Cennino d’Andrea Cennini’s Ultramarine Blue – Part III

Continued and final excerpt from “Il Libro dell’Arte” or “The Craftsman’s Handbook” (Translation by D. V. Thompson,. Pages 36-37). 15th Century handbook for artists.
“When they are perfectly dry, do them up in leather, or in bladders, or in purses, according to the divisions you have. And know that if that lapis lazuli stone was not so very good, or if you worked the stone up so much that the blue did not come out violet, I will teach you how to give it a little color. Take a bit of grounded kermes (grain) and a little brazil (brazil wood); cook them together; but either grate the brazil or scrape it with glass; and then cook them together with lye and a little rock alum; and when they boil you will see that it is a perfect crimson color. Before you take the blue out of the porringer, but after it is almost dry of the lye, put a little of the kermes with the brazil on it and stir it up with your finger; and let it stand until it dries, without sun. fire, or wind. When you find that it is dry, put it in leather, or a purse, and leave it alone, for it is good an perfect. And keep it to yourself, for it in an unusual ability to make it properly. And know that making it is an occupation for pretty girls rather than for men; for they are always at home, and reliable, and they have more dainty hands. Just beware of old women. “
There are two things that I want to discuss: women creating the dye and the use of Brazil Wood for the botched Ultramarine batch.
This last part of the text concerning women surprised me first when I read it. However, I completely understood what Cennini meant in a fifteenth century social context. My perception of those at home are as caretakers – of both people and things. For a 47-year-old female, I was the first generation of American women who reaped the benefits of those who fought for equality decades before me.
I have a good friend who went to Berkley (a California University for those unfamiliar with it) in the 1960s. Two of her professors – in different classroom settings – explained to all the male and female students that women never became good artists because they had babies. As I think back to this statement from a mere fifty years ago, I have to smile when I read Cennini’s text “for they are always at home, and reliable.” Being a caretaker was an asset, as it made you reliable and able to stay put and do something right – like the complicated process of making lapis lazuli dye. And then I have believe that if you have a women making this expensive product with such a complicated process – would she not also know how to use it?
Concerning the use of Brazil wood: I have used these chips in natural dying at the Western Minnesota Steam Thresher Reunion (Labor Day event near a small town of Rollag, Minnesota). I was amazed at the vibrant reds that were created – almost rivaling the cochineal dyes. The scarlet hues that could be produced (depending on the mordant used on the fabric) would obviously work to “pump up” the violet tones of the Ultramarine if the batch didn’t turn out as vibrant as desired. But I also wonder if it wouldn’t turn the blue too violet to the extent that it no longer looks like ultramarine at all.
While doing research to look for samples to post, I stumbled across a vibrant blue dye that derived from “Eastern” brazil wood. I have included the powder and a fabric sample posted online as it is this color that would make sense to add to Ultramarine to make it more true to form. Once again, I wish I spoke Italian so I could literally look at the translation. Well, maybe after my Czech classes are done…
What I find interesting is that “Eastern Brazil Wood” often shares the same images with “Indigo” images during a google search. That might be the next color I cover as I am now curious.
Below are images of the wood and its extract. I have also included the extract from Eastern Brazil Wood and fabrics dyed with this extract.
There is a great site that discusses dying with Brazil wood.

Brazil wood chips



Brazil wood Extract



Eastern Brazil Wood Extract and products dyed with it (A little to bright for Indigo?)




Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *