As part of the V&A/RCA History of Design MA course, during 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, conservators and tutors, students recreate early modern recipes to reflect on practices of making and the nature of artisan knowledge and skill.
The Thinking and Experiencing ‘Techne’ course is a satellite project of the ‘Making and Knowing’ project based at Columbia University, in New York, and this year was also a collaboration with the V&A’s Robert H. Smith Scholar in Residence, Dr. Spike Bucklow, from the Hamilton Kerr Institute. For more details on the workshops see News & Events at the RCA.
Following on from the previous blog post, in which History of Design students Dani Trew, Mariana Lima, Mia Spampinato, Elif Uluca and Karen Morton discussed the first steps in recreating a fifteenth-century recipe for azurite pigment, here they describe the final stages of this process.
A mineral often used in the early modern period to create blue pigment, azurite is the result of the weathering of copper ore deposits. As azurite is often found mixed with malachite, Cennino Cennini’s fifteenth-century recipe explains how to separate them to create azurite pigment. Firstly, the mineral rocks are ground until they are reduced to a very fine powder. Some water is then added to the mixture and the resulting paste is ground again, until it reaches the right consistency (see more on this process here).
The next step is to separate the azurite from the malachite in water. This is achieved by rhythmically swirling the liquid and pouring off the malachite into another container without losing any of the azurite at the bottom. The repetition of the whirling motion and the tacit and embodied understanding of when to stop and start pouring proved to be both meditative, giving an insight into the physical and symbolic properties of the material, and also – many of us found – deeply addictive.
It is possible to separate the minerals as the malachite is hydrophilic and dissolves in water, while the azurite sinks to the bottom. The term ‘hydrophilic’ 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 Aristotelian theories about the elements of earth, water, air, and fire.
In the Aristotelian paradigm, an earth element becoming water is part of a complementary process that is both cold and gaseous. Within the medieval belief system, these qualities also had gendered and spiritual meanings: coldness was associated with femininity and gas was linked with the heavens. Similarly, as Spike Bucklow notes in The Riddle of the Image (2014), 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, 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 prosaic in comparison with ultramarine, which chemically, geographically, economically and spiritually denoted exotic lands and the entry into heaven.
Our understanding of the pigment, its application and its temporal behaviour was enhanced by close analysis of fifteenth-century polychromy from the V&A’s sculpture collection. We were able to observe how pigment was applied to wooden carvings in relation to other colours and on different figures, and how the pigments have reacted to their surroundings. We found that many of the pieces painted with azurite that we examined had turned black over time.
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 while historically contextualising its application through object analysis made for an incredibly rich and stimulating experience. Fellow students Jekaterina Potasova and Mia Spampinato made a short film of the experimental lab class.
To see what else V&A/RCA History of Design students have been up to, check our pages on the V&A and RCA websites and take a look at Un-Making Things, a student-run online platform for all things design history and material culture.