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What happened to the clothing? A case study of a glazier family

On a fall day the 15 October 1591, the worldly possessions of the deceased couple, the Elsinore glazier Morten and his wife Kirstine, were divided among their two kids, the son Morten Mortensen, and the daughter Anne Mortensen.[1] Unfortunately the inventory is not clear about whether the father or mother died first, only that their children were entitled to their common goods. [2] As a glazier, Morten worked on windows, and owned for example a casket with candles, a tool for rolling lead mullions for windows, and a chest and another box with glass ‘whole and half panes’.[3]

Glazier, woodcut artist Jost Amman Das Ständebuch, 1568. SLUB / Deutsche Fotothek / DDZ.

Sadly, their son Morten died not long after his parents’ inventory was made, leaving Anne alone at a presumably very young age.[4] We do not know what happened to Anne from the time of her parents’ death to the death of her brother, but we can see from her brother’s inventory that several costs for Anne were listed, indicating that she was taken into care from 12 October 1591 until Christmas, but by whom, and what happened after this, is unknown. Entries also indicate that she had new clothing made: the tailor was paid 2 marks and 4 shillings for two garments and  some mackaye, possibly a mixed woollen fabric that could contain linen, cotton or even silk.[5]

Despite these awful circumstances two rather interesting inventories survive from this family, documenting what happened to the clothing belonging to the parents, not only in terms of why and how it changed hands, but also how the descriptions of the garments changed.[6]  

First page of the common inventory of the parents Morten Glazier and his wife Kirstine.

The clothing of the parents

The apparel of the parents was first distributed to the two children. The heirs for the glazier Morten and his wife were Morten and Anne, represented by their guardians Michell Snøckill and Jørgen Shriffuer, who were responsible for naming the goods. Both children’s lots included numerous items of copper, brass, and pewter, as well as a number of household linens such as sheets, bed linens, and table cloths. The children also inherited all the household’s linen fabrics, adding up to 48 ells (ca. 30 meter) of linen fabric made of flax and 26 ells (ca. 16,3 meter) made from coarser blår (tow). It seems that it was mainly the mother’s clothing that was given to the children; the items Morten received included one woman’s brown kirtle, a black woman’s kirtle and a red skirt. In comparison Anne received a cloak with a velvet trim and a red woman’s kirtle.

Sales, payoffs, and giveaways

Some of Morten and Kirstine’s clothes were also sold, which could be a way of obtaining financial means to benefit the children or to pay for the funeral or the cost for having the inventory made. Father’s outfit, a black kirtle made out of English cloth and a pair of breeches, was bought by a man whose name was Jørgen Lichtt Hartt for 3 daller. He also bought a felted hat for 24 shilling, but since the estate of the glazier and his wife owed him 11 shillings he ended up paying only 13 shillings. But some of the clothing owned by the glazier and his wife was also used to pay people who had provided services to the couple. This included their servant-maids, who were given two of Kirstine’s trøjer (doublets), and a pair of stockings were given to a woman who had watched over ‘the corpse’.[7] Some of the father Morten’s clothes were also bequeathed to close family, for no costs it seems. This was the case with a pair of leather stockings, 2 leather livstøcker (a sleeveless garment worn over the shirt), and a pair of leather breeches which were granted to the children’s grandfather on their mother’s side. Additionally, a cloak, presumably also belonging to the father, was used to make new garments for his children. 

New meanings

When the young Morten died in March 1592 an inventory of his goods was made.[8] This inventory explains how Morten’s guardian sent for his sister’s guardian to collect the goods that he had received from the estate of their parents. Is not clear if Anne received all her brother’s goods, but the objects listed in the inventory drawn up after her parents are listed again, giving us new insights about their appearances and where some of them went after her brother’s death.

Emphasized in brackets were Mortens heirlooms that were inherited from his mother, but now their descriptions had changed slightly, including:  ‘1 black under kirtle, 1 red flesh coloured skirt and ‘1 brown under kirtle without upperpart’.[9]

The inherited clothing highlighted in brackets in the son Morten’s inventory.

Anne’s goods had also changed description: the black cloak was still decorated with velvet trim but instead of just being a kirtle, the red garment was now described as an under kirtle. These changing descriptions in the inventories indicate not only the difficulties of working with dress terminology but also how perceptions of clothing change from viewer to viewer, giving new information on shades of colours and the construction of garments.

Sale of the mother’s kirtles

It is not clear what happened to the red or flesh-coloured skirt belonging to Morten, but we see that two kirtles, presumably the ones he had inherited, had been attacked by moths. They were therefore not useful, and were given to a woman who in turn sold them for 24 shillings. This is an interesting information because it tells us that garments—even in bad condition—could be attractive on the secondhand market.

By investigating two inventories from the same family we are able to follow the many ways in which clothing could be obtained and disseminated into society as heirlooms, sales, gifts, or a way of paying for services. Hopefully further research will reveal more of these interesting cases.


[1] Helsingør byfoged, 1583–1592, 238 r–241 r.

[2] There is unfortunately no information on the time of death, where they lived in town, or the age of the children. 

[3] His tools and materials were left undivided and given to his children. 

[4] The inventory of her parents belongings was made up on 15 October 1591 and the inventory between the son Morten and his sister Anne is dated 10 March 1592.

[5] See e.g. Ulinka Rublack and Maria Hayward, eds., The First Book of Fashion. The Books of Clothes of Matthäus & Veit Konrad Schwarz of Augsburg (London & New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2015)., 400, https://kalkarsordbog.dk/ordbog?aselect=Makejer&query=makej, https://www.saob.se/artikel/?seek=mackejer

[6] On this topic see e.g. Patricia Allerston, ‘Clothing and Early Modern Venetian Society’, Continuity and Change 15, no. 3 (2000): 367–90, who discusses many of the ways clothes could be obtained and distributed in early modern society.

[7] If this was Morten Glazier or his wife is not mentioned.

[8] Helsingør byfoged, 1583–1492, 275 r–277 v.

[9] The inventory of the son Morten in general includes more clothing than he inherited, so we must assume that these were his personal textiles including a linen skjortekrave (shirt collar).

Pharmaceutical Fashion: The Leather Tanner’s Jewellery Box

In The Treasury of Jewels (Venice, 1602, p. 228), Cleandro Arnobio explains that pearls represented many (and contradictory) things:

First, a thing prudently done.
Second, a holy thing.
Third, a thing much desired and a precious and expensive good.
Fourth, a vane and superfluous ornament that should be forbidden to women.
Fifth, an ornament on the gates of heaven

Queen Elizabeth I was well known for her love of pearls, which represented her status as a ruler and well as her great wealth, marine power and purity. Attributed to George Gower, Queen Elizabeth I (The Armada Portrait), c.1588. Oil on oak. Woburn Abbey & Gardens, Woburn, UK.

In fact, perceptions of gems and precious metals more broadly were complex and varied; these goods were beautiful works of nature that could be employed to honour the church, god and rulers but desire for them was also a huge, unnecessary expenditure for secular (and vane) adornment. In addition to glorifying and beautifying sacred and secular bodies, gems and semi-precious stones were also believed to protect and improve the health of those bodies. As Arnobio goes on to explain with respect to pearls, if ground into powder and ingested, they could cure ulcers, clear up sight problems, comfort the heart, staunch flux of the womb and taken with sugar, pearls could help cure pestilential fever (237). Pearls and gems were often ingredients in medieval and early modern medicines for a range of ailments and illnesses. The focus of this blog post, however, is on the health-giving benefits of wearing gems and jewels, like pearls, which were believed to temper the humours so that lust was reduced and chastity bolstered by those who wore them.

Drawer F with samples of materia medica collected by John Francis Vigani, Professor of Chemistry at Cambridge University in 1703-4, including shark’s teeth, pearls, sapphires, jacinth, lapis lazuli, garnets, rubies, topaz and other stones. Queen’s College, Cambridge University.

In particular, we’ll look at some of the jewellery owned by a Sienese leather-tanner, Pietro Paolo de Cheri as described in the inventory drawn up when he died in 1637. This list shows that he and his family members had access to necklaces, bracelets, rings, earrings, rosaries and hat badges that were made from or decorated with amber, jasper, coral, garnets, pearls and other precious materials. These were beautiful and sometimes costly goods that marked the economic and social status of the wearer as well as their age, marital state and religious and political affiliations, but they were also believed to have important health benefits that offered care and protection from harm and illnesses. Importantly, these kinds of objects and materials were just one way of supplementing other methods of protecting and defending individual and familial health, such as amulets, medicine, devotional practices and keeping one’s body, home and the air clean.

One lovely example in Pietro Paolo’s inventory is ‘a little amber rosary with fifteen silver buttons’. Rosaries were used by the faithful to keep track of their prayers, with beads of one size or material to mark the recitation of the Hail Mary, often punctuated at intervals of ten with a bead of a different material or larger in size, which signalled a different prayer was to be recited, usually the Our Father. In Pietro Paolo’s rosary, the amber beads marked the Hail Marys and the silver beads probably marked the Our Fathers, but these materials—amber in particular—were also important to prayer and maintaining good health.

Amber beads on a string of unidentified fibre, date unknown (medieval?). 65 x 114mm. Museum of London.

Amber – fossilized tree resin – largely came from the Baltic Sea in this period and was (and still is) valued for its beauty, rarity and its perceived powers. It can be shaped and polished, and was used for handles for cutlery, made into cups and amulets, featured in frames and also used in the form of beads, as with the leather-tanner’s rosary. It is especially suited to objects that are handled, as amber warms up through touch, and this warmth helps to release a scent into the air and the hands. This was important as part of religious practice and experience, but the smell produced was also believed to help purify the air and protect people against dangers like the plague, as Rachel King has shown. Amber was believed to be such a powerful prophylactic against illness (and a pleasant-smelling perfume), it was also ground and mixed with oil for perfuming gloves and pomanders, and was burned like incense to help clear the air of dangerous smells and spirits.

This pomander would be filled with scented materials like amber and musk pastes. Suspended from a belt, cleansing perfumes followed the wearer, wherever they went. Pomander, 17th century (Italian). Silver, 6.4 × 2.9 cm. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Amber can also take on an electric charge when rubbed vigorously with another material, like wool. Sophie gave a demonstration of this—called the triboelectric effect—in our imitation workshop in March 2020, where a small piece of amber was ‘charged’ and then attracted small bits off of a table top like a magnet. This property was also recognised in the early modern period, leading some to recommend amber be used to draw dangerous substances out of the body. For example, the Belgian physician Johannes van Helmont (1577–1644) suggested rubbing amber on the wrists, temples, insteps and left breast to help prevent illness. As Martha Baldwin has argued, van Helmont believed that the amber, working like a magnet, would draw out from the body the dangerous odours that caused plague.

Pietro Paolo’s amber and silver rosary was not just an object that was beautiful and costly, but that supported religious practice by helping the devout count and keep track of their prayers. The feeling of the warmed amber beads and smell they released would add to the devotional experience, but also helped to purify the air of dangerous and even deadly smells and substances, helping to keep the believer safe and healthy.

Jasper was a material also praised for its beauty and usefulness in texts on minerals and gems, but unlike amber, it rarely appears in the inventories of artisans’ homes gathered for this project. Pietro Paolo, though, was one of the few people from our documents in possession of jasper, of which he had four pieces alongside some bits of coral. It’s not clear if these were just loose pieces, if they had been shaped, polished or treated in another way or what they were intended to be used for. The inventory also does not make clear what colour the jasper pieces were, as this opaque material could be found in a range of colours and combinations. Notably, the jasper does not seem to have been set in silver, the material recommended by contemporary writers for boosting jasper’s virtues, which include curing fever and dropsy (edema), allaying lust, encouraging conception, aiding childbirth, making the wearer virtuous and staunching bloody flux (dysentery). This was quite a useful and powerful material!

This intaglio shows just one type of jasper, which can range in colour and opacity. In the early modern period, the most highly esteemed was green jasper with red striations. Adoration of the Shepherds, ca. 1500 (Northern Italian). Jasper and silver, diameter: 51 mm. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Much more common in artisan households and jewellery boxes were items featuring coral. In addition to the pieces that Pietro Paolo the leather-tanner had, he was also in possession of six coral necklaces: two featured coral beads and baroque pearls, three with just coral beads and one that combined coral, gold and stone beads. All the pieces except this last necklace are described as being ‘for girls’ and coral was believed to be particularly useful for keeping young people safe in this period. Early modern portraits of children sometimes show them wearing necklaces or bracelets of coral beads as well as coral branches, as it was believed the material would protect them from both witches and epilepsy. The Christ Child is also at times represented wearing coral beads and branches, and the material was, through its red colour, linked to the blood of Christ and redemption, giving it religious significance and power.

Here the Christ Child wears a necklace of coral beads and from which a branch of coral is suspended. Giorgio di Tomaso Schiavone, Madonna and Child with Angels, 1459-60. Oil on panel, 69 x 56.7 cm. The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore.

This example of a Carved pieces of coral mounted in expensive enamelled gold were owned not by leather-tanners or other artisans, but wealthy and elite families (or the Christ Child). Carved coral amulet for a baby, mounted in enamelled gold filigree, possibly Italy, ca.1600. Height: 6.3 cm, Width: 2.7 cm, Depth: 2.2 cm. Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Adults, too, wore coral, especially women, as it was believed to help issues with menstruation, again due to its colour, as well as issues with the heart, stomach, intestines and gums. It was also believed that red coral would turn pale when touching the flesh of a person that had been poisoned, due to the vapours released through the pores of the skin. So, although a different result than with amber, physical touch was a key means by which coral could positively impact health.

An image of a young peasant woman from Chioggia, described as wearing a necklace of pretty coral beads in Cesare Vecellio’s costume book of 1590. Cesare Vecellio, De gli habiti antichi, e moderni di diverse parti del mondo libri due (Venice: Damian Zenaro, 1590), 150v.

Like coral, it was believed that carbuncles—red gemstones like garnets—would become pale if worn against the skin of a person who had ingested poison. Although not as common as pearls, coral or turquoise in the homes and jewellery boxes of artisans, garnets seem to have been fairly popular with this social group. They may have offered an affordable alternative to much more costly rubies, and there are twice the number of garnets versus rubies listed in the project’s inventories. There are also quite a lot of artisans with rings with ‘red stones’ that perhaps were intended to look like rubies or garnets; contemporary writers note that many tried to counterfeit carbuncles using glass pastes or coloured foils layered between pieces of rock crystal and the stone, which were hard to detect when set in rings.

Most often the garnets that appear in artisans’ inventories seem to have been worn in the form of beads strung alongside gold buttons, pearls and sometimes turquoise in necklaces and bracelets. This is the form the garnets in Pietro Paolo’s inventory took and he owned two necklaces of little garnets and gold beads. As these would likely rest against the skin, the garnet beads would, in theory, signal if the wearer had ingested poison. Additionally, this gemstone was believed to ‘gladden the heart and send away sadness’, and to ‘defend those who wore it against the plague’, as Ludovico Dolce described in his translation of a Latin lapidary into Italian in 1565 (26r).

In the inventories collected for the Refashioning the Renaissance project, garnets and pearls were often strung together in necklaces and bracelets; however, they also appear together as decorative elements in earrings and rings, as in this example. Enamelled gold fede ring, with a lozenge shaped bezel set with pearls surrounding an almandine garnet engraved with clasped hands, the back of the bezel engraved with a red flower, with later Roman mark for gold (1815-70), made in Italy c. 1640-60. Height: 2.8 cm, Width: 2.3 cm, Depth: 1.7 cm. Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

As I mentioned above, garnets in our inventories appear frequently strung alongside pearls, though this was not the case for Pietro Paolo’s collection of jewellery. Instead he owned a necklace of baroque pearls on two strings interspersed with black buttons, two pairs of necklaces of coral mixed with baroque pearls (mentioned above) and some earrings, bracelets and a medallion for a hat band all decorated with pearls. And it wasn’t just the leather-tanner, but many other artisans owned pieces of jewellery and accessories decorated with pearls; this gem can be found much more frequently than any other in the inventories gathered for this project. Like other precious materials, pearls were valued for their beauty, rarity and associations with purity. But they were also believed to have health benefits such as preventing fainting, problems with the heart and dysentery, as well as improving eye sight. Although the best way to benefit from pearls was to actually ingest them—pulverised seed pearls and other gems were a common ingredient in medieval and early modern electuaries—they also provided some health benefits when they were worn, as Cleandro Arnobio argued with respect to chastity.

This recipe to prevent death from the plague calls for ‘white pearls’ to be mixed with other ingredients including deer antler, camphor and sugar; pearls and other gems were common ingredients in contemporary medicines for a variety of ailments. [Girolamo Ruscelli, De’ Secreti del reverendo donno Alessio Piemontese, prima parte…. (Venice, 1563), 51v.

One of my favourite descriptions of the prophylactic power of a gem is that for jacinth (also called hyacinth) given by Girolamo Cardano. He explains that, ‘it fends off the plague, which strikes mainly through fear and through weakness of the heart, and hyacinth abolishes both’ (369). Although the artisans studied as part of the Refashioning the Renaissance project did not own jewellery or accessories decorated with this reddish-orange gem, they often owned others that were believed to offer defence against a variety of dangers. Amber, jasper, coral, garnets, pearls and many other precious materials not discussed here provided wearers with not just a fashionable look, but together with clean linens, saying one’s prayers and sanitising the air perhaps offered some reassurance in times of illness. Although fear may not be the cause of illnesses, we know today it does negatively impact the immune system, so as a source of reassurance and hope, gems and jewels surely did support good health.

Ring with intaglio in jacinth showing the head of Minerva, seventeenth century. British Museum, London.


Works cited and recommended further reading:

The inventory of Pietro Paolo de Cheri’s homes and workshop can be found at the Archivio di Stato Siena, Curia del Placito, b. 280, f. 65, 1637, fol. 20v-26v; all of the jewellery is listed on fol. 23r.

Giovanni-Maria Bonardo, La minera del mondo, … divisa in 4 libri, (etc.) (Fabio Zoppjni, 1589), 22v and Lodovico Dolce, Libri tre ne i quali si tratta delle diverse sorti delle gemme che produce la Natura (etc.) (Venice: Gio. Battista Marchio Seisa, 1565).

Martha R. Baldwin, “Toads and Plague: Amulet Therapy in Seventeenth-Century Medicine,” Bulletin of the History of Medicine 67, no. 2 (1993): 227–47.

Girolamo Cardano, The De Subtilitate of Girolamo Cardano, ed. and trans. J. M. Forrester, vol. I (Tempe, Ariz: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2013).

Sandra Cavallo and Tessa Storey, Healthy Living in Late Renaissance Italy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014).

John Cherry, “Healing through Faith: The Continuation of Medieval Attitudes to Jewellery into the Renaissance,” Renaissance Studies 15, no. 2 (2001): 154–71.

Maya Corry, Deborah Howard, and Mary Laven, eds., Madonnas and Miracles: The Holy Home in Renaissance Italy (London; New York: Philip Wilson Publishers, 2017).

Anselm De Boodt, Lapidary or, The History of Pretious Stones, trans. Thomas Nicols (Cambridge: Thomas Buck, 1652).

Lodovico Dolce, Libri tre ne i quali si tratta delle diverse sorti delle gemme che produce la Natura (etc.)(Venice: Gio. Battista Marchio Seisa, 1565), 45r. Giovanni-Maria Bonardo (conte), La minera del mondo, … divisa in 4 libri, (etc.) (Fabio Zoppjni, 1589).

Christopher J. Duffin, “The Gem Electuary,” Geological Society, London, Special Publications 375, no. 1 (2013): 81–111.

Marieke Hendriksen, “The Repudiation and Persistence of Lapidary Medicine in Eighteenth-Century Dutch Medicine and Pharmacy,” in Gems in the Early Modern World, ed. Michael Bycroft and Sven Dupré (Cham: Springer International Publishing, 2019), 197–220.

Rachel King, “‘The Beads with Which we Pray Are Made from It’: Devotional Ambers in Early Modern Italy”, inReligion and the Senses in Early Modern Europe, edited by Wietse de Boer and Christine Göttler (Leiden & Boston: Brill, 2013), 153–176.

Jacqueline Marie Musacchio, “Lambs, Coral, Teeth, and the Intimate Intersection of Religion and Magic in Renaissance Tuscany,” in Images, Relics, and Devotional Practices in Medieval and Renaissance Italy, ed. Sally J. Cornelison and Scott B. Montgomery (Tempe: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2006), 139–56.

James E. Shaw and Evelyn S. Welch, Making and Marketing Medicine in Renaissance Florence, (Amsterdam; New York: Rodopi, 2011).

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