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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.

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!