Cennino Cennini and Hematite

July 24th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

Cennini was from the town of Colle di Val d’Elsa in Tuscany, and studied with the Florentine painter Agnolo Gaddi (active 1369, †1398). Cennini’s birth and death dates are unknown, but he married a woman from Citadella, north of Padua, and is documented as working in Padua in the closing years of the 14th century. His art treatise, the Libro dell’Arte is known through three early manuscripts, the earliest being in the Laurentian Library in Florence (Laurenziana, LCCVIII, codex 23), which is dated 1437. The work was first published in 1821 by Giuseppe Tambroni. Attempts have been made to attribute art works to Cennini, but nothing is secure.

This link leads to the Milanesi edition of the Libro dell’Arte, published in 1859 and available through Google Books. Pisa’s Scuola Superiore Normale also has the digitized Libro. The school, part of the Pisa University system, provides a website which has an excellent section on digitized art treatises. This link leads to the start page. Linking to individual books is not possible, as the links are unstable.

Cennini never discusses red chalk or crayon, but he speaks of hematite several times in his Libro dell’Arte. In chapters XV-XVII, he discusses how to make grounds for both parchment and paper, saying, among other things, how the support should be flattened, how the pigments must be well ground, and how to apply the tinting grounds with a soft brush. The chapters are very short; often just a few sentences long. Chapter XVIII discusses how to make a purple ground from hematite and lead white. He calls the color morella and gives an alternate color name, pagonazza. (Porpora, the more recognizable word for purple, appears twice in the Libro.)

Morella is a plant of the nightshade family, whose fruit or berry is a deep purple. It is also the name given to a blue-flowered plant, turnsole in English, which was used to produce a blue to purple dye. According to Treccani, the Italian encyclopedia and dictionary, pagonazza is a variant of paonazzo, as is pavonazza, and refers to a violet color in the peacock’s tail plumage. (I had a look at photos of peacocks and I didn’t see any feathers that looked particularly purple. Maybe the length, before the eye, is a dusty purple. I’ll have to remember to look for this when I next see a live peacock.) For a confirmation of the color purple, Filarete (1400-69) in his Trattato di Architettura, f.181v, says “azurro e rosso fa pagonazzo, o vuoi dire morello.” (Filarete’s treatise is online at SSN Pisa.) One can only imagine how many times pagonazza/o and morella/o were said together, up and down the peninsula, to convey the color.

To make this color purple, Cennini combines ½ ounce of lead white with a fava bean amount of hematite. (The fava bean measure shows he’s on the same wavelength as the cookbook writer, Julia Child, with her pea-sized dots of butter; along with Ada Boni and Elizabeth David, with their walnut measure. Or, at least, I can’t think of one without the others when I read these measures.) He uses two slightly different names for hematite, amatita and amatista, in the Libro. The a at the beginning may be a nice vestige of the Greek word. Ematite is the word used for hematite in current Italian.

Cennini says of the white lead and hematite, “grind them well, as much as you can; because grinding it a lot never hurts, but always enhances it.” In fact, grinding well and grinding long is the leitmotif of the Libro. Whether Cennini had a particularly purple hematite or whether his expert grinding turned the color from its usual red, is something that has to be left open.

Attributed to Fra Angelico - Last Supper - c. 1550 - Metalpoint, brush in brown ink, heightened with white, on red-violet prepared parchment - 77 x 59 mm - Stichting Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen 1940 (Koenigs Collection) - Inv. I 236 (PK)

Attributed to Fra Angelico – The Last Supper – c. 1450 – Metalpoint, brush and brown ink, heightened with white, on red-violet prepared parchment – 77 x 59 mm – Stichting Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen 1940 (Koenigs Collection) – Inv. I 236 (PK)

Just above is a drawing attributed to Fra Angelico, and is dated to c. 1450. It is at the Boijmans Van Beuningen museum in Rotterdam, and is one from a series of ten miniature drawings figuring the life of Christ, of which the Boijmans has seven (link to the seven here). It is on parchment, unlike most of the existing 15th century metalpoints, which are on paper. The cataloguer describes the color of the ground as red-violet. It’s probably more red than Cennini’s ground color, but it would be interesting to read if they’ve examined the color in the lab. Two of the drawings in the series, the Lamentation, and Christ Among the Doctors appear to be on a slightly different color of prepared parchment. Again, I haven’t read about this, but it could be a different batch of preparation than the other five, they could have been photographed on more than one day (!), or maybe they were subjected to more light. In any case, it is very hard for me to take my eyes off the images of these drawings. I now have three on my desktop.

Note of 25 July: The Boijmans drawing may well be pagonazza in color. Serpone & Company, a Naples firm specializing in religious vestments, sells a short cape for bishops, which is similar in color and which they call paonazza.

Other references to hematite in the Libro include the use of a smoothed piece of hematite to burnish gold, and as a pigment for painting. Hematite-rich materials such as bol and sinopia are also discussed, but not in relation to drawings on paper or parchment.

Ruling in Red Crayon/Chalk in Medieval Manuscripts

July 16th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

In my first post on red chalk, I wrote that red chalk was limited to marks made by readers in medieval manuscripts. Since then I’ve changed my ideas on this because of a medieval manuscript that passed through Sotheby’s London on 8 July 2014, lot 49. The manuscript is known as the Northumberland Bible, after its owners, the Dukes of Northumberland. According to the Sotheby’s cataloguer, it was probably made in the north of England, and dates to circa 1250-60. Just below is a detail of a pen-flourished initial and in the margins one can see the bounding lines in either red crayon or red chalk. It might well be crayon as the lines don’t seem to have budged. The folios aren’t numbered, but it’s the third from the last illustration or second illustration of an opening in the Sotheby’s entry. Sotheby’s includes other images from the bible with evident red crayon/chalk, but this seemed the clearest. There is no mention in the entry of bounding lines or ruling, but this is maybe their convention. (A brief look at other lots in the sale made no mention of ruling or the materials used for the lines.)

Sotheby's MS - Northumberland Bible - 8 july 2014 lot 49

Detail of folio from Northumberland Bible, English, c. 1250-60 - Sotheby’s London – 8 July 2014, lot 49

The British Library have a very useful illustrated glossaries section for the terms used to describe illuminated manuscripts. It’s based on a book by Michelle P. Brown, which was published jointly by the British Library and the Getty Museum in 1994. Links to the chalk and crayon entries may be accessed by clicking on the words. I’ve also pasted the entry definitions here:


Chiefly composed of calcium carbonate, chalk was used for a variety of purposes in manuscript production: as a POUNCE when preparing the PARCHMENT surface; as a component of GESSO or another GROUND; as a white PIGMENT; as an alkaline component in pigments (serving to modify the colour of certain organic pigments, such as folium, and to lighten and increase the opacity of others); or as a drawing medium.


A stick of white or coloured CHALK or other solidified PIGMENT, often brown or red in colour, sometimes contained in a holder, used for drawing, annotation, and occasionally for RULING.

Crayon, to me, implies more a fabricated medium than a natural one, but I love the term solidified pigment because it leaves the origin vague. I also think of crayon as more lustrous, and less friable, than chalk.

Morgan Library Drawings Online

July 7th, 2014 § 1 comment § permalink

New York’s Morgan Library on 15 June put up images of 2,000 drawings. By the end of the year they will have put online all 12,000 drawings in the collection. Here’s the LINK.
Romanino - Morgan Library

Girolamo Romanino (ca. 1485-ca. 1566) – Pastoral Concert with Two Women, a Faun and a Soldier – Red chalk on paper – 249 x 410 mm – Morgan Library 1973.37

One of the very positive aspects of the image database is that if the verso bears a drawing, it appears alongside the recto in the results. The thumbnails are readable and the zoom is excellent.
I’ve also put the link in the Resources and Links table on this site.

Red Chalk

June 22nd, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

Inevitably, talk of red chalk brings up the word blood. In Italian, the word for chalk is matita. It comes from hematite, a mineral and an ore of iron, that traces its name from the Greek word for blood, as in hematology. The French word sanguine, also used in English, comes from the Latin word for blood. Sanguigna is used in Italian, but less commonly than matita rossa. The iron that makes blood red, also makes red chalk red and maybe that’s why the endless testing of the Shroud of Turin never delivers an unequivocal answer. Whatever. Blood turns from anemone-red to a dark brown and the colors of red chalk fall in between.

Hematite is a medium-hard mineral. On the Mohs scale, which rates hardness by one mineral’s ability to scratch another, it comes in at 5-6. The scale is named after its inventor, an Austrian professor of mineralogy, Frederich Mohs (1773 – 1839). It’s a bit like the game of rock-paper-scissors, except that it makes sense and is useful, but it is also less fun. For reference, talc is 1 on the scale; and diamond, the hardest, rates a 10.

Hematite’s outward appearance is more often gray than red. Rock enthusiasts, if they’re in doubt about whether a rock is hematite, will test it by drawing a piece of the mineral across a streak plate, a piece of unglazed porcelain, and if it streaks red, it’s hematite. A piece of hematite, if used for drawing on paper, would do little else but gash the paper. However, it can also be flaky and almost soft. It naturally occurs with other minerals and when it does, it is considerably less hard than its usual 5-6  on the Mohs scale. Red ochre is the umbrella name for earthy pigments that contain hematite. Many of the different names for red ochre are listed in The Pigment Compendium, and include: carnagione [skin tone], sinopia, bol, among others. To this we could add, lapis rosso, which in its most literal sense means red rock. Lapis in modern usage means primarily pencil.

The image below is of a marble slab with the figures done in red ochre. It is usually titled the Knucklebone Players, referring to the girls in the foreground playing a game similar to jacks. Because of the inscriptions on the marble, which includes the name of the artist, Alexandros Athenaios, it’s known that the subject is Niobe pleading with Leto for forgiveness; something that Leto will not give. Niobe’s nervy boast (=hubris) about her having more children than Leto, dooms her children to death. It is from Herculaneum, that together with Pompeii and Stabia, provide the greatest window onto ancient painting. Vesuvius’s eruption created a perfect time capsule of the small cities (combined population of 15-20,000)–the planning, the buildings, the murals, sculpture, and arts of all kinds, as well as documenting the hell-like death of some inhabitants over the course of two days in the late summer of 79 CE.

Alexandros Athenaios - Knucklebone Players - Leto and Niobe

Alexandros Athenaios – Knucklebone Players [Leto Begged for Forgiveness by Niobe, with Three of Her Daughters] – 1st Century CE – Red ochre on marble – 490 x 420 mm – Museo Archeolgico Nazionale di Napoli – inv. 9526

The ancient Romans used the word rubrica for both red ochre and red chalk, and hence  rubrics. There are areas of the Knucklebone Players that look as if they could have been drawn with a pieces of red chalk, rather than painted in red ochre, but it would be very difficult to know for certain. In its present state it is remarkably similar to modern era drawings. There are also traces of pink, yellow, red and black pigment, but these are visible only with a microscope. The hematite-rich part is remarkably fresh, owing to its permanence, its being on the right support–a coarsely surfaced piece of marble–and because of its being buried for so many years. [One could look back further to the well-known prehistoric cave paintings in Spain and France for earlier use of red ochre; to its use in South Africa at the Blombos Cave near Capetown, dating back 100,000 years; and by early Neanderthals at Maastricht-Belvédère in the Netherlands, dating back 200-250,000 years.]

In the medieval period, red chalk was used for writing. Not in the production of the manuscripts themselves (where the red is generally from minium, cinnabar, and vermillion), but for the marginal ticks and notes added by readers. Bernhard Bischoff, who had catalogued thousands of ancient and medieval Latin manuscripts, wrote in his book on Latin palaeography, “Collations, marginal notes by readers, ‘nota’ signs and underlinings with a stylus or red chalk are found nearly everywhere.” Those who used red chalk probably did so because it would stand out from the ink text, making it easier to get back to the annotated section, immeasurably easier than retrieving notes made with a stylus. It might also have been seen as being handier than ink, being quick to pick up and set down, and allowed for reading away from a desk. It was also less permanent than ink and could be rubbed off parchment with pumice. It would be used in much the same way we would annotate in pencil. [Matita, in Italian, in addition to meaning chalk, also means pencil. In fact, if you asked an Italian child what was in their pencil case, they would reply, matite (pl),  referring, even if distantly, to the use of chalk as a writing implement more than to the chalk of drawings.]

The earliest drawing I can think of with red chalk is an anonymous Sienese double-sided drawing in the British Museum. They date it to the late 14th, early 15th century. The single biggest group of earlier 15th century drawings using red chalk is in the Louvre. The drawings are by Pisanello (c. 1395 – c. 1455) and his school. The sheet below shows how red chalk is used in the Louvre drawings–as a tint for the general coloring of the paper. The chalk is used in conjunction with pen and ink, but it is the ink part that is dominant. About a third of the 370-odd Pisanello and school drawings in the Louvre are on paper prepared with red chalk. They originally formed what’s called the red album, the pages of which were then incorporated into what’s known as the Codex Vallardi, after its 19th c. owner.  The red chalk is not limited to sheets with representations of people, but includes leaves with animals, architecture, and objects. It’s worth looking at these drawings to decide for oneself whether any of the chalk is used to model figures and objects. [Link to Louvre site.]

Pisanello - Legs - Plants - Louvre

Antonio Pisanello – Study of the Lower Legs of a Walking Man, Seen from Behind and Two Plant Studies – Black chalk underdrawing, pen and brown ink, brush and brown wash, white chalk heightening on paper irregularly tinted with red chalk wash – 249 x 176 mm – Louvre inv. 2264 recto


Leonardo Madrid II, f. 141v, f. 142r

Leonardo – Madrid II, f. 141v, f. 142r – Biblioteca Nacional de España

Leonardo (1452-1519) is credited with being the first to use red chalk by itself in a drawing. Its appeal came not only from the color, but also from the fact that very fine and precise lines could be made with a sharpened piece of red chalk. So precise that Leonardo used it for writing, and writing entire pages. Two folios from Madrid Codex II, show that his writing in red chalk comes close to his writing in pen and ink, in terms of fineness and clarity. 141v 142 r. Another opening in the codex shows drawings for the wire caging he would need for the projected, but never realized, casting of the monumental bronze Sforza Horse. The wire lacing, with all its intricacy, captivates in a way which you wouldn’t expect from an industrial or shop drawing–except in the hands of this master. The drawing also shows how red chalk can migrate. This is most clearly visible in the unintended ghost of the caging on the left page, made from the contact with the loose chalk dust of the drawing. It also shows why red chalk is so suitable for the transferral of designs, and for the making of counterproofs.

Leonardo - Studies for Casting of Sforza Horse - Madrid Codex II, f. 156v - f. 157r -

Leonardo – Studies for Casting of Sforza Horse – Madrid Codex II, f. 156v – f. 157r - Biblioteca Nacional de España

Leonardo used red chalk for representing many subjects. A name for red ochre is carnagione, or skin tone, showing its suitability for anatomical and figure studies in the related red chalk, of which he made many. He also used the material for all manner of machines, including armaments; geometric shapes; horses; maps; for mountains and storm clouds; for decorative knots; and also for unimaginably beautiful plant studies. The drawing below is of a branched bur-reed and it is very like the plant, in a way that Pisanello’s aren’t (they are generic plants, and while he shows interest in varying the leaf types, the flowers are identical on both plants). The detail of the Leonardo drawing below shows how he accentuated areas by using a brush and water. Where the brush and water traced the lines, the color is intensified, almost acting like an ink. (To see the greatest number of red chalks drawings by Leonardo in one place, it is worth visiting the UK Royal Collection.)

Leonardo Branced Bur-Reed Royal Collection Windsor

Leonardo – A Branched Bur-Reed – c. 1505-1510) – Red chalk, touched with wet brush, on pale red prepared paper – 201 x 143 mm – Royal Collection RC 912430 recto – Windsor

Leonardo - Detail of A Branched Bur-Reed - c. 1505-1510) - Red chalk, touched with wet brush, on pale red prepared paper - 201 x 143 mm - Royal Collection RC 912430 recto - Windsor

Leonardo – Detail of A Branched Bur-Reed – c. 1505-1510) – Red chalk, touched with wet brush, on pale red prepared paper – 201 x 143 mm – Royal Collection RC 912430 recto – Windsor

How Leonardo thought to use red chalk can only be guessed at. He may have quite spontaneously come up with the idea himself. It might have to do with his also being a fresco painter. Widespread appreciation for sinopia drawings came after the 1966 flood in Florence, when so many frescoes were removed from water-soaked walls, exposing the red ochre underdrawings, but the allure of sinopias must also have been felt by the artists themselves. He may have seen drawings by other artists, which are now lost. Another possibility is that artisans might have used red chalk, say in the transferal of designs where symmetry and repeats in patterns were important. Needlework, such as embroidery, comes to mind. It might also have to do with Leonardo’s father being a notaio. The Italian notai, literally notaries, are more like lawyers elsewhere. Their job is to draw up contracts and wills. If nothing else, Leonardo was born into a family where availability of paper and writing instruments was a given. Whether that included red chalk for making annotations and ticking the key points in long contracts, is something that I should look into. However, in my mind, it is increasingly likely that the first users of red chalk were the makers of stained glass windows and/or iron mine workers. I will write another post or two on why I believe this to be the case.

Other artists soon began using red chalk not only to tint paper, but also to draw with the material. First in Milan, among Leonardo’s students and later throughout Italy, helped by the adoption of the medium by Michelangelo, Raphael, and Correggio. The rapid spread is easily understood from the beautiful colors of red chalk.

Red chalk drawings have an animating affect on people. If you look at a group, for example a group following a museum docent around an exhibition, its members will show little signs of life in front of a red chalk drawing. They’ll straighten up or lean in at the drawing. Even at art history slide shows, red chalk drawings have the ability to lift people out of sleepiness like nothing else.

Next – Cennini, Leonado, Vasari, and Armenini on Hematite and Red Chalk

Note: There’s a video of an extremely interesting lecture by Sally Dormer on medieval Anglo-Saxon manuscripts and the drawings they contain. She illustrates a drawing which she believes has a red chalk underdrawing. Link here.


Season’s Greetings

December 21st, 2013 § 0 comments § permalink

briquet 15541 - reindeer head - brabant 1449

Briquet Watermark 15441 – Brabant – 1449

Season’s Greetings

And All Best Wishes for 2014

From Lucy Vivante and Vivante Drawings






More Stripes

November 28th, 2013 § 0 comments § permalink

It’s surprising we don’t talk of stripists and stripism because so many 20th artists, and especially American ones, worked with stripes. Barnett Newman, Myron Stout, Agnes Martin, Ellsworth Kelly, Jasper Johns, Dan Flavin, and Frank Stella are some.

Ellsworth Kelly - Awnings, Avenue Matignon 1950

Ellsworth Kelly – Awnings, Avenue Matignon – 1950 – Graphite, brush and gouache on paper – 133 x 210 mm – Museum of Modern Art, NY – Inv. ref. 496.1997

Striped cloth and flags, rows of text, shelves of books, prison bars and uniforms, and skyscrapers could be things behind the stripes, but stripes in themselves, without reference to striped things, became enough of a subject for many artists—and for their publics.

Ellsworth Kelly - Fourteen Projects 1955

Ellsworth Kelly – Fourteen Projects – 1955 – Graphite, brush and gouache on paper – Private Collection

Egon Schiele’s approach to stripes bridges traditional and modern art. Schiele and Schiele’s subjects were fond of stripes. The drawing just below, its title, Reclining Nude Girl in a Striped Frock [Liegender Mädchenakt im gestreiften Kittel] has arresting stripes.

Egon Schiele – Reclining Nude Girl in Striped Frock – Graphite, brush and watercolor on paper – 443 × 306 mm – Ortner Collection, Vienna

They work as pattern fields, much the way Klimt used richly encrusted cloth—they’re not there to define the body underneath. The title, and I do not know if it’s Schiele’s title, is apt since it echoes the two-sided character of stripes—that they’re neither one thing nor another, and the girl is described as both being naked and in a striped frock. It is an ambiguous title and subject. I wouldn’t know how to title the drawing.

Another drawing of Schiele’s that features stripes is the one below of his wife Edith. (There are at least two photographs of Edith wearing the dress of the drawing.) Here the stripes, and the breaks in the stripes, do more to define Edith’s figure and this makes it closer to the traditions of 19th century and earlier art.

Egon Schiele - Edith with Striped Dress, Sitting - 1915 - Graphite, brush and gouache on paper - 402 x 508 mm - Leopole Museum, Vienna

Egon Schiele – Edith with Striped Dress, Sitting – 1915 – Graphite, brush and gouache on paper – 402 x 508 mm – Leopole Museum, Vienna

Closer, say, to the 18th century Watteau drawing of a reclining woman in British Museum, where the direction of the stripe segments give full meaning to what’s below. They are a kind of hatching.

Antonie Watteau - British Museum

Antoine Watteau – A Woman in a Striped Dress, Seen from Behind, Reclining on the Ground- Red and black chalks and graphite – 146 x 181 mm – British Museum Ref. 1895,0915.936

Watteau’s drawing of a Persian in a turban is especially wonderful because of the zigzags and hatching that make up the bold stripe of the man’s jacket. Watteau did his drawing in France, but the slightly younger Swiss artist, Etienne Liotard, lived in Constantinople and saw turbaned Ottomans firsthand. Many of his sitters, both men and women, wear opulent striped clothes and rest on comfortable-looking sofas. Domenico Tiepolo, a near contemporary of Liotard’s, also drew turbaned people dressed in stripes, Venice being a crossroads for east and west. Examples of Domenico Tiepolo’s stripes can be found in an earlier post.

Antoine Watteau - Seated Persian - Red and black chalks on laid paper and laid down - 300 x 200 mm - Louvre RF 36735

Antoine Watteau - Seated Persian – Red and black chalks on laid paper and laid down – 300 x 200 mm – Louvre RF 36735

Michel Pastoreau wrote a book on stripes, engagingly titled The Devil’s Cloth: a History of Stripes. From a quick look, I understand that he concentrates on striped cloth in France, beginning in the Medieval period, when stripes were associated with the devil and such outcasts as prostitutes and lepers. This continued, at least in France, until the 18th century, when stripes became favored throughout society because of flags/patriotism/nationalism. This must be a terrible oversimplification, but it is interesting because in the 18th century, there was this burgeoning of stripes.

Neither relating to flags or the east, are these two drawings by Giuseppe Maria Crespi. They are illustrations for a tale about a boy named Cacasenno and his family. It’s a story about three generations of country people, who lack sophistication, but who are at times terrifically sensible (very close to the storylines of TV sitcoms). The whole series of drawings is in Bologna and viewable online here. The watercolors are derived from a series of drawings and etched illustrations. They were probably for a deluxe edition commissioned by a collector, although the Genus Bononaie site relates that Roberto Longhi had the idea that they were for ceramics. The Metropolitan has a preparatory drawing for the etching, where Cacasenno’s mother wears a plain dress, as in the etching. To enliven the richly ornamental watercolor, Crespi added the stripes.


Giuseppe Maria Crespi

Giuseppe Maria Crespi – Cacasenno with his Mother – 193 x 151 mm and Cacasenno Pacified by a Piece of Castangaccio – 197 x 149 mm – Black chalk underdrawing, brush and watercolor on paper


Finding drawings with stripes before the 18th century becomes more difficult, even in Italy. There are frescoes and paintings, such as Raphael’s Mass at Bolsena, with the Swiss Guards in their wide stripes; Raphael’s Madonna della Seggiola with stripes that make one think of Palestine; and the Master of the Pala Sforzesca’s painting at the Brera, where Beatrice d’Este wears wide devil-may-care stripes.

Mantegna Drawing at Prato Auction

October 23rd, 2013 § 0 comments § permalink

Farsettiarte, an auction house known for 20th century art and design, will be offering a drawing attributed to Mantegna in an 8 November sale in Prato. Maddeningly, the lot can’t yet be viewed online. However, ArtsLife and Art Daily provide images and details. Here are images of the drawing:

Mantegna - Lamentation - Farsettiarte

Mantegna – Lamentation – Pen and brown ink on laid paper – 151 x 100 mm


Mantegna – Pietà (verso) – Pen and brown ink on laid paper – 151 x 100 mm – “31 [V]ol 1 Mantegna” inscribed along upper edge

Just below are too small images of the Mantegna drawing at Brescia, which the above sheet is being compared to. The writing is apparently the same, and both versos share red wax dots used for affixing the works into an album. The Farsetti dots are barely visible.

Screen Shot 2013-10-22 at 23.44.10

Mantegna – Lamentation – Candlestick – Pen and brown ink on laid paper – 130 x 95 mm – “37 Vol 1 Mantegna” inscribed on verso – Pinacoteca Tosio Martinengo, Brescia

And here is the British Museum drawing:

Screen Shot 2013-10-22 at 23.45.32

Mantegna – Three studies for a dead Christ, the body lying on the ground – Pen and brown ink on laid paper – 122 x 88 mm – British Museum ref. no. 1909,0406.3

Screen Shot 2013-10-22 at 23.45.19

Mantegna – Two Holy women, seated on the ground, one seen from behind (verso) – Pen and brown ink on laid paper – 122 x 88 mm – British Museum ref. no. 1909,0406.3

David Ekserdjian helped Farsetti with the catalogue entry and is writing an article on the drawing.


August 14th, 2013 § 0 comments § permalink

There are two new wetsuits for surfers that are meant to protect wearers from shark attacks. There was an article and video in the Guardian (18 July 2013) on the suits, and here’s the LINK. One has a wavy camouflage print and the other has bold black and white stripes.

anti-shark wetsuit

The makers say the camouflage suit will hide you from a shark, while the striped suit will warn a shark to stay away.  It’s the striped one that made me think of stripes in art. First, because of Raphael’s Swiss Guards in the Mass at Bolsena fresco in the Vatican. However friendly and fetching the stripes of the Swiss Guard are, I guess they’re not meant to be so. (His Madonna della Seggiola in the Pitti has stripes that bring to mind the ancient Middle East and are more refined.)

Mostly, when I think of stripes I think of Domenico Tiepolo and have posted a number of his drawings below. Most of Domenico Tiepolo’s drawings are wonderful, but when he puts in stripes, they get to be extra wonderful. They’re worn by biblical era characters, entertainers, footmen, ladies and gentlemen, and even donkeys. Details of the stripes are below, and the full drawings are in the gallery.

Domenico Tiepolo - An Encounter During a Country Walk - Detail - National Gallery of Canada

Domenico Tiepolo – An Encounter During a Country Walk – Detail – Black chalk underdrawing, pen and brown ink, brush and brown wash – National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa – (inv. ref. 17582)

Domenico Tiepolo - Captive Birds - Detail

Domenico Tiepolo – The Captive Birds – Detail – Pen and brown ink, brush and brown wash – 296 x 421 mm – Harvard University Art Museums, Cambridge (inv. ref. 75.1984)

Domenico Tiepolo - Supplicants Before Pope Paul IV -  Pen and brown ink, brush and brown wash - 463 x 362 mm - Princeton University Art Museum - (inv. ref. 1948-1289)

Domenico Tiepolo – Supplicants Before Pope Paul IV – Detail – Pen and brown ink, brush and brown wash – 463 x 362 mm – Princeton University Art Museum – (inv. ref. 1948-1289)


Domenico Tiepolo - The White Horse - Detail - Pen and brown ink, brush and brown wash - 300 x 420 mm - Comte de Ganay,  Paris

Domenico Tiepolo – The White Horse – Detail – Pen and brown ink, brush and brown wash – 300 x 420 mm – Comte de Ganay, Paris

Domenico TIepolo - Flight into Egypt - Detail - Morgan Library

Domenico Tiepolo – The Flight into Egypt – Detail – Pen and brown ink, brush and brown wash – Pierpont Morgan Library, New York (inv. ref. IV,148)

Domenico Tiepolo - Jesus Walking on the Water - Black chalk underdrawing, pen and brown ink, brush and brown wash -  487 x 375 mm - Louvre, Paris (inv. no. RF 1713.BIS, 75)

Domenico Tiepolo – Jesus Walking on the Water – Detail -  Black chalk underdrawing, pen and brown ink, brush and brown wash – 487 x 375 mm – Louvre, Paris (inv. no. RF 1713.BIS, 75)

Calamaro and Calamaio

July 18th, 2013 § 3 comments § permalink

In Italian the word for inkwell is calamaio, which is very close to the word calamaro, meaning squid, as in the calamari fritti one sees on the menus of seafood restaurants. Looking at a squid, you wouldn’t think that it’s part of the mollusk family, but by eating the chewy rings, you realize it’s pretty close to a clam. It’s a soft bodied mollusk or cephalopod, like cuttlefish or octopus. Unlike a clam, it doesn’t have a hard shell for protection. Instead it has “ink” that it can squirt out to confuse and arrest predators. (Nautilus are the only cephalopods with protective shells.)

As calamaio (inkwell) and calamaro (squid) are so close, it’s natural to want to recognize a calamaio as a receptacle for squid ink. However, this isn’t the case. Squid ink, or any other type of cephalopod ink, was rarely used, largely because of its tendency to fade. For a post on sepia ink, please see below or follow this link.


Workshop of Severo da Ravenna - Cleveland Museum of Art

Workshop of Severo da Ravenna – Inkwell and Candlestick with the Infant Hercules Killing the Serpents – c. 1510 – 1520 – Bronze – 21 x 11 x 13 cm – Cleveland Museum of Art – Inv. ref. John L. Severance Fund 1954.798


The Italian word calamaio actually comes from the Latin word calamus (kalamos in Greek) which means cane or reed. Pens, which were made from reeds, were known as calami, as were other objects made from reeds, like flutes and fishing poles. (Pens made from bird feathers or quills came into use only later, in the early Middle Ages.)

What’s fascinating about squid is that they carry not only ink, but also a reed-like pen within them. Just below is a photograph, courtesy of Shannan Muskopf and her site biologycorner.com, of drying pens dissected from squid. The Latin word for squid is lolligo. So it seems then that the Italian word for the sea creature comes from calamus, or reed. In English, “pen and ink fish” is a colloquial name for squid, and it makes good sense.


Squid pens

Squid Pens – Courtesy of Shannan Muskopf and biologycorner.com


To underscore the fact that cephalopod ink was seldom used, there aren’t squid decorated inkwells. Riccio, Severo da Ravenna, and the other crazily imaginative Paduan makers of small bronzes, would have found it irresistible to ornament inkwells with squid or cuttlefish if they were using their ink. Granted, they are not that easily represented, but this wouldn’t have stopped these sculptors.

Sepia Ink

May 17th, 2013 § 1 comment § permalink

It’s tempting to try and specify the kind of brown ink that’s been used in the making of an old master drawing. Iron-gall (black, but changes to brown over time) and bister were the two most commonly used inks. Sometimes, people will refer to any brown ink old master drawing as being in sepia. Maybe it’s because they’re so used to hearing that everything is made from petroleum, that the idea of ink coming from a sea creature is quaint and charming. Maybe it has to do with the 19th c. sepia drawings and the chemical approximation of sepia in 19th century photographs. (The continuing appeal of sepia coloration is clear from the photography edit for “sepia effect” on the computer or cellphone.) Instead, sepia was rarely used before the late 18th century.

Sepia (also called cuttlefish), as well as octopus and squid, are soft-bodied mollusks, known as cephalopods (cephalo-head/pod-foot). Most cephalopods produce a dark fluid that they can expel to hide themselves from predators. Its primary component is melanin, related to the pigment that colors our skin and hair.  Aristotle, whose accuracy and method continues to surprise biologists, said of the cephalopod ink sac,  “All the Cephalopods have this peculiar part but it is the most remarkable in the Sepia, as well as the largest in size. When the Sepia is frightened and in terror, it produces this blackness and muddiness in the water, as it were a shield held in front of the body.” [Aristotle, The History of Animals, Book IV. The translation comes from A.L. Peck & E.S. Forster. Aristotle XII: Parts of Animals Movement of Animals, Progression of Animals, 1937.)

Sepia (sepia officinalis), then, have more ink than other cephalopods. They have eight legs or arms, two tentacles, and are about ten inches long. Just below is a depiction of a cuttlefish from a Pompeian mural.


Pompeii Detached Mural - IV Style (45 AD - 79 AD) - Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli - inv. no. 8635

Pompeii Detached Mural – IV Style (45 AD – 79 AD) – Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli – inv. no. 8635


Sepia mural detail

Detail of sepia and clam


Because the mural is more pleasing than accurate, here is a scientific diagram of a cuttlefish.

sepia officinalis illustration from brittanica 11th

Cuttlefish or Sepia Officinalis – Encyclopaedia Brittanica (11th) Vol. VII, 674


Aristotle does not say that sepia fluid was used for writing, but there are Roman writers such as Cicero, who did. This link carries to the entry on atramentum, the Latin word for ink, in A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities (1875), where passages of ancient writers are cited and linked to.

At its simplest, the ink can be used directly from the cephalopod, mixed with a binder. This is probably what the Romans did. The ink may have developed a bad smell, but their tolerance was greater than ours (think of garum, the fermented fish guts they ate, and loved). Sepia is known to be fugitive, and as far as I can tell, no ancient papyri with sepia ink exist.

James Watrous, in his 1957 The Craft of Old-Master Drawings, noted the “powerful fishy odor” of the dried sepia chips and sepia splinters, that he found imported into the US from Italy (1975 edition, 88). Zecchi, the art supply shop in Florence that specializes in old master materials, sells sepia pigment (10 grams for 24 euros and 100 grams for 200 euros) and maybe in the intervening 50+ years since Watrous was writing, a way of deodorizing sepia has been developed. The cost would warrant it.

Zecchi was founded in the 1950s with the idea of furnishing the materials that the 14th century Cennino Cennini details in his Libro dell’Arte. Cennini does not discuss sepia at all. In fact, the expert writers on the subject of old master materials–Joseph Meder, James Watrous, and Carlo James and company–say that sepia ink was hardly used, and written about, before the late 18th or early 19th centuries. Courtesy Google Ngram, here’s a graph of phrases with the word sepia, found in English language books, between 1800 and 2008, which shows that “sepia drawing” was most used around 1910. This takes into account novels, and everything else, so it has to be taken lightly.

Natural sepia drawings are supposed to have a cool, rather than warm, brown color, and a purplish or red cast. It’s known that Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840) drew with sepia ink. Just below is a Friedrich drawing at the Albertina, and the image is taken from the Google Cultural Institute. We can assume that they’ve taken some care in getting the color right. The Albertina describes the drawing as being in brown ink. The tendency in museum catalogues, and in museum databases, is to move away from describing the type/origin of ink, and describe it generically as brown ink. This makes a lot of sense, because you can’t get it wrong. However, because of Friedrich’s known use of sepia, and the color of this drawing, it would seem to me that it is in sepia.


Caspar David Friedrich - Albertina

Caspar David Friedrich – View of Arkona with Rising Moon – ca. 1805 – Graphite, brush and brown ink – 60.9 x 100 cm – Albertina, Vienna – inv. no. 17298


Scrutinizing and testing every drawing in collections, where there are thousands of sheets, would be an enormous undertaking, and the preference for simple “brown ink” is easily understood.  The fact that artists very often combined different types of inks and pigments, makes specificity even more complicated, and less documentable.

However, if one were curious enough, and were able to commission work from a lab, there is a test for sepia ink, which its developers describe as rapid and simple. The 2009 study is entitled Characterization of sepia ink in ancient graphic documents by capillary electrophoresis and is available as a pdf here.  Ana López-Montes, Rosario Blanco and others, studied maps and drawings in Granada’s Royal Chancellery Archives. The earliest map was from 1570 and the latest from 1817. Since the maps and drawings related to court cases, as exhibits, the dating is precise. The study is interesting also because its writers discuss taking the ink sac from a cuttlefish, being careful that too much air didn’t come in contact with the ink, and mixing it with gum arabic and water.

Carlo James, Marjorie B. Cohn, and the other authors of the 1997 Old master prints and drawings: a guide to preservation and conservation, spoke of Genova and Venice as being two places where sepia ink was used, before the 19th century. While Granada isn’t on the coast, it isn’t far, at about 20 miles. So, maybe one should keep an open mind about whether old master drawings, and especially those made near the sea, are made with sepia. (You can think sepia, just don’t write it. Plain vanilla. Brown ink. Basta.)