ERC EU logo

Blog

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

Living and working during the Pandemic: Extraordinary times then and now

It has now been 40 days since our university ordered us to work remotely from home, due to spread of the coronavirus in Finland and elsewhere in Europe.

Despite all the challenges that these extraordinary circumstances have brought about into our private and work lives, our team is doing fine. By coincidence, we finished our entire experimental research phase just a few days before the coronavirus crisis unfolded, with our last major experimental workshop on Imitation in Early Modern Clothes and Accessories held at Aalto University in Helsinki in 10–12 March 2020.

Imitation in Early Modern Clothes and Accessories workshop at Aalto University on 10–12 March 2020.

Affects of the Covid-19 were already starting to show during our workshop. Most of the face mask had mysteriously disappeared from the Chemistry department.

We are now all working from home, in different countries, and spending our time analysing our project results, reading more about the context of our work, and writing up our results. However, although each one of us as researchers are used to working individually at home, it feels more important than ever to keep in touch and get together. We keep regular online meetings and virtual coffee hours in Zoom and Teams both with our current and previous team members as well as with our research assistants. This provides us an important platform to share our updates and thoughts, not only about work, but also about the experience of being in ‘quarantine’.

Refashioning virtual coffee hour.

Historically, the time frame of 40 days bears significance in the context of pandemic, because sources tells us that the term ‘quarantine’ refers to the Italian words quaranta giorni, 40 days, or quarantina. This was the number of days that all those who travelled to Venice from epidemic areas during the Black Death in the 14th-century were required to isolate.

The plague had devastating effects in Europe, killing from at least one third to a half of the European population in the fourteenth century, and outbreaks of plague continued to ravage towns and the countryside in the West up until the 19th century.

A mob attacking the Quarantine Marine Hospital in New York. Original Publication Harpers Weekly, 1858. Getty.

A series of major epidemics occurred also during the period of our study in the Refashioning the Renaissance project, especially during the years of Italian plague in 1629–1631. The shocking effect of the epidemic on Italian population is seen in our archival documentation. The graph below, presenting the number of post-mortem inventories drawn up for our artisans in Venice, shows clearly a high peak during these years, especially in 1631.

The number of post-mortem inventories drawn up for artisans in Venice 1550–1650. Refashioning database.

Venice was particularly vulnerable to the disease, because it was not only a busy trading port but also built upon a lagoon. But the plague ravaged also other Italian cities, such as Florence and Siena.

A detailed study of the inventories provides a window to the individual human tragedies during these years. One of the probable victims of the plague was our water seller Francesco Ristori, a resident of the gonfalone San Nicchio (Santo Spirito) at Oltr’Arno in Florence, who died prematurely at the beginning August 1631, leaving minor children behind. We are interested in the waterseller Francesco within out project because he was one of the aspirational artisans who connected with contemporary high fashions through wearing a range of clothing imitations.

His household goods, recorded on 12 September 1631 in the presence of his wife Maddalena and the witness Giulio di Silvestro Pagami, included, for example, a black, stamped doublet of mock velvet, made in imitation of a more expensive patterned velvet doublet, which our Refashioning the Renaissance project is in the process of reconstructing in collaboration with the School of Historical Dress.

Although we now live and work in special circumstances under many restrictions, our doublet reconstruction project continues and flourishes. It is exciting to see the progress of this interesting project, and it feels comforting to think that, at one point, sooner or later, life will be normal again and we will be able to gather together with our colleagues, friends and family to see what Francesco Ristori’s fashion imitation doublet may have looked like.

The inventory of Francesco Ristori, 12 September 1631.

To remove Ink, Cherry Juice and Other Stains and Spots

In 1648 the book Flora Danica, det er: Dansk Urtebog. (Flora Danica, what is: Danish Herbal book), was published. The author of the book Simon Paulli (1603—1680) was a Danish doctor, botanist and anatomist. From 1643 to 1639 he was a professor of medicine in Rostock and in 1639 to 1648 he worked as a professor of botany, anatomy and surgery at University of Copenhagen. In 1650 he became a physician at the court and later on he became the private physician to the Kings Frederik III (1609—1670) and Christian V (1646—1699).[1]

Engraving of Simon Paulli from 1666 (Royal Library of Denmark)

Flora Danica was commissioned by Christian IV (1577—1648) in 1645 while he wanted a book for the general population.[2] This can also be seen in the introduction of the book where it is noted how the book was aimed for people such as ‘the ordinary Man who lives in the country./ who does not always have resources or money to seek Doctors against various illnesses and incidents…’[3]

The book is divided in two sections containing 384 plants: the first part describes information such as name, appearance, place and use, whereas the latter part contains woodcut illustrations of the species.

First page of the Flora Danica

Although much of the information in the first section of the book relates to health and medicine, Paulli also offers tips on caring for textiles. For example he warns readers about walnut trees advising them not to: 

 … hang your [linen] Goods under Walnut Trees to bleach or dry: while the drops that fall down from the Walnut Trees / will stain the linen garments/ and the same stains will not go away easily It can therefore be concluded/ that Walnut trees are not beneficial in bleach fields.[4]

Engraving of a walnut tree (Flora Danica).

But in case of having stained garments, Paulli also explained how juice of Malus Limonia, lemons, could work as a stain remover:

With this same juice distinguished women also care for cloths and other linen garments by applying [it] / when they have Ink / Cherry Juice or other alike are becoming stained and spotted: Then spread it [the fabric]  out / and keep some lit Sulphur matches underneath / and if the spots are not too old/ then they will vanish with this Art.[5]

This was not the only purpose for lemons, which could help with several medical problems such as rotten teeth caused by scurvy, and were used in ointments against scabs and itchiness. The peel of the lemon was also advised to be used as ‘winter room’ refreshers in fine inns. The peel should be boiled in a pot or put in a fire pan and when soaked in rose water before boiling it would leave a ‘delightful scent’ so new guests could feel ‘recreated and be refreshed’. A sweeter scent could be achieved by adding nutmeg and Indian cloves.[6]

The plant Malus Limonia ( Flora Danica).

This stain removal instructions given by Paulli were tested on the 28th of November 2019, when I arranged a session for the students participating in the course ‘Textile Archaeology – A Hands on Approach’, based at the Centre for Textile Research and Department of Archaeology at the University of Copenhagen.

For the experiment I tried to use as authentic materials as possible, however some compromises were made. I for example used bleached medium-weight machine woven linen and in case of using svovlstikker (Sulphur matches), I used modern matchsticks. The svovlstikker (Sulphur matches) mentioned in the recipe would have contained smelly and poison Sulphur and would not have been self-igniting as the matches we use today.[7] I furthermore acquired organic unsweetened cherry juice made from sour cherries, organic lemons and ink, made from oak galls, iron sulfate and gum Arabic. Furthermore, I brought some organic cold pressed sunflower oil to test if the recipe could remove oily substances.

People are testing the stain remover.

We followed Paulli´s instructions, applying cherry juice, ink and oil on linen fragments. Shortly after we applied the lemon juice and lit a matchstick underneath. After the samples were  rinsed in water and left to dry.


Before and after pictures of the stained linen fabrics. Top: before the stain removal was applied: oil, ink and cherry juice. Bottom: after the stain removal process: cherry juice, oil and beneath cherry juice is ink.

The recipe did not remove the stains completely, but the stains were improved, and you can imagine, especially in the case of cherry juice and oil, that if the fabric was bleached afterwards it would almost become unnoticeable. In all, I think the experiment was a success, not only in terms of trying out the recipe, but also in introducing the students to how historians can make use of texts to reconstruct or materialize practices or processes, in this case contemporary textile cleaning practices. It also shows how we can get a deeper understanding of how people might have cared for their textiles and to what extent it worked.


[1] http://denstoredanske.dk/Natur_og_miljø/Botanik/Botanikere_og_plantegeografer/Simon_Paulli, Salmonsens Konversations Leksikon, Christian Blangstrup, Bind XVIII Nordlandsbaad—Perleøerne (Copenhagen: A/S J. Schultz Forlagsboghandel, 1924)., 993

[2] http://denstoredanske.dk/Natur_og_miljø/Botanik/Botaniske_haver%2c_museer_og_foreninger/Flora_Danica

[3] Flora Danica, see introduction

[4] Flora Danica, p 94 Y

[5] Flora Danica, p 279 Y

[6] Flora Danica p 279 S – V, Z

[7] Self-igniting matches as we know of today were first invented in the 19-century. Svovlstikker ( Sulphur matches) is mentioned in Danish dictionaries from the sixteenth-century referring to them in Latin as Sulphurata, Fomes Sulphureus and Sulphuratum. Sulphur matches were first mentioned in England in the 1530s, see e.g. Nell DuVall, Domestic Technology: A Chronology of Developments (Boston: G.K. Hall & Co, 1988), 271.