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Exploring Historical Blacks: The Burgundian Black Collaboratory

Philip the Good, Musée des Beaux-Arts, Dijon. © Web Gallery of Art.

Last month, I participated in a workshop on historical black dyes in the Netherlands, titled ”Burgundian Black Collaboratory”, co-organised by Jenny Boulboullè from the ERC ARTECHNE Research group and Claudy Jongstra—a talented and creative textile artist working on historical wool fibres and natural dyes—in collaboration with Natalia Ortega-Saez, and the Museum Hof van Busleyden.  Led by Jenny and hosted by Claudy on her farm in Hùns, I and the rest of the group spent three days in a green house in the Dutch countryside, trying out recipes and testing how ’a perfect Burgundian black’, once seen as the utmost civic and professional colour, could be created by using historical dye recipes. The aim of the workshop was to provide material for the planned exhibition at the Museum Hof van Busleyden, and an e-book project, edited by Jenny Boulboullé and Sven Dupré.

 

 

Black is the most difficult colour to dye, because it washes out easily and degrades faster than other colours. Given the complexity and expense related to dyeing black, historical recipe books are full of black dye recipes, from simple and cheap procedures that could be applied by men and women at home to complex and expensive recipes that required professional skill and economic capital.

In the ‘Burgundian Black Collaboratory’, we worked in groups to test these recipes, using Flemish and Italian sources, including the Venetian Plichto by Rosetti (1548), which is the first known book of dye recipes intended for professional dyers. This allowed us both to explore the process and methodology of reconstructing historical recipes (the recipes are vague and rarely include accurate measures!) as well as to evaluate how well the original recipe might have worked in terms of creating black.

Black was traditionally produced from barks and roots that contain tannins (such as alder, walnut and chestnut). To provide a colour that stayed longer, dyers started combining tannins with iron salts that acted as a mordant. This produced a more beautiful black, but the result was corrosive to the fabric.

A better -but much more expensive and complicated – way to achieve black colour was to use a madder and woad base overdyed with tannins such as gall nuts. By the late sixteenth century, the best-known method to get a beautiful, deep black was to dip the silk or wool first in either a woad or indigo bath that gave the cloth a beautiful blue undertone, and then, when the fabric was dry, to overdye the fabric with madder (red dye) on an alum mordant.

The challenges of reconstruction, and the great differences between recipes of black, became well visualized and materialised in the results.  Some did not turn black at all, others were initially black but turned brown overnight when they were dry, while others were just beautifully deep black. These differences were due to the fact that some recipes did not provide as precise instructions as others, they were misleading, or they simply did not work.

The fascination and interest of dyers over black reflects the fact that black was an ultimate colour of power, status and fashion in early modern Europe. By the end of sixteenth century, it was essential for young men of wealthy families to have their portraits painted in black.  

Although deep, sumptuous blacks with blue, purple or red undertones are usually associated only with the elites and merchant classes, black was, in fact, the most important colour also in clothing of our ordinary artisans and shopkeepers.  Our initial data shows that, for example in Siena between 1550–1650, whenever colour was mentioned, 25% of all male and female clothing consisted of garments dyed with different types of blacks, including jackets, breeches, over-gowns among others.

 

Recipes for dyeing black, intended for domestic use by ordinary people, were available also for our artisan groups through cheap printed pamphlets and booklets that were sold at a cheap price by, for example, street peddlers. One of the recurring recipes for home-based black dyeing, described ‘for women after they have spun their yarn’, was prepared by boiling oak gall with a small amount of copper sulphate and Arabic gum -the latter which was added to give the black a degree of lustre. While this might have produced a reasonably beautiful black colour, the copper made the woollen yarn weak. For this reason, professional wool dyers, at least in Venice, were forbidden by their guild to use this method.

We will be experimenting with the Refashioning the Renaissance team with domestic dyeing and colour, and investigating what kinds of blacks among other colours our artisans wore, what these looked like and how durable these were.

Please keep an eye on Michele’s forthcoming talk and article on how to use printed sources as evidence for the history of lower-class dress, on Sophie’s dye experiment during our forthcoming trip to Colombia University’s Making and Knowing Project, and my forthcoming articles on Colour, on red dyes, and the social and culture meanings of black in sixteenth and seventeenth century European fashions.


Literature:

Susan Kay-Williams, The Story of Colour in Textiles: Imperial Purple to Denim Blue (Bloomsbury, 2013).

Natalia Ortega Saez, Black dyed wool in North Western Europe 1680- 1850: The relationship between Historical Recipes and the Current state of preservation (unpublished PhD. dissertation submitted for University of Antwerpen, 2018).

Dominique Cardon, Natural Dyes: Sources, Tradition, Technology and Science (Archetype Publications, 2003).

Elizabeth Currie, Fashion and Masculinity in Renaissance Florence (Bloomsbury, 2016).

Riikka Räisänenm Anja Primetta, Kirsi Niinimäki, Luonnonväriaineet (Maahenki 2015).

How can we gain access to the hidden meanings and complexities that lie behind historical objects and documents?

The first Refashioning the Renaissance workshop in London, 2-4 October 2018

How can we use written sources, extant objects, and historical hands-on experimentation, to gain access to the meanings and complexities that lie behind historical objects and documents?

This was one of the main questions that our team discussed at length when we gathered together in London in October for a two-day workshop, organized by our postdoc researcher Michele Robinson. During the two days, we not only looked at our documentary sources, including sixteenth century account books and inventories, discussing how we can best combine quantification with qualitative research. We also thought about how we can connect our documentary data with surviving objects, such as cheap printed recipe books, knitted pullovers and linen undergarments, and use these as a basis for our forthcoming material experimentation and scientific analysis. Therefore, one of the important questions we asked in this session was, what can we actually learn by simply looking at and touching material objects, such as such as sixteenth-century printed advice manuals or a pair of early seventeenth century sailor’s breeches?

Because we are very interested in cheap early modern printed manuals that provided advice on a range of topics, from how to throw a dinner party to how to dye one’s beard black, the Wellcome Collection in London was a perfect place to start. The Institute holds a notable collection of sixteenth and seventeenth century printed books, including books of secret that contain recipes.

One of the books that we studied was Opera nuova nella quale troverai molti bellissimi secreti, a collection of cheap pamphlets from Venice from about 1540s. Although these small leaflets are now bound together as a book, cheap instructive pamphlets were originally sold individually by street peddlers and book sellers at a low price, and these were, as we can see in the picture below, of different size. The low cost and status of such pamphlets meant that such recipes and instructions were, at least in theory, easily available for our artisans and shopkeepers.

Turning the fragile pages of this simple book revealed small details of tear and wear, and demonstrated that small hand-written inscriptions and notes had been added on the margins of the pages. Although we do not know how books of secret were originally used, this gave a sense that at least some people, at some point in history of these pamphlets, has tested and used these particular recipes. 

On the second day of our workshop, we had the opportunity to spend an afternoon at the Museum of London storeroom together with the curator Timothy Long, and to engage closely with some extant, less-affluent historical garments from their collections. This allowed us to study in close detail, for example, how a simple sixteenth-century sleeve was constructed, in what way a cap was knitted, lined and fulled, and how a sailor mended his own clothes and marked his breeches with initials or his personal sign. It is sometimes touching to see patched modest garments, and to think about how our artisans and shopkeepers, some of which were relatively poor, may have worn, made and mended these garments, treasured these for their monetary value or beauty, or handed them down as bequests in their wills.

Curator Timothy Long presenting some of the early modern textile objects in the Museum of London collection.

What made these two days very special was that Professor John Styles, who is a member of our advisory board, joined us for the entire two days, and shared his experience and valuable insights about how to combine documentary research with object-based analysis and hands-on experimentation. We were also accompanied, for the first time, by our new postdoc researcher Sophie Pitman. Sophie has been working on historical reconstruction in the Making and Knowing project at Columbia University in New York, and she will lead the experimental part of our team work from January onwards.

John Styles and Michele Robinson.

Sophie Pitman, Mattia Viale, and Stefania Montemezzo.

The two day-workshop was extremely important for our project, because it provided us with some new in-depth insights and inspiration about how we at the Refashioning the Renaissance project can approach documentary sources alongside historical objects, and use them as a basis for material and digital reconstruction and hands-on experiments, which we will start in January 2019.

Our deep interest in the analysis and reconstruction of materials, techniques and objects, alongside visual and documentary sources, connects our work with the research tradition developed in several other international research centres and projects, such as the Netherlands-based ERC-funded project ARTECHNE, led by Sven Dupré, the Making and Knowing Project in Columbia, led by Pamela Smith, the Centre for British Art in Yale, led by Amy Meyers, and the Renaissance Skin Project, led by Evelyn Welch, all of which work, in different ways, at the intersection of craft, art and design history, and history. Our intention is to continue our work within this tradition, and to think about how we can further develop this historical approach by connecting historical experimentation with digital reconstruction. This framework, we hope, will allow to establish a set of new methodologies in material culture history studies that allows us to gain better access to the skills, sophistication and hidden meanings that were involved with objects, materials and techniques in this period.

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.