As part of the V&A/RCA History of Design MA course, in the spring term students have the chance to explore early modern making techniques as a form of historical research through practice. With the support of V&A curators and tutors, students have an opportunity to recreate early modern recipes, and reflect on practices of making, and the nature of artisan knowledge and skill.
Thinking and Experiencing Techne is a satellite project of the ‘Making and Knowing’ project based at Columbia University, in New York, and this year was also a cooperation with the V&A’s Robert H. Smith scholar in Residence Dr. Spike Bucklow, from the Hamilton Kerr Institute.
Students reflect on making Azurite pigment, the first of a series of experiments, in V&A blog posts which can be found here.
Azurite in the Early Modern by Dani Trew, film by Jekaterina Potasova and Mia Spampinato
Azurite has been used as a pigment since antiquity. In Cennino Cennini’s fifteenth century description of it in The Craftsman’s Handbook, he states that it ‘exists in and around the vein of silver’ and that it ‘occurs extensively in Germany’. This comment refers to the practice of harvesting the mineral from silver mines in Saxony from the twelfth century onwards. Azurite (Cu3(CO3)2(OH)2), is a copper carbonate which is chemically unstable and often undergoes a process of oxidization so that the surface becomes malachite (Cu(OH)2-CuCO3). While azurite is a deep blue, malachite is a bright green and when ground together a pale turquoise pigment is made. Cennini’s recipe for making azurite pigment, is essentially a guide to separating the azurite from the malachite, or as he calls it, bringing it ‘to perfection’.
Cennini tells the reader that one must grind the rock into a powder and add water but that this must be done ‘very moderately and lightly, because it is very scornful of the stone.’ This has been interpreted by D. V. Thompson as a warning against grinding the mineral too much, which would increase the ‘the reflecting surface and resultant scattering of light’, making the colour paler and less vibrant. When we carried out a reconstruction of the recipe, we experimented with grinding the rock to different degrees of fineness. It became clear that there is a perfect particle size which provides a vibrancy of colour while also allowing the malachite and azurite to disaggregate, it would, however, be difficult to convey the ideal size textually to someone who had never carried out the process before.
The separation of the two minerals in water relies on the malachite being hydrophilic and dissolving into the water while the azurite does not and sinks to the bottom. The term ‘hydrophillic’ is the modern scientific term for a chemical process which relies on a material being ‘water loving’ and the word and concept are rooted in the Aristotelian elemental philosophy of fire, air, water and earth. In the Aristotelian paradigm, the process of an earth element becoming water is a complimentary process which is both cold and gaseous. Within the medieval meaning system, these qualities also have gendered and spiritual meanings, with coldness associated with femininity and gas associated with the heavens. Similarly, as Spike Bucklow notes in The Riddle of the Image, copper (azurite is a copper carbonate) was also connected with femininity and Venus the goddess of love. As a result, azurite was widely used for depictions of the celestial realm and the Virgin Mary which can be seen in wooden sculptures, panel and canvas paintings during the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance. It should be noted, however, that while Azurite was celestial and feminine, it was decidedly terrestrial and prosaic in comparison to ultramarine which chemically, geographically, economically and spiritually denoted exotic lands and the entry into heaven.
The process of separating the azurite from the malachite in water is achieved through the rhythmic whirling and pouring off the liquid malachite into different containers without pouring away the azurite at the bottom. The repetition of the whirling motion and the tacit and embodied knowledge of when to start and stop pouring is both meditative, giving one insight into the physical and symbolic properties of the material, and also – as many of us found – deeply addictive.
Our understanding of the pigment, its application and its temporal behaviour was enhanced by close observation of fifteenth century polychromy from the V&A’s sculpture collection. We were able to observe how pigment was applied to the wooden carving in relation to other colours and on different figures, and how the pigments reacted to their surroundings over time. A patch of Azurite on the sculpture had, for example, turned black.
Over the course of the day we learnt a great deal about the medieval meaning system and how this was connected to artisanal knowledge. Embodying the process of making Azurite pigment along with historically contextualising its application through object analysis made for an incredibly rich and stimulating experience.
Making Azurite Pigment by Mariana Lima, Mia Spampinato, Elif Uluca, and Karen Morton.