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Set in Stone: A Seventeenth Century Water Flask and the Imitation of Nature in Early Modern Europe

Hannah Lee

 

Swirls of white break the surface of this seemingly simple water flask, housed within the British galleries of the V&A. Made from eathernware the museum’s online catalogue informs us that this was an instance of when ‘unexpectedly humble objects were often traded between countries[1].’ Made in Northern Italy at some point in the first half of the seventeenth century, it would appear to have been designed with practicality in mind. It’s shape allows it to be hung about the body, around the neck or the shoulder, the heavier bottom allowing it to hang in a stable way; its evident portability suggesting that it could perhaps have been used by agricultural workers.

Flask, Earthernware, Northern Italy, 1600-1650, V&A, Museum Number: 305- 1876. Image © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Flask, Earthernware, Northern Italy, 1600-1650, V&A, Museum Number: 305- 1876. Image © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

The marbling effect which covers the surface of the bottle is described in the catalogue entry as an attempt to somehow ‘upgrade’ this object. Bringing a relatively simple element of decoration to the piece through the integration of the two colours of clay which were available. However one might question whether this attempt by the craftsmen, probably producing large numbers of flasks of this shape, was purely a question of aesthetics. Indeed it could be argued that this imitation of natural materials in their work placed them within a discourse of natural philosophy and the relation of man to the natural world usually restricted by history to the elites of society.

What is certainly true is that this object sits within a wider picture of the imitation of minerals and gemstones within different crafts of the period. Perhaps the most celebrated originates from the glass workshops of Murano in Venice, where artisans as early as 1450 perfected what came to be known as calcedonio glassware, named after the naturally occurring hardstone chalcedony. Unlike the developments made in the production of cristallo ware where craftsmen achieved a finish of greater clarity in the attempt to imitate rock crystal, calcedonio was all about the expert fusing of different coloured glass to produce an effect which mirrored the striped or banded layers in stones such as agates or sardonyx.

Jug, Calcedonio glass, Venice, Italy, 1500-1525, V&A, Museum Number: 5575-1859. Image © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Jug, Calcedonio glass, Venice, Italy, 1500-1525, V&A, Museum Number: 5575-1859. Image © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

This was not solely limited to the glass industry however, as our earthenware flaks demonstrates, indeed as we move into the eighteenth century a trend developed within English potteries for the production of agate ware, with objects such as tea services formed from multiple different coloured clays to produce the effect of a banded gemstone or marble. Sheets of coloured clay were cut and rolled together to produce this finish, much like the millefiore effect in glass, the unpredictable patterns they produced echoing the work of nature. Yet it was an expensive process and would become all but obsolete by 1760.

However whilst these techniques demonstrate the enduring popularity for objects which imitated the aesthetic effects of hardstones, the question as to what drove this fashion still remains. It could be argued that the choice of this decorative effect was not solely about producing an object pleasing for the eye or the reproduction of the more expensive material of stone with its connotations of luxury and status.

Bottle, Venice, Italy, 1500-1525, V&A, Museum Number: 5301-1901. Image © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Bottle, Venice, Italy, 1500-1525, V&A, Museum Number: 5301-1901. Image © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Indeed it could be suggested that the reproduction of stone in other crafts was a an attempt on the behalf of the early modern craftsman to demonstrate his understanding of the creative powers of nature, to which he saw his own skills and processes of making inextricably connected Pamela H. Smith discusses in her work the idea that ‘in their knowledge of the behavior of matter, early modern artisans were experts on natural processes.[2]’ Indeed the historian goes on to argue that this was not solely a by-product of their many years of training and refinement of skill but also a central and conscious part of their drive to create stating that ‘when artisans looked to nature, they were interested, not surprisingly, in its powers of generation and transformation, for they themselves worked with the materials of nature and struggled to manipulate and control them in order to produce objects.[3]’

One particular craftsman for whom the ideas surrounding the generation of colour in nature is particularly evident in both his physical works and writings was the ceramicist Bernard Palissy. “It is impossible to imitate anything whatsoever in Nature without first having studied her effects, taking her as both pattern and example[4]”, he writes in his Admirable Discourses, published in 1580. More than perhaps any other craftsman of the sixteenth century, Palissy has been heralded for the manner in which his work expresses the relationship between the work of the artisan and the processes of nature, dispelling the opinion of many scholars on the division between the work of the hand and the work of the mind.

Tea Pot, Solid agate ware with lead glaze, Satffordshire, England, 1740-50, V&A, Museum Number: 151:1, 2-1874. Image © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Tea Pot, Solid agate ware with lead glaze, Satffordshire, England, 1740-50, V&A, Museum Number: 151:1, 2-1874. Image © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

This was clearly an idea that influenced Palissy’s craft, and can be seen demonstrated in the small oval shaped medallion dating from around 1570; this piece of earthenware is unglazed and is suggestive of the sense of experimentation in techniques for which Palissy is well known. The swirling colours which decorate the surface are reminiscent of the layers and veins of colour found within a cross section of marble.

What Palissy’s work demonstrates is that, as a craftsman, his interest lay not only in imitating the natural world aesthetically, perfecting to close verisimilitude the shades of colour visible in minerals, flora and fauna, but also in the organic processes through which those colours came to form. For historians Palissy is an invaluable example and insight into the work of a craftsman and the thought process behind his work, yet he ought not to be dismissed as an anomaly purely because of his high profile and body of written work.

Ceramic Oval, experiment in recreating marble effect, Bernard Palissy, c.1579, Musée national de la Renaissance, Écouen, France. Image © Hannah Lee, 2014.

Ceramic Oval, experiment in recreating marble effect, Bernard Palissy, c.1579, Musée national de la Renaissance, Écouen, France. Image © Hannah Lee, 2014.

The name of the creator who made earthenware flask with which this article opened has not survived the centuries, nor has the material trace of their work achieved the levels of fame of Palissy however we ought not to dismiss the idea that they too might have been driven by this same desire to connect their own work to the creative forces in nature and demonstrate their understanding of its processes of formation.

Palissy’s works formed the centre pieces of the collections of the elite all over Europe, demonstrative of their desire to be seen to be interested in the abundant and exotic wonders of nature and her processes. It could be argued that what objects such as these show is that perhaps these ideas were not confined by the doors of the wunderkammer; not solely restricted to the elite but explored at more levels of society than scholars have previously imagined.

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[1] http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O77541/flask-unknown/

[2] Pamela H Smith, The Body of the Artisan: Art and Experience in the Scientific Revolution, The University of Chicago Press, (Chicago & London, 2004), p.7

[3] Ibid, p.16

[4] Bernard Palissy, cited by Hanna Rose Shell, ‘Ceramic Nature’ in Eds. Ursula Klein and E. C. Spary, Materials and Expertise in Early Modern Europe: Between Market and Laboratory, The University of Chicago Press, (Chicago & London, 2010), p.50

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Hannah Lee –

Hannah did her BA in History at Oxford University where she specialized in cultural history of the Renaissance. Her research interests include the material histories of trade and currency and gender. She is currently working on a dissertation which focuses on the material portrayal of Africans by Europeans in sculpture and jewellery.

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© Hannah Lee, 2014. All Rights Reserved.

 

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