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First Workshop of the Materialized Identitites group, Cambridge, 6th – 7th October 2016

The first workshop of our research group Materialized Identities: Objects, Affects and Effects in Early Modern Culture, 1450–1750 took place in Cambridge on 6th and 7th October 2016. It is the first of a series of workshops that will foster the researchers’ discussions by linking them with further experts of the fields. Organised by Ulinka Rublack and Stefan Hanß, we had joint discussions with Prof Deborah Howard (author of a number of books on Renaissance Venice such as Venice and the East or Venice Disputed) and Dr Spike Bucklow (author of The Alchemy of Paint, The Riddle of the Image and Red) at St John’s College and the Hamilton Kerr Institute. Furthermore, we had the opportunity of a handling session with feather objects and Venetian glass with research assistant Helen Ritchie at The Fitzwilliam Museum.

The workshop addressed the research group’s four focuses on early modern objects: glass, gold, veils and feathers. In regard to Venetian glass, one of the most prestigious experts on Renaissance Venice, Prof Deborah Howard, presented a paper with a rich prismatic approach. She shed light on the history of Venetian glass from a large variety of angles by contextualising it with Renaissance art, diplomacy, domestic life, politics, science, technology and trade. Particular emphasis lay on the myth of secrecy that encircles the historiography of Venetian glass. Deborah Howard especially underlined the links between the material properties of the substance and the cultural contexts of Renaissance Venice. The transparency of glass and its capacity to mirror and capture its surrounding colours resonated with the taste of light and colour tints in the Lagoon City and with the appreciation of material surfaces that reflected and permeated colours, which is also characteristic of the appearance of Venetian buildings. Besides the focus on mimesis, Deborah Howard addressed the glassmakers’ talent to use artisanal skills in order to imitate nature and even surpass its beauty with their mastery. As the example of crystal glass shows, craftsmen made use of this for presenting inventions in the production of crystal glass, which was considered a skill of its own, that both imitated and emulated rock crystal. Above all, however, the researchers jointly discussed their archival findings.

Though veiling has been a common phenomenon in early modern Europe, actual veils are only rarely preserved. It is thus even more important to study the visual representation of veils and practices of veiling. Under the direction of Dr Spike Bucklow, the research group had the unique opportunity to examine a fascinating portrait of Elizabeth I, which is part of a private collection and currently at the Hamilton Kerr Institute for restoration purposes. The veiled monarch was painted around 1590. Even though the face of Elizabeth has suffered some damage throughout the last centuries, the veil is in a surprisingly good condition. The delicate and elaborate depiction of this thin and transparent piece of clothing is stunning. Painted with a rather dry brush, similar to putting up make-up, the veil evokes an incredible depth in spite of or because of its transparency. The close study of this painting was a chance to debate the interaction of imitatio and aemulatio as well as the materiality of veils and their visual representation. Besides this fascinating painting, Spike Bucklow also drew our attention to further conservation projects that are being carried out by researchers of the Hamilton Kerr Institute.

The workshop then continued with an intriguing hands-on session. Spike Bucklow introduced us to techniques of gilding and decoration which were common during the late medieval and early modern period. One procedure was to attach gold leaf to a flat surface by the use of an Armenian bole. Then, the golden surface can be decorated to create intrinsic patterns made of punchwork or sgrafitto. The pastiglia technique is a modification of this method. The typically low relief decoration is made of layers of gesso which were then covered with gold leaf.

The members of the research group then moved on to their first-hand experience with the agentive qualities of gold leaf. This session has shown the difficulties of working with gold leaf: Picking up a four-finger square gold leaf, a measurement already mentioned by Pliny in his Natural History, was far more challenging that we all had expected. In medieval times a gold leaf was around 1/500mm thick – nowadays it is between 1/7000mm and 1/12000mm per leaf! A fine brush turned out to be the most useful tool for handling gold leaf as its static electricity enabled us to elevate this fragile material from the gilder’s cushion. However, the leaf is so instable that we got the impression that the slightest blast could bring it to vibration. The fragility of the material became evident when we realised that our breath was sufficient in order to attach gold leaf on paper with linseed oil. The hands-on session created an awareness for the training and calm that is needed to apply these demanding artisanal techniques.

We then spent an afternoon at The Fitzwilliam Museum where research assistant Helen Ritchie introduced us to the museum’s rich collections and supervised a handling session of various objects that are of importance to our group. Venetian glass of various shapes and feather fans attracted huge interest. The usage of a digital microscope turned out to be an extremely useful tool to study the manifold details that made up the appearance of these objects that, in turn, shaped their possibilities to create emotional spheres. Bottles, dishes, flasks and tazze produced from moulded, soda and soda lime glass were studied as well as their white enamels, gilded, painted and ribbed decorations. The usage of the microscope revealed the huge degree of competence, which was mandatory for the manufacturing of these fragile objects. The handling session also created an awareness of how the analytical category of ‘touch’ might be used for reconsidering the everyday usage of glass in Renaissance Venice.

The tazza we had the opportunity to handle shows one of the most appreciated type of decoration used in Venetian Renaissance painted glasses, with a central enamelled medallion and ribs embellished with a scaled golden pattern and colourful dots. The microscope highlights the nature of the decorative techniques used. At the earlier stage the gilding was applied to the cool object (with the use of an adhesive painted in the surface) in the form of a gold leaf, then etched with a point. The enamelling was usually added in the second place, before firing the object again to fix the ornamentation. The details of avian fashion products arose similar fascination among the researchers, who studied the refined knotting and gluing techniques of historical feather fans. Handling these objects enables researchers to reconstruct the processes of their production and to draw conclusions about their perception.

This intriguing day of the workshop ended with yet another highlight: the Fitzwilliam Museum’s exhibition Colour: The Art and Science of Illuminated Manuscripts (until 2nd January 2017). Over 150 manuscripts and fragments are grouped into thematic sections each of which integrates scientific and art historical analyses of painting materials and techniques. The stunning exhibition sheds new light onto how pigments and gilding were created and used from the 8th to the 19th century. Not only are the finest examples of illustrated manuscripts exposed but also herbs and pigments – the raw materials for colour production. The manuscripts on display provided another welcomed opportunity to discuss questions about craftsmanship, material, techniques, aesthetics, and historical context of production as well as facets of different perception.

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