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.
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.
This week, we continue our series of cross-postings on a fascinating hands-on, collaborative research project into recipes for Burgundian Black, organized by Dr. Jenny Boulboullé. In today’s selection, we hear from Jessie Chen on her experiences of the project. This post is our second entry in the series, reproduced from Artechne, July 3rd, 2019. (Joshua Schlachet)
Burgundian Black Collaboratory
Between the 16th and 18th of January, I was invited to participate in the Burgundian Black Collaboratory. For this workshop, experts from different fields joined forces to experiment with reconstructions of early modern black dyeing technologies based on a selection of historical recipes (Fig. 1). The workshop is part of the research for a collaborative exhibition project that will be on view at Museum Hof van Busleyden in Mechelen later this year, and an edited-volume-in-planning on the subject of “Burgundian Black.” For now, I want to write about some thoughts on the method of learning from a “living source” using my own experience of the workshop.
Fig. 1. Experts from different fields experimenting with different recipes in our temporary lab, which was a greenhouse on the farm De Kreake in Húns in Friesland.
What is a “living source”?
In her article, Timea Tallian proposed three groups of living sources that can help fill the gaps in understanding historical recipes: experts, masters, and practitioners. The definition of the three groups is more suggestive than hard-drawn. In general, “expert” refers to a person who conducts practical and/or scientific experimentation or reconstruction based on historical documentation. “Master” refers to a person who has acquired an art or craft through apprenticeship and continued to practice it for a long time. “Practitioner” refers to a person who has gained most knowledge from personal experience in making art/craft and self-motivated research into historical techniques.
A simplified experience of working as an apprentice
During the Burgundian Black Collaboratory, I was in the same group as Jo Kirby-Atkinson, former Senior Scientific Officer at the National Gallery in London and co-author of the seminal book Natural Colorants for Dyeing and Lake Pigments. Jo is, in every aspect of the term, an expert on natural colorants and materials, whereas I am a novice with no prior experience in working with natural dye and textile. While not strictly, the dynamic of my group resembles a historical workshop, with an expert/master showing the ropes to an apprentice. Our group was given three seventeenth-century recipes to decode, with two originally written in Dutch, but translated into English, and one in French. All three recipes yielded rich black dyes (Fig. 2), even though we had to compress the multiple-day dyeing-processes into only a few hours.
Fig. 2. Top left: our equipment for the experiments; Top right: the different textiles we gathered before dyeing them black; Bottom left: in the middle of dyeing following the instructions of one of the Dutch recipes; Bottom right: final results of our experiments.
For three days, I followed Jo around, gathered and prepared the needed materials as she had instructed, and attentively listened to her explaining the reasons behind the decisions she made to follow or modify the recipes when dyeing our textile. Unlike many historians that start working with recipes by reading and interpreting the texts right away, I started by listening to and absorbing the knowledge of the expert/master.
In fact, this has always been how I learned historical techniques, or any artistic techniques. When I was in art school, manuals and how-to guides were always part of the assigned readings for classes, but I seldom consulted them. Instead, I observed what the professors did during demonstrations and tried to replicate the processes and results. For my first lesson in historical remaking, I learned an eighteenth-century metal-casting technique (Fig. 3) through the step-by-step explanations from an Amsterdam-based silversmith and conservator. Similarly, I gained my knowledge in early modern printing (Fig. 4) by working alongside a master printer who learned the trade in a workshop. While historical recipes and instructions still play an important part in my research of these techniques, I do not usually read them until after I have some hands-on experiences.
Fig. 3. Left: removing the lion head ornament from the casting flask; Right: the cast and the original lion head ornament.
Fig. 4. Two process photos of printing with a hand press.
Limitation or liberation?
How does learning from these experts affect my reading of historical recipes then? Does knowing the practical aspects of a technique help me understand the recipes better? Or does it prevent me from finding other possible interpretations of a recipe because I am conditioned by what the experts have shown me?
Upon reflection of the workshop, I noticed that my take on the original source is, indeed, shaped by Jo. When going through the recipes afterwards, my mind replayed the steps we took to dye our textile black. Interestingly, the recipes became so straight forward. In the imagined laboratory, my mind automatically filled in the gaps in the recipes with the decisions and measurements Jo made during the workshop. She has taken all the guess work out of interpreting the recipes, and what I have is a very cleaned-up, and perhaps all-too-easy, version of the processes.
However, I also noticed that I started to question some other things that are not necessarily directly related to the texts in the recipes we were testing, but to the broader historical contexts. For example, for one of the recipes we put linen and woolen materials in the same dye bath for the experiment. The linen came out more of a gray than black. Jo explained that in order for linen to get to the same level of blackness as wool, it would require a much longer time to mordant the fabric with alum. Historically and practically speaking, linen would not have been dyed with this particular recipe anyway because the cost of the overdyeing process (dyeing with multiple dye baths) would have been too expensive for the fabric. Such a recipe, thus, would have only been used for high quality material like wools and silks. These comments got me curious about the alum trade and the regulations of dyeing certain fabrics in the early modern period to which I have never paid attention before.
From novice to expert, eventually…
To answer my own questions, I think that gaining the hands-on skills from an expert/master is beneficial to prevent me from getting caught up with words and sentences as a novice; instead, I can focus on connecting the technique of investigation to its larger historical and social context. Learning from these experts also makes me become more aware of the oral knowledge transfer in a workshop in addition to written recipes. As I am only at the beginning of working with historical recipes, there will be more opportunities to interpret and experiment with recipes for different materials and techniques without the aid of an expert. Much like an apprentice who would become a master, I think that I will eventually find my own perspective on working with recipes.
 Timea Tallian, “Living sources: experts, masters, and practitioners,” in The Artist’s Process: Technology and Interpretation: Proceedings of the Fourth Symposium of the Art Technological Source Research Working Group, eds. Sigrid Eyb-Green, Joyce H. Townsend, Mark Clarke, Jilleen Nadolny, and Stefanos Kroustallis (London: Archetype Publications, 2012), 10.
 Jo Kirby-Atkinson, Martin van Bommel, and André Verhecken, eds., Natural Colorants for Dyeing and Lake Pigments: Practical Recipes and Their Historical Sources (London: Archetype Publications, 2014).
Jenny was also part of our group; but due to her role as the organizer, she was much needed by other participants and thus I mostly worked with Jo on the hands-on aspect of the experiments during the workshop.
 The two Dutch recipes, translated by Hofenk de Graaff, are from the so called Haarlem Manuscript (Recepten-boek om allerlei kleuren te verwen […], Frans Hals Museum, fol. 313-l-l and 95/r/3l) from the second half of the seventeenth century (after 1669). The unpublished French recipe, transcribed by Jenny, is from the first half of the seventeenth century. She found it in the Archives of the Royal Society in London (Classified Papers III(1)).
 This technique is one of the investigations for the PhD project of Thijs Hagendijk. To learn more, see Thijs Hagendijk, “Learning a Craft from Books: Historical Re-enactment of Functional Reading in Gold- and Silversmithing,” Nuncius 33 (2018): 198–235. Alternatively, Thijs has also written a few blog posts on the subject, see, for example, “How to Read Early Modern Instructions for Gold- and Silversmiths,” https://artechne.wp.hum.uu.nl/how-to-read-early-modern-instructions-for-gold-and-silversmiths/.