Impossible recipes. Spike Bucklow. Introduction

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Impossible recipes Spike Bucklow ABSTRACT In many artists treatises, among other recipes that seem quite straightforward, impossible recipes have been found that have caused problems to translators and
Impossible recipes Spike Bucklow ABSTRACT In many artists treatises, among other recipes that seem quite straightforward, impossible recipes have been found that have caused problems to translators and even some embarrassment to editors. Apparently impractical recipes suggest that recipes should be considered as existing on a continuum recipes may be neither exclusively practical nor fantastic but may have aspects of both. They may not be quite as untypical as they seem and their presence should alert us to theoretical functions embedded in artists materials and methods. This paper considers the values that could have been attached to such impractical recipes. Introduction Hawthorne and Smith (1979) faithfully translate Theophilus early 12th-century recipe for Spanish gold (with ingredients as diverse as the dried blood of a red-haired man and the ash of a basilisk, a creature born from a hen s egg incubated by a toad) but feel compelled to describe it as fantastic, lurid and garbled. Yet if untypical of an author they described as practical, we should not dismiss Spanish gold, a precursor of mosaic gold and a series of synthetic yellow pigments. If a recipe does not work, we could ask why it was written in the first place and, in many cases, why it was regularly repeated. Our assessment of whether or not something works is positivist. Positivism asserts that the highest or only form of knowledge is the description of sensory phenomena (Blackburn 1994: 294). If the physical outcome is not as described, we assume that either the ingredients or the instructions are at fault. Impossible recipes might seem to undermine the reliability of artists manuals and, as such, they could be a potential embarrassment. If, in these recipes, the authors did not know what they were doing, or were lying, then what confidence can we have in other recipes? The modern response to impossible recipes has been two-fold. Sometimes (as in the case of Spanish gold) an attempt is made to distance them from artistic practice by calling them alchemical (Hawthorne and Smith 1979: 119). This is in spite of the fact that authors themselves explicitly acknowledge the relevance of alchemy in eminently practical recipes, such as those for lead white (Thompson 1960: 34). In other cases, such as recipes for silver blue, attempts are made to identify apparently anomalous ingredients (Orna et al. 1985). Both responses involve questioning authors abilities, intellectual in the first case and practical in the second case. Neither of these assumptions is warranted. On the one hand, the history of science has demonstrated the explicit dependence of science upon craft up to the 17th century, and on the other hand, innumerable scientific analyses of artefacts demonstrate high levels of craft skill. Upon examination, impossible recipes might eventually prove to be mistakes (transcription errors, for example) or more fundamental delusions. But they should be assumed innocent until proved guilty and their innocence is supported by recipes that frankly identify themselves as impossible (Ryan 1990). So if impossible recipes do not work in an everyday material sense, we should acknowledge that they are the products of inherently less positivist cultures than our own and approach them in an appropriate manner. Artists recipes are a literary form that might seem to have a practical subject, but they are not exclusively practical. Around 1250, Robert Kilwardby (a Dominican who was a regent of Oxford University) said that the speculative sciences are practical and the practical sciences speculative (Whitney 1990: 120). We could therefore treat all recipes as a genre that includes both the practical and the speculative. While the focus of this paper is artists recipes up to the 17th century, the impossible recipe was no stranger to quantum physics and relativity theory in the 20th century. Modern thought experiments are impossible recipes because they specify ingredients, instructions and outcomes. One example requires a radioactive substance and a cat in a box, another requires a beam of light and a mirror. In the first case, the experimenter opens the box and in the second, the experimenter looks in the mirror while riding the beam of light. In Erwin Schrödinger s recipe, an ingredient is impossible the simultaneously live-and-dead cat in the unobserved box defies positivist interpretation. In Albert Einstein s recipe, an instruction is impossible the experimenter cannot make the observation (Blackburn 1994: 377). Modern educated Westerners have little difficulty in reconciling themselves to the practical impossibility of Schrödinger s or Einstein s entirely speculative thought experiments. But the speculative content of an historic recipe may be presented in a manner that is unfamiliar to us. We must therefore be sensitive to the cultural context and look for clues. These may be in the associations conjured up by particular words or phrases. For example, in 18 I m p o s s i b l e r e c i p e s numerous medieval encyclopaedias, the world, the orbits of the planets, stars and heavens, or the universe itself are described as rounded spheres or as a spherical globes. The apparent tautology we might say that all spheres are rounded and that all globes are spherical suggests that we might be missing something (Foster 1991: 103 9). In those contexts, there may have been differences between rounded, sphere and globe. Descriptive terms vary with context and recipes for artists are ways of making things happen, so recipes are a literary genre associated with concepts of causality. Some of the difficulties presented by impossible recipes may therefore be due to differences between modern and traditional ideas of causality, ideas about what makes things happen. Modern concepts of causality are essentially positivist things happen because of interactions between separate physical things (Blackburn 1994: 58 60). On the other hand, the idea of what causes things to happen in recipes for artists written up to the 17th century owes more to Aristotle s four causes (Wickstead and Cornforth 1963: 1, ). These are the material cause (like a block of stone), the efficient cause (like a sculptor), the formal cause (the blueprint for a sculpture) and the final cause (the patron s commission of a sculpture). Recipes outline what is necessary to make something happen. For example, lead metal and organic acid vapours are necessary to make lead white (Hawthorne and Smith 1979: 41 2). But the specification of necessary ingredients is not enough to make recipes practical they also have to provide sufficiently specific instructions. And the authors understanding of necessary and sufficient causes may differ from our own. For example, Theophilus manual contains a recipe (I, 36) for a green pigment made with copper metal and organic acids (Hawthorne and Smith 1979: 41). It also contains a recipe (I, 35) that requires copper metal, organic acids and salt (Hawthorne and Smith 1979: 41). Both pigments are green and we might say that there is an identifiable chemical difference between them. The outcome of recipe 36 is copper acetate, while recipe 35 produces a mixture of copper acetate and copper chloride. But Albertus Magnus (a Dominican who taught at Cologne) gives two different recipes for vermilion, again with and without salt, yet in this case, there is no identifiable difference in the outcomes (Wyckoff 1967: 207). Salt either has some transitory role in the production of vermilion (in which case its influence can only be minor, since the process works in its absence) or, from a positivist point of view, the salt is superfluous. Equally, unless Theophilus two greens had a significant difference in terms of visual or working properties (our concerns about degradation may not have been shared by him), his recipe s salt may again be considered unnecessary. In the real world, things happen when all the necessary and sufficient conditions are satisfied. But in a recipe, what is necessary and sufficient is not always clear. On the one hand, in a practical recipe, some ingredients may be unnecessary (from a positivist point of view), and on the other hand, a recipe may appear to be impossible only because insufficient information has been specified. In other words, the author assumes something of which we are unaware. Perhaps authors intended their apparently unnecessary recipe ingredients to refer to the formal or final causes which modern science neglects? If recipes are thought to be exclusively practical as Hawthorne and Smith s editorial comments suggest (1979) then the specification of unnecessary or insufficient information complicates the recipe. However, an editorial insistence upon exclusive practicality actually generates two problems. First it turns the impossible recipes into embarrassments for us and, secondly, it assumes that the authors were merely literate mechanics. Theophilus, for one, would not have considered himself to be a literate mechanic: he was a well-educated Benedictine monk (Van Engen 1980). If we allow that artists recipes can potentially contain meanings in addition to their practical meaning, then impossible recipes cease to be a problem for us and the recipes authors are acknowledged as possibly having other interests in addition to the simple creation of pigments. This is obvious in the case of Theophilus, a craftsman who was also a theologically astute monk, but it is also implied by the fact that some authors of artists manuals were not practising artists. For example, Alcherius, who compiled recipes in the late 14th to early 15th century, held a legal position and might also have practised as an illuminator (Turner 1998: 45). Sir Théodore Turquet de Mayerne, on the other hand, was a diplomat and physician with a social life that involved painters and who had an interest, but no demonstrable personal involvement, in painting as a craft (Trevor-Roper 2006). The interests of a 17th-century diplomat and physician in the mechanics of painting suggest that artists recipes may have been thought to exemplify general scientific principles that could be applied beyond the workshop s walls. While five hundred years might separate Theophilus and de Mayerne, there was significant continuity in the science they practised (Grant 1978). An impossible recipe case study To the best of my knowledge, Theophilus method of polishing gems (Hawthorne and Smith 1979: ), has not been tested in controlled laboratory conditions. It has therefore not been demonstrated to be impossible. However, it may be safe to assume that the procedure he advocates might involve unnecessary ingredients or insufficient instructions. The outcome he describes, on the other hand, is a tangible and durable product that is a constituent of many extant works of art. Our failure to test the recipe in controlled laboratory conditions is due in part to ethical considerations (the procedure has implications for animal welfare) but is also due to our (positivist) assumptions about the procedure s implausibility. In the absence of modern scientific evidence, we will continue by assuming that the recipe is impossible without giving it a fair trial. Theophilus recipe recommends that, if you want to work rock crystal, you should: take a two- or three-year-old goat and bind its feet together and cut a hole between its breast and 19 Spike Bucklo w stomach, in the place where its heart is, and put the crystal in there, so that it lies in its blood until it is hot. At once take it out and engrave whatever you want on it, while this heat lasts. When it begins to cool and become hard, put it back in the goat s blood, take it out again when it is hot, and engrave it. Keep on doing so until you finish the carving. Finally, heat it again, take it out and rub it with a woollen cloth so that you may render it brilliant with the same blood (Hawthorne and Smith 1979: 190). As far as I am aware (positivist) science is at a loss to suggest why warm goat s blood should facilitate the engraving and polishing of quartz. The process would probably also have been messy, time-consuming and expensive how long would a goat survive, and how many goats would you need to engrave a gem? It is unlikely to have been followed by many craftsmen. We can therefore query why Theophilus wrote the recipe. Also, why should we pay it any attention? To deal with the second question first. We should pay attention to the recipe because it is an authentic part of a manuscript that, as a whole, has been taken seriously by numerous scholars. No reasons for dismissing the chapter have been raised and the procedure in question is part of a wider discussion, the majority of which might well have been classified by Hawthorne and Smith (1979) as eminently practical. Our only reason for not paying attention to the recipe would be that it did not conform to our expectations. In which case, we should either ignore the whole of Theophilus treatise or admit that our survey of artists techniques is biased and selective. The question about why Theophilus wrote the recipe is, superficially, easy to answer. His recipe for engraving and polishing rock crystal is a variant on a well-established theme. Pliny, for example, said that diamond could only be split when soaked with goat s blood (Rackham 1968: 10, ). But of course, this does not really answer the question; it just shifts it back a thousand years. Following Kilwardby, we could look for speculative reasons for Pliny s and Theophilus apparently impractical recipes. Theophilus provides a number of clues as to the meaning of his recipe. The chapter starts with the statement that rock crystal is water hardened into ice which is then hardened through many years into stone. In medieval science, hardness was an accidental quality, so the rock crystal was still essentially water. This is significant because water represented one of the two theoretical principles that underlay all manifest reality. The other principle was represented by fire. 1 And in the same chapter, after describing the goat s blood procedure, Theophilus notes how a wet crystal ball, combined with the sun s brilliance ignites tinder. In context, Theophilus apparently practical observation about the incendiary effects of magnifying glasses is an irrelevant aside, since the chapter continues with a matter-offact description of how to cut crystal (with an iron saw, sand and water). The incendiary effect of sunlight concentrated by wet crystal is a speculative assertion that neither fire nor water is effective alone. Both are necessary to effect change. Neither the sun s brilliance, nor the shaped rock crystal ignites tinder on its own, but together (as the twin principles, fire and water) they effect a profound change on the state of the tinder. The material to be engraved and polished rock crystal, or petrified water is therefore one half of the generative elemental couple, fire and water. If Theophilus description of working rock crystal is interpreted as a theoretical explanation of how the artist effects a change on the state of his raw materials (which, in the appropriate paradigm, correspond to elemental water) then the goat s blood could symbolise elemental fire. This interpretation is supported by two details in his recipe. First, from a positivist point of view, the blood of any mammal could be expected to be equally effective, or ineffective, yet Theophilus specifies goat s blood because the goat is a hot tempered creature, whose heat he uses elsewhere to harden tools (delivered this time in urine, not blood) (Hawthorne and Smith 1979: 95 6). Second, the crystal is to be placed where its heart is because the heart is the solar organ (Macrobius 1952: 169). Although the procedure is presented mythically, it is logical. Hylomorphism Einstein did not intend us to take his light beam literally, Schrödinger did not intend us to take his simultaneously live-and-dead cat literally, and Theophilus may not have intended us to take his goat s blood procedure literally, either. Einstein graphically represented relativity, Schrodinger imagined vector-state collapse and Theophilus illustrated hylomorphism. Hylomorphism is the scientific doctrine that everything is composed of some matter, hyle, in some form, morph (Blackburn 1994: 182). An alchemical variant on hylomorphism identified form with fire (through sulphur) and matter with water (through mercury) and Theophilus impossible recipe is a theoretical aside that explains the way he understood his craft within the appropriate scientific paradigm. An attempt to understand artists recipes in the same terms in which their authors understood them is valuable because it illuminates connections between otherwise apparently unconnected details and recipes. In the example of gem polishing, the speculative goat s blood procedure and the practical aside about incendiary magnifying glasses are only tangentially related to the rest of the chapter if taken literally. However, if they are read as a theoretical commentary, they serve to coherently enrich the description of an otherwise relatively tedious procedure. The theoretical requirement of both fire and water (hylomorphic form and matter) in all manifestation also finds direct practical expression elsewhere in On Divers Arts. Theophilus ends the chapter dealing with goat s blood with the statement that gems made of glass are also ground and polished in the same way as rock crystal. This may have been literally true in some cases, with powdered glass being used as an abrasive and polish for glass, just as he described the use of fragmented and powered crystal. But, as he himself knew, glass can be a much easier material to work than crystal. 20 I m p o s s i b l e r e c i p e s Theophilus described cutting crystal with a saw but elsewhere he discusses how to cut glass with a red-hot iron and saliva, which is a highly practical application of fire and water (Hawthorne and Smith 1979: 62 3). The shaped glass can then be trimmed if necessary with a grozing iron. Yet grozing leaves a relatively rough edge and while this is acceptable for stained glass windows (the context in which he mentions the technique) it would not be acceptable for making glass gems. His gems made of glass would have to be shaped, but they would also require a smooth surface. The shape and surface of some glass gems on the Westminster Retable of c.1260, for example, suggest that these may have been made by fire polishing small irregular fragments of glass (Bucklow forthcoming). The term fire polishing is modern, but the practice of gently reheating worked glass at the mouth of the furnace is well established and the use of heat to soften the surface of glass is mentioned by Theophilus (Hawthorne and Smith 1979: 72). The effect of fire on watery cut or grozed glass changes the dull, rough surface into a glossy, smooth surface thus transforming the glass from translucent shapes into transparent gems. Theophilus knew the doctrine of hylomorphism. It underlay the proportions of sulphur (a mineral embodiment of fire or form) and mercury (a mineral embodiment of water or matter) in his recipe for vermilion (Hawthorne and Smith 1979: 40; Bucklow 2009: ). This doctrine therefore accounts for details in a practical recipe as well as details in an apparently impossible recipe that is more productively approached as a speculative recipe or medieval thought experiment. Discussion Recipes that describe chemical or physical changes, such as Theophilus synthesis of vermilion or his working of quartz, might illustrate theoretical issues. When they work (in a positivist sense), recipes for artists have the virtue of demonstrating transformations relatively quickly, reliably and easily, because they involve changes in shape or in colour. Their value as exemplars of natural and artificial transformation comes from the fact that th
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