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Sense and Matter in Early Modern Europe: A Conference in Honour of Evelyn Welch

Sixty is a very important birthday indeed. To mark that of Evelyn Welch, Professor of History as well as Provost & Senior Vice President at King’s College, London (not to mention advisory board member for the Refashioning the Renaissance Project), a one-day symposium was held on 9 March 2019. The event, ‘Sense and Matter in Early Modern Europe’, brought together speakers that have worked with Evelyn over the course of her career. The day was divided into three parts: Fashion and Textiles, Consumption and Body and Medicine, highlighting some of Evelyn’s primary research interests over the years. There was also a great round of lightning talks by early career researchers, intended to reflect Evelyn’s longstanding role as mentor to those at the start of their academic journeys.

Paula Hohti, Refashioning the Renaissance’s principal investigator, was one of the speakers featured in the session on consumption, where she presented her paper, ‘Did ordinary Italians have a ‘Renaissance’?’ Paula was able to draw on both past and current research to show that working people in Siena owned objects and garments usually associated with the wealthy and elite. She was also able to highlight the important contributions of members of the public, who are knitting silk and wool stockings for our project based on historic patterns and examples as part of the Citizen Science Project. Bruno Blondé and James Shaw also spoke on this panel; Blondé demonstrated the critical role of cultural value in shifting patterns of consumption, particularly around silver in the Low Countries, while Shaw suggested the complexities of valuing goods and arriving at final prices, which sometimes resulted in financial ‘lesions’.

Attendees were also treated to presentations on the history of dress and fashion by Ulinka Rublack, Maria Hayward and Lesley Miller, which highlighted the power of dress objects to represent social stresses (and even cause riots!) and to help wearers curry favour with prospective patrons. We also learned the incredible value of reconstruction as a research method and the importance of failure in such experiments. This is particularly important advice for the Refashioning the Renaissance team as we move deeper into the experimental phase of the project.

Jenny Tiramani and Ulinka Rublack with the reconstruction of a costume owned by Matthäus Schwarz. Photo © Graham CopeKoga.

The day was rounded out with a series of lightning talks by early career researchers Rose Byfleet, Abigail Gomulkiewicz, Anna Parker and Annie Thwaite, and presentations on the theme of Body and Medicine by Tessa Storey and Hannah Murphy, which encompasses Evelyn’s current area of research, Renaissance Skin. Finally, John Styles offered closing remarks that brought all of the sessions and papers together.

In addition to the fascinating research presented by all the speakers at this symposium, ‘Sense and Matter’ also demonstrated how critical collaborative funding is to the humanities – and the long-lasting results it can have; many participants in Evelyn Welch and Michelle O’Malley’s ‘The Material Renaissance’ project were present to share new research, support colleagues and celebrate a dear friend’s birthday. Happy birthday Evelyn!

Museo del vino, Málaga, Spain

19 October 2018

Spain is of course well-known for its production of wine and that from Málaga gained the status of ‘the cardinal of wines’ (second only to ‘the pope of wines’ from Cyprus) in a poetic ‘battle of the wines’ in 1224. While I was in Málaga for Digital Art History Summer School, I had the chance to visit the local wine museum to think about how their collection can help support the research we are doing for the Refashioning the Renaissance project. Although wine might not seem to have much to do with fashion in the sixteenth century, there were – and are today – some surprising connections between the two!

One of the most interesting to me is the use of wine dregs, the sediment you sometimes find at the bottom of your wine glass or the bottom of a wine barrel (then called lees), which can be purified to make potassium bitartrate, or what we usually call cream of tartar.

One of the components of dregs of wine, potassium bitartrate – or wine crystals – on a cork. Potassium bitartrate can be purified to make cream of tartar. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

This is very often used in cooking as a thickening agent or stabiliser, but tartar – in various forms – was also an important ingredient in other kinds of recipes, found in books of secrets, during the Renaissance. For example, in Isabella Cortese’s compendium, I secreti (Venice, 1584), tartar is a component of a wide range of recipes related to textiles, including: ‘For washing old satin cloths [so that they] appear new’, ‘To lift every stain of oil and grease from woollen cloth’, and ‘[For making] little balls of soap for lifting stains’.

The museum also had information about the use of wine as medicine in the past, with many beautiful labels from bottles and crates advertising Málaga wines for different ailments.

Wine label.

Wine was also important in medical treatments in the Renaissance, and again, books of secrets give instructions for curing and preventing diseases with the drink. The English translation of Girolamo Ruscelli’s The secrets of the reverend Maister Alexis of Piemont offers: ‘a thing proved and experimented to be very true against [kernels in a man’s throat]’ (28v), where polipodium (‘which is an hearbe like unto Ferne’) is prepared as a powder and served to the patient with wine or honey.

Recipe for curing problems with the throat from Girolamo Ruscelli, The secrets of the reverend Maister Alexis of Piemont translated from French by William Ward (London: P. Short for T. Wight, 1595).

Finally, although it’s not related to fashion, books of secrets also offer us many recipes for keeping wine sweet, stretching it a little further, or magically making it from water. Here is what Lorenzo Leandro suggests in his Tesoro di varii secreti (Brescia and Verona: Bortolamio Merlo, 1613):

To make from water wine: Take one part tartar from a wine barrel, and four parts brazilwood; make it into a powder and put it in a bowl to infuse. And to that add some water, that will make it wine. More water will make it clearer and if you want white wine, add a little vinegar.

It doesn’t sound very appealing but might be necessary in a pinch!

Digital Art History Summer School in Málaga, Spain

Polo de contenidos digitales headquarters in Málaga.

At the beginning of September I was lucky to attend a Digital Art History Summer School in Málaga, Spain, hosted by the University of Málaga and the University of Berkley. Over six intense days, participants learned about the huge range of digital tools available to support and enhance the study of art and had the chance to delve deeper into one of three tracks: data and the arts, data analysis, and 3D modelling.

Instructors and participants introduce themselves on day one of the course.

It was really difficult to choose which track to follow, as the Refashioning the Renaissance project will have huge amounts of data drawn from the inventories and account books gathered by Stefania Montemezzo and Anne-Kristine Sinvald Larsen, but we also plan to create a digital reconstruction of a garment later on in the project. In the end, I decided to spend the week as part of the data analysis team, learning how to use statistical analysis software and create visualisations that help us make sense of data (and present it in interesting ways!). We worked with a programme called R and R-studio, taking data from the Museum of Modern Art in New York as a case study. It was really great to learn that many museums provide metadata from their collections, exhibitions, and institutional history on a website called github.com. This is a wonderful resource, largely untapped by art historians and so it offers lots of new and exciting research opportunities.

It doesn’t take long to feel refreshed and ready to get back to work with a lunch-time view like this!

Over the week we worked with MoMA’s data and gained a better understanding of the distribution of different media in the collection (it’s largely composed of prints and illustrated books, followed by photographs – not paintings or sculptures as we might expect), the nationalities of the artists whose work can be found in the collection (mostly American), the gender breakdown (mostly male artists) and how works were acquired (purchased, gifted, bequeathed or in other ways). We also learned that images can be imported into R and analysed for the distribution of colour, luminosity and other factors.

Harald Klinke, the leader of the data analysis track, presenting visualisations of colour distribution of Pablo Picasso’s paintings in the Museum of Modern Art, New York created by one of the team members.

It was also really exciting to see the projects that the other two tracks worked on, including the creation of a new website that lets you analyse images to see how complex they are and 3D scans of the Polo de contenidos digitales headquarters in Málaga, where the course was held. We also learned about the digital projects that participants are working on, ranging from understanding how humans understand representations of different surfaces in paintings, to a reconstruction of the Alhambra in Granada. In all, it was a full and intense week but I learned so much about the kinds of digital tools out there for art historians, and the Refashioning the Renaissance project in particular, as well as had the chance to meet and work with wonderful people from all over the world.