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Una corona di ambra falsa: Imitating Amber using Early Modern Recipes

30 April 2020

To make cleere stones of Amber:

Seeth Turpentine in a pan leaded, with a little cotton, stirring it until it be as thick as paste, and then poure it into what you will, and set it in the sunne eight dayes, / and it will be cleaer and hard inough. You may make of this little balles, haftes for knives, and manie other things.[1]

 

Another:

Take the yelkes of sixteene egges, and beat them well with a spoone: then take two ounces of Arabicke, an ounce of the gumme of Cherrie Trees: make these gummes into a powder, and mire them with the yelkes of the egges, let the Gummes melt well, and poure them into a pot well leaded. This done, set them six daies in the sunne, and they will become hard, and shine like glasse, and when you rub them, they will take up a straw unto them, as other amber stones doe.[2]

These two recipes, taken from the 1595 English translation of Girolamo Ruscelli’s wildly popular Secrets of Alexis Piemontese, promise seemingly simple ways to make amber stones using turpentine and cotton, or eggs and gum. Part of the section of Secrets called “Divers waies for to die threed, yarne, or linen cloth, teaching how to make the dying of colours, and also to die bones and hornes, and to make them soft, unto what forme and fashion a man will,” this imitation amber is presented as a decorative and stylish stone, suitable for decorating knives or forming “little balls” presumably to set in jewellery.

Last month, the Refashioning team tried out these two recipes as part of a workshop I organised about Imitations in Early Modern Fashion. Before we even began the workshop, my first challenge was sourcing historically appropriate materials. For example, what does Ruscelli mean by Turpentine? And where to find cherry tree gum? Through Instagram, I managed to find an artist who had collected some cherry tree gum last year in England, and was fortunate to be able to buy some from her. As for Turpentine, lengthy searches of scientific literature and many hours of watching YouTube tutorials about varnish making revealed that early modern turpentines came from a variety of trees, but were much thicker than our painting supply store distilled versions. I was able to source two different kinds of thick turpentines to experiment with: Venetian Turpentine, and Canada Balsam (which resembles the Strasbourg Fir Balsam used in early modern Europe, that is currently in low supply). More worryingly, turpentine has a very low flash point, and so heating it up is a dangerous challenge. We were lucky to be able to conduct our experiments in Aalto’s Biofilia lab, where we could carefully control the temperature and work in a fume hood.

The Refashioning Team and invited guest Timothy McCall, with James Evans (lab manager) at Aalto Biofilia.

The ingredients assembled ready for the two amber experiments.

The first recipe, using turpentine and cotton, was rather successful. The turpentine was incredibly sticky, and once we started to heat it up in the fume hood we were nervous about it igniting, but the smells were lovely, evoking a pine forest. The turpentines deepened in hue and became more viscous as they were heated, and the cotton seemed to provide some amber-like striations, as well as giving the gooey turpentine more structural integrity. The recipe suggests that once you have formed the mixture into balls that you leave it to dry in the sunshine for eight days, but in the absence of Italian sunshine in Helsinki, we left it indoors. Even two weeks later, the “amber” is a little sticky, but the colour and tone of both the Venetian Turpentine and the Canada Balsam is a convincing substitute for a piece of “true amber” purchased from a stone seller. The success of this recipe is perhaps unsurprising – “true amber” is fossilized resin, so the scent and appearance of heated turpentines would be very similar.

Anne-Kristine Sinvald Larsen pours Venetian Turpentine into a beaker.

Can you spot the true amber? (Back left: Canada Balsam Imitation, Back Right: Venice Turpentine Imitation, Front: “True” Baltic Amber).

The second recipe, entitled “Another,” comes immediately after the first in Piemontese, but its results were very different. We decided to halve the recipe (sixteen eggs seemed excessive, and we wanted to conserve our limited cherry gum supply), but some of the instructions were hard to interpret – how were the gums supposed to “melt well” once already mixed with eggs? The eggs started to scramble in the heat, and we ended up making a sort of sticky cake. This raised more questions – Given that the first recipe specifies that the stones will be “cleere” was the recipe right to call for egg yolks instead of egg whites? Should we have melted the gums before mixing them into the egg, even though Ruscelli seems pretty explicit about the order? How is the egg supposed to set? The mixture looked very different to the first amber – it was not clear, but opaque and glossy with little spots of gum in it (which might have imitated a stone, but was certainly not clear amber). After a few days, this “amber” had gone mouldy, and had to be discarded.

This second egg and gum amber seemed to cook. More research and trials needed!

Such outcomes prompt many new research questions about materials, process, and intended results. But this experiment, part of a series of hands-on investigations into imitation materials used in fashionable clothing and accessories in the early modern period, helped us to interrogate what it means to successfully imitate a material. Amber was valued in the early modern period for its smell, sheen, colour, and rarity, but intriguingly Ruscelli offers another means of testing the material in the second recipe. He notes that not only with these imitations be hard and “shiny like glasse,” but it will also be able to hold a charge: “when you rubbe them, they will take up a straw unto them, as other Amber stones doe.” Nowadays, scientists recognise this as the triboelectric effect, and even today experts still recommend that buyers of amber test that the stones are “real” by rubbing them and testing for a charge. Ruscelli’s suggestion shows that these kinds of material properties and responses were valued in an imitation as much as appearance. Any imitation stone that could mimic this effect would be a very successful piece of fake amber. It is important to note Ruscelli’s recipes do not suggest a binary opposition of “real” and “fake,” but compare the created stone to “other Amber stones,” so we must keep in mind that mimetic materials were not always considered inferior, and in fact could be highly valued for their artificially crafted properties.

Sophie Pitman demonstrates the triboelectric effect of amber, filmed by Piia Lempiäinen

 

Found in the Baltic regions then known as Prussia, and traded through Lübeck and Bruges, amber was a rare commodity in early modern Europe. As Rachel King has argued, amber objects in early modern Italy represented a “relationship to the north,” as to acquire amber in Southern Europe, you either needed to purchase it through well-connected mediators, or be given it by a generous gift-giver.[3] King suggests that amber beads arrived in Italy unstrung, and were then assembled into corone (rosaries), made into buttons, or attached to garments.[4] The Italian market for amber rosaries and other accessories grew from the mid-sixteenth century, probably because the Italian sumptuary laws lifted the complete ban on wearing amber in the 1490s. By the 1630s, people were hunting for amber in Italy, to apparent success in Sicily and Bologna (King suggests that most of these finds were not “true amber” and many coincided with archaeological excavations of ancient works), so given the popularity of the material and its relative scarcity in the region, it seems no surprise that Italians would have desired a way to create amber in the workshop such as the recipe offered by Ruscelli.[5]

Archival evidence suggests that amber, including “false” amber, was owned and worn by members of the artisan classes in the early modern period. The Refashioning the Renaissance Project database of over 600 artisan inventories from Florence, Siena, and Venice contains many mentions of amber, and one explicit mention of false amber. The 1646 inventory of Bernardino Ciampi, a cutlery-maker (coltalinaio) from Siena, records that he owned a rosary of fake amber with two crosses and silver medals (Una corona di ambra falsa con due crocette e medaglie di argento).[6] Given that he was a cutlery maker himself, perhaps he might have been inspired by Ruscelli’s suggestion to try making “ambra falsa” for knife handles, as well as for a rosary?

Knife and fork with carved amber handle in the form of a man, 17th Century, German, 16cm, Rijksmuseum, BK-NM-567&8.

Some of the artisans in the Refashioning the Renaissance database also owned amber objects that were real (or presumed real by those taking the inventories). A Sienese cap-maker owned amber paternoster beads as well as a rosary of amber and coral with a St Jacomo of amber (1 coroneta de ambra chani et corali cum un san Jacomo de ambro in un bosolo).[7] A butcher from Florence owned a black amber rosary with silver buttons or beads (1  corona di ambre nere tramezzato di bottoncini di argento, sette bottoni grandi di argento).[8] Giovanni Meulo, a tailor from Sienna, owned a pearl necklace with black amber buttons or beads (Una collanina di perle a postine con bottoncini di ambra nera). In Italian, the gemstone jet is referred to as “black amber” or ambra nera. Made from highly-pressurized and decomposed fossilized wood, jet’s Italian name etymologically connects it to amber. Such naming calls attention to the fact both stones come from trees (wood and resin).[9] Francesco Sala, a Venetian wool manufacturer, even owned gold and amber earrings.[10]

A strand of beads, possibly including amber stones. Detail from Petrus Christus (active by 1444-1475/6), A Goldsmith in his Shop, 1449, oil on oak panel, 100.1 x 85.8cm, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1975.1.110).

By examining archival sources alongside recipe books and surviving objects, and reconstructing processes of making “amber stones,” we can start to appreciate the fashionable materials of early modern Europe not just as commodities, but as stylish objects that evoked craft skill, international trade, and sensory experiences. Even on our first attempt at following the two recipes, we managed to create some successful amber-like stones with the first recipe, and with further trials might be able to understand how to interpret the second egg and gums recipe and create something equally successful. Imitations of fine materials like amber were not merely inferior or deceptive substitutions, but could be convincing alternatives that offered similar tactile and sensory experiences and visual effects.


[1] Girolamo Ruscelli, The secrets of Alexis: containing many excellent remedies against divers diseases, wounds, and other accidents, translated by William Ward, (London: 1595), part III, 251v-252r. The text was first translated in English from 1562-66.

[2] Ibid, 252r.

[3] Rachel King, “Whose Amber? Changing Notions of Amber’s Geographical Origin”, Gemeine Artefakte. Zur gemeinschaftsbildenden Funktion von Kunstwerken in den vormodernen Kulturräumen Ostmitteleuropas: Ostblick 2; 2014, v 1618- 8101

[4] Rachel King, in Christine Göttler and Wietse de Boer (eds). Religion and the Senses in Early Modern Europe. Intersections: Interdisciplinary Studies in Early Modern Culture. Leiden: Brill, 2013, 153-176.

[5] Rachel King, “Finding the Divine Falernian: Amber in Early Modern Italy,” V&A Online Journal, 5, 2013, http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/journals/research-journal/issue-no.-5-2013/finding-the-divine-falernian-amber-in-early-modern-italy/

[6] 1646 Inventory of Bernardino Ciampi, Archivio di Stato, Siena, Curia del Placito, 283, 273, f.134v.

[7] 1551 Inventory of Antonia Baldigara r.ta Giovanni Marco q. Nicolò, a cap-maker. Archivio di Stato, Venezia, Cancelleria inferiore, Miscellanea, 38, 57, 3v, 4r

[8] 1570 Inventory of Della Casa, a butcher. Archivio di Stato, Firenze, Magistrato dei pupilli, 2709, fol. 19r.

[9] 1637 Inventory of Giovanni Meulo, a tailor. Archivio di Stato, Siena, Curia del Placito, 279, 29, fol. 115v. James Howell, Lexicon Tetraglotton: An English-French-Italian-Spanish Dictionary (London, 1660), 330v. Thanks to Katherine Tycz for this reference.

[10] 1640 Inventory of Francesco Sala, a wool manufacturer. Archivio di Stato, Giudice di Petizion, Inventari, 357, 24, Venezia, fol. 8v

Put a stamp on it: early modern embossed textiles

20 December 2019

During the early modern period, people embraced decorative embellishments on clothing like never before. Glance at any portrait from the sixteenth or seventeenth century, and you will see clothing with a wide range of surface decorations ranging from elaborate geometric and floral patterns, large slashes and small pinks cut into fabrics, to applied ribbons, braid, pearls, gemstones and spangles.

One method of fashionable surface decoration was stamping or ‘printing’ into textiles, embossing motifs into a fabric using heat and pressure. It seems to have been a technique embraced by the artisanal classes, for we find dozens of mentions of fabrics described as ‘stampato’ (stamped) in inventories from Florence, Siena, and Venice, particularly after the turn of the seventeenth century. For example, in 1627 the Florentine Linen merchant Filippo di Sforzo Guerrieri owned a pair of stamped sleeves and a white silk doublet that was both stamped and slashed, and furnished with gold ribbon (‘Un giubbone di raso bianco stampato et trinciato fornito con un nastrino d’oro’) (Archivio di Stato, Firenze, Magistrato dei pupilli, 2718/2, 13v, 1627). An inventory taken on 27 February 1634 recorded that the tailor Piero di Giovanni had 30 braccia of yellow stamped mockado in a nasty condition in his shop (‘30 braccia di mucaiardo stampato giallo cattivo’) (Archivio di Stato, Firenze, Magistrato dei pupilli, Folder 2719, 117r). Giovanni also owned a doublet stamped with waves (‘stampato a onde’).

One page of the inventory of Piero di Giovanni, 27 February 1634, Archivio di Stato, Firenze, Magistrato dei pupilli, Folder 2719, 117r

My current research on imitation textiles explores these stamped fabrics, which survive in relatively large numbers in museum collections. By the eighteenth- and nineteenth centuries, stamping became firmly associated with furnishing fabrics, so often these textiles are assumed to be fragments of wall hangings or furniture, but I am interested in finding out the uses of stamped textiles in clothing during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Extant textiles show a wide range of stamped designs ranging from the relatively small and simple floral motifs to large fleurs-de-lis and heraldic crests. Which designs were used for clothing, and what was the cultural importance of this method of design?

Fragment, 17th century, silk, Cooper Hewitt Museum, Gift of John Pierpont Morgan; 1902-1-462-a,b

One fabric that was often stamped to great effect was velvet, a fabric with a raised pile usually made of silk, but for those lower down the economic and social spectrum often made of mixed fibres such as wool, linen, or hair. Stamped patterns could imitate more costly methods of patterning, such as woven brocades or cut pile velvets, as in this example.

Doublet and Breeches, 1630-1640, satin, linen, and buckram, Victoria and Albert Museum, 348&A-1905 and a detail of the stamped satin.

But stamped fabrics were also enjoyed in their own right, as the method provided a means of changing the way light glances off the surface of the textile, as was likely the effect of Giovanni’s wavy doublet. The effect is strikingly different on soft wool, smooth silk, and plush velvets. A white stamped satin doublet and hose from the Victoria and Albert Museum gives us an idea as to what Filippo di Sforzo Guerrieri’s stamped silk doublet might have looked like, and shows that sometimes stamping was a technique not used to imitate woven or cut pile fabrics but instead was embraced for its ability to give texture to a shiny satin.

‘Découper et Gaufreur,’ in Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d’Alembert, L’Encyclopédie. [38], Arts de l’habillement : [recueil de planches sur les sciences, les arts libéraux et les arts méchaniques, avec leur explication, (Paris, 1751-1780), Plate II.

In the eighteenth century, a rolling press to print or emboss pieces of stuffs, like velvet vests (‘pour gaufrer des morceaux d’étoffes, comme vestes de velours’) was included in Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d’Alembert’s Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers (1751-1780). Detailed illustrations show how fabric is pressed between one plain roller and an engraved roller to imprint a repeating design across the upper surface of the textile. In earlier periods stamping was probably done by hand, using heated metal stamps. During a workshop at the School of Historical Dress in London, we experimented with stamping some velvet using the tines of a fork, heated over a hot plate. At first it was hard to calculate the correct amount of heat to create a clear imprint in the pile without burning the fibres, but once we had practiced a few times on offcuts of velvet we felt confident enough to stamp a hatched pattern quite successfully into our doublets.

Using a fork heated over a hot plate, we experimented with stamping a simple pattern onto velvet at the School of Historical Dress in August 2019. Photo by Sophie Pitman.

Explorations into these kinds of innovative, imitative, and inexpensive methods of decoration in clothing enable us to reconstruct the ways non-elite members of society were engaging with fashionable clothing in the early modern period. Our experiments with stamping will be published and put on display in due course, so check back on the Refashioning website for more information over the coming year.

Shoes, dyes, fabrics and lace – Refashioning the Renaissance workshop in Toronto and NYC

Following our series of four panels at the Renaissance Society of America in Toronto, the Refashioning the Renaissance team took the opportunity to explore the city, and then travelled across the border and to New York for a four-day research trip in order to discuss, experiment, and see early modern textiles with some American colleagues and collaborators.

Before we left Toronto, we were able to spend a few heavenly hours with curator Elizabeth Semmelhack in the Bata Shoe Museum’s stores, where we saw richly decorated Spanish and Italian platform chopines, medieval leather pointed shoes, porcupine-quill decorated moccasins, seventeenth-century English slap-soled heels, and even some more humble slashed leather shoes that might have been worn by the artisans we study at the Refashioning project. We were joined by Making and Knowing’s Principal Investigator Pamela Smith, with whom we had some stimulating discussions about the recent scholarly turn to object-based investigations, and also recorded a podcast (keep your eyes and ears peeled on the website for that).

Elizabeth Semmelhack, curator of the Bata Shoe Museum, holds a velvet-covered chopine. Photo copyright Refashioning the Renaissance Project.

Photo copyright Refashioning the Renaissance Project.

Once in New York, we headed straight to the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Textile Conservation department, where we were hosted by Cristina Carr, whose expertise with a microscope reveals the intricate skills and painterly effects that could be achieved by embroiderers, weavers and seamstresses in the early modern period (for more, see this interview with her by our colleagues at the Materialized Identities project). It was a joy to see the cutting-edge technology and patient skill of the conservators who work behind the scenes to care for some of the museum’s most delicate objects. We also visited the Ratti Center, where curator Elizabeth Cleland and her colleagues viewed a range of textiles and accessories that early modern artisans may have worn during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries with us. Among these were stunning pieces of needle and bobbin lace from Italy and the Netherlands, woollen velvets, and linen aprons. Although the Met provides many high-resolution images on its website, nothing compares to being able to view these pieces in person, to see the lustre and colour of their dyestuffs and fibres, and to spend time with our curatorial and conservation colleagues discussing the techniques, materials, and context of these objects.

Viewing, discussing, and documenting the Met’s textile collections. Photo copyright Refashioning the Renaissance Project.

Sophie Pitman looks closely at some stamped velvet at the Ratti Center. Photo copyright Refashioning the Renaissance Project.

Piia Lempiäinen with a woollen velvet fragment. Photo copyright Refashioning the Renaissance Project.

I also had the chance to visit the Moroni exhibition at The Frick Collection, remarkable for how the curators have placed surviving brocades, fans, and jewellery next to portraits which depict men and women wearing very similar garments and accessories. Giving these objects a presence in the gallery space focuses the viewer not only on the individual but also their carefully chosen attire and accoutrements. Moroni’s enigmatic portrait of an anonymous tailor, well-loved by the Refashioning team, was on display alongside a beautiful pair of decorated iron scissors from France, placing the artisan’s tools and social status (the cutter was, and remains, the most important tailor in the workroom) centre stage.

Members of the Making and Knowing and Refashioning the Renaissance Teams in the lab, Columbia University. Photo copyright Refashioning the Renaissance Project.

We spent a rich and exhausting day back at my former stomping ground, the Making and Knowing Lab at Columbia University, where project Manager Naomi Rosenkranz and I designed a day all about early modern red dyes. Bringing together the Making and Knowing and Refashioning the Renaissance teams to dye kermes, cochineal, and madder on wool, silk, and linen was a wonderful way to not just discuss reconstruction in theory but to actually make and experiment together. Our experiment focus was prompted by the need for some naturally dyed textiles for the upcoming ‘Dirty Laundry’ workshop, so stay tuned to the website to see how we stained these beautiful swatches with oil, wine and iron gall ink (using the ink made for us by Naomi!). We also had time to discuss the challenges and practicalities of materials sourcing, notetaking, safety issues and planning, and toasted past and future collaborations over an Aperol Spritz in Morningside Heights.

Paula Hohti grinds kermes lice to make red dye (left) and textile being removed from dye bath (right). Photo copyright Refashioning the Renaissance Project.

Madder, Cochineal, Kermes and Weld dyed textiles drying in the Making and Knowing Lab. Photo copyright Refashioning the Renaissance Project.

Our final workshop day was spent at the Textile Arts Center learning to make bobbin lace with Elena Kanagy-Loux, who has travelled around Europe learning regional styles and techniques directly from lacemakers. At first, the simple gestures and satisfying click-clack of the bobbins convinced us that we might all be making yards of lace in no time, but as the patterns became more complicated, we recognised the high levels of skill, patience, and innovation employed by early modern lacemakers. Elena discussed the 1559 Venetian pattern book Le Pompe with us, explaining how lacemakers might interpret the patterns differently depending on their regional and personal techniques, and taught us how we might learn to read and make some of the patterns ourselves, with a little more time and determination. After all, in the words of Frank Sinatra, if we can make it here, we can make it anywhere.

Michele Robinson and Anne-Kristine Sinvald Larsen making bobbin lace. Below Sophie Pitman demonstrates some bobbin lace techniques. Photo and video copyright Refashioning the Renaissance Project.