds. While the more outrageous ingredients—the skull and Oriental pearls—stand out, it was actually the use of peony that made Anna Maria Luisa’s powder effective.

In her letter to Anna Maria Luisa, the baroness praised the powder’s effectiveness, stating that the children she treated with it had been so violently taken by convulsions that the attending physicians had “given up on them.” Not only had the “miraculous powder” cured the children, but they remained in perfect health several months later. Well known for her miraculous powder, Anna Maria Luisa strategically distributed it to influential individuals and courts across Europe. As a result, she created valuable socio-political alliances to protect The Grand Duchy of Tuscany as the end of the Medici dynasty neared.

Handwritten recipe in Italian.
Recipe for infant convulsion powder featuring peony. Image Credit: Archivio di Stato di Firenze (ASF), Miscellanea Medicea (MM) 1, ins. 2, fol. 186r. Photo by Ashley Buchanan.

The Popularity of Peonies

Peonies are not typically associated with medicine, since they have long been coveted for their beauty. In fact, peonies were first cultivated for their attractiveness and fragrance in China more than 1,400 years ago and became especially popular under the Tang Dynasty (618–907 CE). In the Tang imperial gardens, tree (or moutan) peonies reigned as the “king of flowers” and symbolized happiness, wealth, and prosperity. We can see the association of peonies with wealth and class in a rare Tang scroll painting that depicts five ladies of the court and one maidservant. The rank and prestige of each lady is shown by their scale relative to one another as well as by the lavish peonies that adorn their hair. As the popularity of peonies grew in China, so too did their varieties, as horticulturalists selected, hybridized, bred, and eventually grafted peonies for their fragrance, petal color, petal number, and size.

The center of imperial peony cultivation was in Luoyang, where there were peony festivals and competitions, gardens devoted solely to peonies, and even a peony research center. This led to a plethora of ornamental peony cultivars as peony breeding became an artform. More than 200 peony cultivars were described during the Song Dynasty (960–1279 CE); today, China has more than 1,000 cultivars.

Botanical painting of peony
Ming herbal (painting): Chinese herbaceous peony. Image Credit: Wellcome Collection

While peonies have a long history of appreciation and cultivation as ornamental garden plants in Chinese as well as Islamic gardens, in western Europe they mainly were valued for their utility. Over the course of the sixteenth century that changed, when Ottoman floriculture introduced numerous ornamental flowers to the gardens of Europe, including hyacinths, narcissi, peonies, and most famously, tulips. It was not until the end of the eighteenth century that Europeans would begin intensively breeding ornamental peonies.

In 1789, famed British naturalist Sir Joseph Banks acquired a “moutan peony tree” (Paeonia lactiflora) from Canton, China, through his connections with the British East India Company. Surviving the arduous journey to Britain, it was planted in the Royal Botanic Garden, Kew. Other peonies from China soon followed, ushering in something of a peony craze in Europe as, thanks to centuries of cultivation, Chinese peonies were larger, fuller, and more fragrant than native European varieties. Peonies became increasingly popular as French, English, and American horticulturists began developing ornamental varieties of their own from these exotic imported peony cultivars.

As a Chinese botanical export, eastern ornamental peonies, as well as the new herbaceous and tree hybrids created from them in Europe, carried connotations of the “exotic Orient” and became a popular subject in nineteenth-century art. The depiction of peonies in nineteenth-century French paintings, however, does more than simply signify the exotic or differentiate Occident and Orient. For example, in Frédéric Bazille’s Young Woman with Peonies (see below), the foreign provenance of ornamental peonies is emphasized by the Black model who arranges the blooms in an “Oriental” vase. Notably, Bazille pairs the peonies with irises, France’s national flower. Once new and exotic, ornamental peony cultivars had become a product of cultural hybridity, simultaneously signaling the plant’s eastern origin as well as the new varieties that were being developed in France.

Painting of young woman holding peonies, surrounding by other flowers
Frédéric Bazille, Young Woman with Peonies, 1870, NGA 61356. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Today, peonies remain one of the most sought-after ornamental flowers in the world. Thanks to their abundant delicate petals, peonies often adorn gardens and homes, and are popular for wedding bouquets and floral arrangements. While peonies have long been, and continue to be, a coveted ornamental plant, what may surprise you is that they also have an equally long history—over two millennia—as a powerful medicinal therapeutic.