Artists' recipe books

Heidelberg, Universitätsbibliothek
Cod. Pal. Germ. 489, f. 2 ( Amberg, 1563)

From Antiquity, artists, artisans, craftsmen and even scholars have transmitted and recorded their knowledge of artistic materials and practices within a specific sort of writing : artist recipe books.

These books are presented under the form of lists of art-technological instructions providing information on various artistic disciplines, such as drawing, painting, frescos, illumination, gilding, etching, but also dyeing, metal and glass working, amongst others.

A great number of recipes deals with the production, preparation and conservation of pigments, colourants, dyes, media –such as glues, varnishes, binding agents-, inks and so on.

In parallel to the physical descriptions of both the raw materials and the final products, these instructions deliver information concerning optical characteristics, (in)compatibility with other substances and information regarding the ageing properties of materials. They also describe the various sorts of artistic support and their preparation as well as the ways to apply materials on it. In addition, a number of recipes are dedicated to the production, refining or colouring of materials such as textiles, glass, metals, horn, stones, etc.

Collections of artisanal recipes are considered to be key primary sources in the historical study of artistic practices and materials. Prominent examples include very well-known work such as the De diversis artibus attributed to Theophilus for the Middle Ages, the Libro dell’arte by Cennino Cennini for the (pre)-Renaissance period or the De Mayerne Manuscript for the Modern Period, to cite but a few. However, hundreds of other such examples exist and are still largely unknown. Artisanal recipes, which date back to Antiquity, continued to be recorded throughout the Middle Ages until at least the 19th century.

In his 2001 publication The Art of All Colours, Mark Clarke compiled an inventory of 400 source documents, dating from the production of the first artists' recipe collections up to 1500. Since then, numerous other surviving writing containing artisanal recipes have been discovered. Many more recipes were written down in manuscript and print in the period after 1500.

The Database

The Colour ConText database facilitates the consultation and exploitation of a large corpus of written sources. To date, over 1000 texts have been assessed.

The core data consists not only of medieval and early modern manuscripts but also printed books produced from the modern era across Europe. 5500 recipes —some constituting only a few lines, others covering several folios— have been transcribed and are currently being recorded on the database. The database also includes a complete list of more than 800 different ingredients and (combined) substances mentioned in the recipes. Materials are indexed both by their current scientific name (‘Current name’) and by the original terms precisely as they are written in the source texts (‘Historical name’).

Sources and recipes are categorized by date, language, location, scribes or authors, artistic technique and materials involved. Thanks to the various filters integrated, the Colour ConText database can serve to identify the use of specific practices and materials and to delimit methods within a precisely delimited chronological and geographical framework. It also helps to assess how recipes were modified over time or by other external phenomena, through looking at factors such as frequency within the corpus, basic structure, and evolution. It is also possible to link the development of specific artistic procedures and technical traditions, and to correlate these with more widely diffused techniques.

How it Works

The Sources

More than 1000 sources (including manuscripts and printed texts) have been entered into the database, specifically located on the 'Sources' page. It provides details such as title, language, location, the provenance and the circulation of these manuscripts and books (place and date of origin/edition), scribes or authors, previous owners, and a description of their technical and/or general content. The left vertical bar allows the sources to be searched by title, place of conservation or edition, or by keywords related to the subject topics they deal with. These subjects concern technical fields and materials.

The Recipes

The database also makes the content of the recipe collections accessible at the level of the individual recipes. To date, more than 5500 recipes—some consisting of only a few lines, others covering several folios—have been transcribed. These instructions are recorded in another specific page (entitled 'Recipes'). The ‘Recipes' page allows users to consult the transcription of a particular recipe, and sometimes also provides a translation.Users can search for a specific technical instruction by source, date and geographical data. It is also possible to search for specific words that appear either in the transcription or the translation of the recipe. Moreover, the recipes are defined using keywords arranged in different thesauri (related to the artistic technique, the technical process and the main ingredients involved within the recipe process). Such subject classification enables queries to be made regarding specific recipes, methods or materials across time and region.

The Glossaries

The database offers a complete list of the objects and materials mentioned in the recipes. Materials are indexed both by their current scientific name (‘Current name’) and by the original terms precisely as they are written in the source texts (‘Historical name’). Objects and materials are linked by relational tables that allow the retrieval of all the different historical names used for one particular material—detailing the historical written context—as well as enabling the user to see the various materials that may be related to a specific name. This layout makes it possible not only to observe the global frequency and recurrence for each ingredient or technical instruction, but also to deduce the availability of artistic material in a chronologically and geographically defined area. These lists also shed light on the diversity of colour names and the complexity of the varied colour terminology used in artisanal recipes.