Colombian craftmanship under the digital microscope: Barniz de Pasto flasks

November 8, 2022

Recently I welcomed Senior Conservator Dana Melchar to the V&A Science Lab, to look closely at the most colourful little objects. Three small barniz de Pasto flasks, originating from what is modern-day Colombia, are preciously decorated with birds, animals, and flowers, in colours on a glossy black ground.

Three richly decorated flasks made from gourds
The three Barniz de Pasto flasks (from left to right, museum nos 28-1866, 268-1879 and 1577-1902)

The flasks are made of the round end of a gourd and decorated with mopa mopa, a translucent resin obtained from the leaf buds of Elaeagia pastoensis Mora, a tree that grows in the mountainous, tropical rain forests of southwest Colombia.

The gourds being examined under a microscope
The flask under the digital microscope. The image on the right shows the rotary head adaptor.

While I could already admire the vibrant and imaginative decoration with the naked eye, the finest details of the decoration can only be fully appreciated under a microscope. For this purpose, I used a Hirox digital microscope on a portable flexible arm and a range of lenses that gave me access to different magnifications and light settings.

Close-up from the unicorn on flask 28-1866 and the bird on flask 268-1879, showing details of the surface and the location of missing decorative items originally embedded there.

Polarised light illumination allowed me to reduce the reflection of the light and enhance the finest features, capturing the details of the glossy surface, including the decorative infills and small areas of damage due to usage age.

Details from flask 1577-1902, imaged with polarised light.

The digital microscope also allowed me to record 360° observation videos, by using a rotary head adaptor. The videos give the opportunity to appreciate the finest modelling of the decorative items on the flasks’ surfaces.

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To find out more about these wonderful objects, join us in person or online at the ‘Lacquer in the Americas’ conference, on the 13 and 14 April 2023 at the V&A, or read the soon-to-be published multidisciplinary publication, available open access on MDPI Heritage, in English and Spanish.

About the author

November 8, 2022

I am currently the Conservation Scientist at the Victoria and Albert Museum. I obtained a B.Sc. (University of Perugia) in 2010 and M.Sc. (University of Parma) in 2016 in Sciences...

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