One of Leonardo’s most fascinating references to the word hematite comes in Institut de France Notebook A, fol. 104r, where he uses the phrase “lapis amatita macinata.” The context is an exercise for learning how to draw a site or place by looking through a piece of glass and representing the space beyond on the glass itself.
Below is a detail of Notebook A, fol. 104r.
It and Leonardo’s other notebooks may be viewed online, courtesy of the Biblioteca Comunale Leonardiana di Vinci. Here is a link to the Trattato (1651), where “lapis amatita macinata” has been shortened to lapis. Just following is Jean Paul Richter’s transcription and translation of the passage.
OF A MODE OF DRAWING A PLACE ACCURATELY.
Have a piece of glass as large as a half sheet of royal folio paper
and set thus firmly in front of your eyes that is, between your eye
and the thing you want to draw; then place yourself at a distance of
2/3 of a braccia from the glass fixing your head with a machine in
such a way that you cannot move it at all. Then shut or entirely
cover one eye and with a brush or red chalk draw upon the glass that
which you see beyond it; then trace it on paper from the glass,
afterwards transfer it onto good paper, and paint it if you like,
carefully attending to the arial perspective.
“Red chalk” is how Richter translates the phrase “lapis amatita macinata,” but it is a bit more than that because of the word macinata. Macinata means ground, as in pulverized, and it’s something that people do. People grind. It’s not something that can be attributed to geologic events, to God, or to the passage of time. And if macinata refers to chalk, that would indicate that Leonardo is talking about fabricated, and not natural chalk. This is an important distinction because the general art historical thinking on red chalk is that artists began using natural red chalk in Italy in the late 15th century, and that it was only supplanted by fabricated red chalk in 18th century France.
Because both the Trattato and Richter’s transcription and translation of the passage in Notebook A, have omitted any reference to grinding, it has not received the attention it might have, except from Italian scholars. Carlo Pedretti, Piera G. Tordella, Angela Zanchetta, and Barbara Fanini have all zeroed in on the phrase.
Tordella’s excellent essay “La matita rossa nella pratica del disegno, considerzioni sulle sperimentazioni preliminari del medium attraverso le fonti antiche,” in Conservazione dei material archivistici e grafici (1996), where she goes quite far in advancing the idea of Renaissance period fabricated chalk, stops short of seeing the “lapis amatita macinata” reference as one to chalk, but prefers to see it as a pigment applied with a brush in the glass exercise. I was a little surprised by this, but it is understandable if you look at folio 104r. Later in the essay she theorizes that Leonardo could have made chalk because of the phrase in question.
It’s worth looking at the phrase in a bit of detail, keeping in mind that lapis in Italian can mean either stone or chalk, there are two ways to read the words:
-ground hematite stone (mineral pigment)
-ground hematite chalk (fabricated chalk)
To have the image of folio 104r closer by, I’ll insert it again here.
The one-letter word right after the cancelled word is not clear, and it really is the source of confusion. It could be either:
Italian e – and English
Italian o – or English
Again, these are the two possible ways to read the phrase:
…with a brush and with ground hematite stone…
…with a brush or with ground hematite chalk…
I believe Leonardo is writing about chalk, because I don’t see why the paint would have to be hematite since any color would be equally serviceable for this exercise. I also tend towards chalk because there’s some evidence, as Joseph Meder (p. 126) pointed out, that fabricators of stained glass had red chalk in their kits. (I’ll get to this in a later post.)
I can say one other thing, that if I had to follow the exercise, after putting my head in what amounts to a vise, with the benefit of only one eye, I’d rather the chalk option, than have to dip a brush into something that would probably be outside my field of vision. The paint choice would seem to be for a truly advanced practitioner.
Whatever the correct interpretation, after having read fol. 104r, I started looking for hematite chalk recipes and found some, albeit late ones from around 1800. I was just going to keep them as reference material, but I was encouraged to make my own chalk by Prof. Marco Tizzoni, an archeologist focusing on iron mining through the ages, who has recently retired from the University of Bergamo, of whom I’ll speak later. While I don’t think what I’ve fabricated so far is by any means brilliant, the chalk does link matita back to hematite.
Next – Hematite Chalk