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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.

 

 

Museum Objects as Evidence – Summer School in Amsterdam

On the 9–20 June I attended the summer school Museum Objects as Evidence: Approaches to the Material World in Amsterdam. The summer school was arranged by the Rijksmuseum, University of Amsterdam and the Bard Graduate Center.

My initial motivation for applying the program was to become more familiar with the methods in analyzing historic objects, and get inspiration on how to include and work with cultural heritage objects in my own PhD dissertation. Next year I am going to look more into the archaeological and material evidence of the dress of the lower levels of Denmark. I felt that I needed tools to approach this topic as a historian, since we are generally not used to work with objects in the material sense.

During the two weeks I got strong insight on how to use cultural heritage objects as sources of information. Some of the overall topics that were considered were damage or decay, object as evidence, reading the object, issues of authenticity,meaning through display, reimagining the object, the biography of objects, interdisciplinary research, and how we think of objects in the future.

Every day we were presented with a new topic and specialists showing us their work with groups of objects from the Rijksmuseum collections, ranging from Delft pottery to fine art paintings, and photography to colonial artefacts, metal wares and textiles.

Some of the sessions I found particular interesting, such as a session about metal objects and metal thread. Here we were presented to some of the treasures from a Dutch shipwreck, including items such as a powder box and a toiletry set containing many items, for example a mirror covered in velvet, and metal threads.

Some of the metal items from the shipwreck. The mirror from the toiletry set can be seen in the background. Photo credit: Anne-Kristine Sindvald Larsen.

In another session that I was very intrigued by, we were presented a highly decorative table ornament, which was decorated with small life casts of small fauna and flora. In effort to understand how the object was made, and to comprehend the highly complicated processes that artisans were able to perform almost 500 years ago, conservators had used contemporary recipe books to help them gain knowledge of the process of making life casts.

Wenzel Jamnitzer, tablestand (1549). Photo credit: Riijksmuseum.

Details of life casts of snakes and lizards. Photo credit: Riijksmuseum.

 

 

I was also very lucky to try out some technical examination methods on a piece of Renaissance jewelry. By using different technical approaches, we were able to determine the color pigments in the enamel, the quality of gemstones and pearls, and possible alterations and repairs. This made us understand the history of the object and what it had gone through in detail, and also led to quite a surprise. Turned out that the piece of jewelry that at first seemed to be an authentic renaissance object, had a frame added to it in a later period. This shows how important it is to take a deep and critical look into the history of the object, and interpret all the traces the object has to reveal about itself.

A Renaissance pendant is being examined. Photo credit: Thijs Gerbrandy.

The worksheet from the piece that were examined at the workshop.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Even more interesting, we also had a session on textiles, where 17-century bridal gloves were laid out for examination and where we were able to really see the cut and construction of the gloves, and get a closeup of the elaborate decoration, materials, and stitching.

A pair of bridal gloves that we were lucky to get a closer look at. Photo credit: Rijjksmuseum.

Every afternoon the day ended with a discussion where two students were in charge of presenting the main points of the day and their thoughts about the topic in general and in relation to their own project. This led to some very interesting discussion and inspiring thoughts.

What I also learned during these two weeks, is how important interdisciplinary views  and approaches are when working with objects. Besides the strong academic focus during the summer school, I got a chance to network and meet other researchers and museum professionals all interested in working and engaging with material culture in different ways.

Group photograph in the Rijksmuseum garden. Photocredit: Thijs Gerbrandy.

Before attending the summer school, one thing that I was especially interested in was to get an idea of how to cope with anonymous objects without any context or known provenance, since this is mostly the case with the archeological remains that are left of ordinary people’s dress in Denmark.

After these two weeks I feel more confident in working and incorporating objects in my own work, I have a stronger sense of what questions are relevant to ask, and know that even simple results can lead to a greater understanding of the objects and thereby the society it was made in. I also know more about the possibilities in terms of methods and approaches, and more importantly I have gotten a sense of how objects can transform our understanding of the past, but also how our understanding of objects keeps changing though time.

I look forward to using this knowledge in practice in the future.