Critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 30, 2002
Mark Clarke The Art of All Colours: Mediaeval Recipe Books for Painters and Illuminators London: Archetype Publications, 2000. 152 pp. Paper $37.50 (1873132727)

While broad art-historical interest in the conditions of artistic production and the use of specific materials can now be said to date back more than a generation, there exists a rich body of literature describing detailed artistic practices that is much older still. Indeed, hundreds of surviving medieval manuscripts contain instructions, sometimes hasty and at other times meticulously detailed, relating to the preparation of pigments, inks, and varnishes. And yet, as Mark Clarke notes in this useful volume, there is no extant index that fully surveys the technologies of medieval painting, illumination, and related crafts. His aim is to fill that lacuna by offering a list of published and unpublished manuscripts that “attempts to be as complete as possible by including any manuscript containing any relevant text, however fragmentary” (53). Accompanied by a forty-page essay on medieval artists’ treatises and characterized by something of the simple generosity of the recipe books that form his subject, Clarke’s index achieves its goal and will surely find a niche as a valuable research tool.

The creation of an index is a sizable chore, and it is important to be clear about what Clarke’s checklist does not try to do. It does not, for example, include purely theoretical works or writings that treat iconography or style but not the preparation of actual materials. Texts that deal only indirectly with technique find no place in Clarke’s list, and thus many contracts, diaries, and account books are not included. Moreover, he defines medieval rather narrowly. Many Arabic manuscripts and several writings by well-known classical authors are, despite their relevance in medieval Europe, thus excluded from the checklist, although Clarke does summarize these writings in a chapter of supplementary texts.

But if such omissions seem initially risky, they allow Clarke to offer a precise and unprecedented roster of more than 400 manuscripts that openly mention painting techniques and technologies in medieval Europe. Admittedly, the entries are not completely consistent, as many do not contain incipits or even folio numbers, and given the nature of such lists this one will probably not prove entirely static. The index is, as Clarke states, essentially preliminary to an even more comprehensive document, and he modestly encourages readers to contribute possible additions to a later, more complete list. But for now, his checklist achieves its intended end and stands as a responsible aid to anyone conducting research in the field. The manuscript list is followed by several further indices, in which the manuscripts are grouped according to author, date, language, incipit, and (in a very rudimentary manner) subject. Finally, a brief and admittedly partial survey of relevant manuscript depictions is a pleasant inclusion, although it does point to the disappointing absence of reproductions in this volume.

A second helpful feature of The Art of All Colours is its survey of secondary literature. Clarke’s fifteen-page bibliography, supplemented by a very brief annotated outline of five especially important works on medieval artistic technologies, is immensely helpful—Daniel Thompson’s classic volume on the materials and techniques of medieval painting, after all, doesn’t even contain a bibliography. Despite its value, Clarke’s bibliography does have some curious holes. Missing, for example, are A. P. Laurie’s writings on pigments and technique, and Per Jonas Nordhagen’s more recent collection of writings on medieval mosaics and wall paintings. Even with omissions like these, however, Clarke’s bibliography will also prove a useful research guide.

Clarke prefaces his checklist and bibliography with an introductory essay that approaches the subject of recipe books from various directions. Instead of presenting a synthetic overview of the topic, Clarke points to Thompson’s definitive work on the subject and casts this essay in the form of a series of page-long entries that range from cursory histories of specific manuscripts to general thoughts on medieval practice. Some of these entries are both enjoyable and instructive. His sketch of the complicated etymology of the term kermes (used interchangeably with vermilion) points to the flexibility of technical terminologies, and a discussion of the Aristotelian interest in the purity of sulphur and mercury helps him to explain the colossal number of surviving recipes involving those two elements. A diagram tracing the transmission of material relating to recipe books is a nice touch. He also makes the worthwhile claim that the large number of treatises on manuscript production is a predictable result of a culture in which scribes formed a large percentage of the literate. At points, however, the brevity of Clarke’s entries is disappointing. His contextualization of several translated passages is skeletal, and some of his entries merely condense the work of earlier scholars. As a result, he occasionally overlooks potentially interesting points, such as the fact that late-medieval recipes, written when clocks were increasingly common, can be much more precise about cooking times. His introduction is, admittedly, not meant to be an exhaustive essay, but it seems to become exhausted before finishing a full lap.

Despite its relative brevity, the introduction features some surprising organizational difficulties. These problems are largely due to the diverse nature of the unit headings, which often force him to repeat information. At times, these repetitions are only slight inconveniences. A lengthy translation of a passage from a work by William Eamon is quoted twice (with slight differences!) on facing pages, and a brief mention of Diocletian’s burning of alchemical texts in 296 is followed rather illogically, eight pages later, by a much fuller discussion of the same event. Although Clarke’s prose is always clear, such inconsistencies are troubling and could generally be solved with more rigorous organization. In other cases, though, such redundancy truly weakens the force of his analysis. For example, at three different points in his opening chapter, Clarke turns to the important idea that workshop practice may not have mirrored neatly the prescriptions of recipe books at all. At one point, he suggests that practice and theory diverged substantially. Several pages later, he notes that scribes who used local names of plants may have been drawing on their own experience, but then playfully concludes that recipe books allowed nonspecialists to master just enough “knowledge for their dinner party conversation” (10–11). Finally, on page 32, he offers more concrete thoughts on the matter, but only after noting that answering the question fully would require an entire book. Fair enough, but even his rapid overview of this important issue could be strengthened considerably by eliminating the false starts and collecting the several disjointed sections into one cohesive, fluid argument.

This fragmentary aspect is due in part to the nature of the evidence, and Clarke responsibly foregrounds the difficulties of working with texts that are often fragmentary, corrupt, or intentionally cryptic. But the author’s difficulties may also stem from an uncertainty about his intended audience. At times he seems to write for a general audience, explaining, for example, the term “Dark Ages” and outlining medieval intellectual culture in a few broad sentences. At other points, however, he seems more interested in writing for specialists; thus, although he significantly notes several early references to oil as a medium, he never offers any specifics regarding the history of oil or tempera paints. In a sense, then, his work unfortunately feels a bit like the recipes he discusses: part explicit description and part elliptical summary.

These relatively small missteps, however, should not obscure the undeniable value of Clarke’s volume. His introductory essay may imply an uncertainty about its intended audience, but the sheer usefulness of his index will soon earn his volume an appreciative audience of scholars in the field of manuscript production and other areas of medieval painting.

Kerr Houston
Professor, Department of Art History, Theory, and Criticism, Maryland Institute College of Art

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