This summer I am reproducing some ancient shields, and since most face-to-face classes where I live are still closed, I am turning to the best possible teachers: Theophilius (fl. around 1100 CE) and Cennino Cennini (fl. around 1400 CE). Theophilius and Cennino teach almost everything you need to prepare a shield (or a panel) for painting.
The standard way to access Cennini is through three books published by Daniel V. Thompson around 1930 (an Italian text, a translation titled The Craftsman’s Handbook, and a practical handbook called The Practice of Tempera Painting). Lara Broecke has recently published a new edition, translation, and commentary of Cennini. These are thorough and scholarly and synthesize the past 85 years of art-technological research. If you want to know the chemical composition of Cennini’s gesso grosso plaster or giallorino pigment, look here. But Broecke distances herself from people who read Cennini as a textbook (pp. 1, 13, 305). Cennini was not a very good writer, his book may have been incomplete when he died, and none of the surviving copies of his work is a perfect representation of what he wrote. To understand why the old translations and editors of Cennini’s Book of the Art have the quirks which they have, lets turn to the Italian independent scholar Giovanni Mazzaferro:
Giovanni Mazzaferro. “Mary P. Merrifield and the First English Translation of Cennino Cennini’s ‘Book of the Art’: the press reviews. Part One” 14 April 2017 https://letteraturaartistica.blogspot.com/2017/04/mary-phialdelphia-merrifield.html Because this website is loaded with scripts and does weird things on random keypresses I will quote the most important section.
At the end of 1844, Mary Philadelphia Merrifield produced the first English translation of the Book of the Art by Cennino Cennini . … The English text was thus translated from the first printed edition (princeps) of Giuseppe Tambroni (1821), at that time the only Italian version of the work; that text was already much criticized since the release, because it was based on the transcription of a 1737 copy of the Laurentian manuscript preserved in Florence and not directly on the latter (dated 1437).
The historical juncture is known: after the Westminster Palace had burned completely in 1834, English authorities decided to rebuild it completely, raising it in Gothic style and decorating it with frescoes. The then British artists, however, had no familiarity with this technique; therefore, a special Royal Commission of Fine Arts started work with the task of promoting the knowledge of how to operate on the wall and, more generally, of reviving the fortunes of British art, meant to grow in parallel to the ascent of Empire’s fortunes. The Commission was chaired by Prince Albert, consort of Queen, but the central figure of the same was without doubts Charles Lock Eastlake, the future director of the National Gallery. In early 1842, the Commission (i.e. Eastlake) presented the first Report on its work. As we can read in the parliamentary records , it was a very short text, followed by a lengthy series of attachments, whose first five ones were by far the most important. Hereafter is the list of their titles:
- Annex 1) Notice respecting a competition in cartoons (these were the terms for the completion among British artists for the realization of preparatory cartoons for Westminster Palace);
- Annex 2) The general object of the Commission considered in relation to the state and prospects of the English School of Painting (in essence, this attachment explained that British artists knew little about fresco and authorities had to do everything possible to recover the knowhow on these techniques).
- Annex 3) Statements of Director Peter von Cornelius relating to the proposed decoration of the Houses of Parliament. The Commission (in practice, Prince Albert, who was German) called Peter von Cornelius to London. He was one of the prominent figures of the Nazarene world, which had rediscovered the fresco technique, first in Rome and then in Germany. While the British art world greatly feared that the task of decorating such a symbolic place of power might be entrusted to a German artist, in fact Cornelius called himself out, providing however some advice on the matter.
- Annex 4) Various communications on Fresco Painting. This attachment offered information gathered from various sources on the topic.
- Attachment 5) Methods of Fresco-Painting described by writers on art. Among others, this attachment (written personally by Eastlake) also contained excerpts of the translation of Cennino’s treatise as published by Tambroni. Eastlake stated that a complete translation of the work would be desirable.
Accommodating the appeal by Eastlake, the little-known Mary P. Merrifield provided to perform the translation and, two years after, to publish it.
Mazzafero says that The Book of the Art was translated to solve a specific practical problem: training enough British fresco painters to decorate a new House of Parliament without having to hire foreigners. Just like in the the historical fencing movement from 1992 to 2012, editions and translations were rushed out to get something usable into the hands of workers. These early editions and translations were not very accurate, but they were good enough to get started on practical work while scholars worked on more accurate versions at their own pace. In Merrifield’s case, her quick-and-dirty translation of Cennini got her a grant to spend a year in Italy studying with local painters and scholars and collecting other early texts on art which she later published and which are still a standard reference.
It seems like even after a credentialed, university-based art history emerged out of conoisseurship and academies of art in the 20th century (see Turner’s Philology), scholarly curiosity about treatises on painting has always been the little flea on the big hairy animal of wanting to paint like the ancients or understand how they painted. The first translation of early Arabic recipes for ink and paint comes from an artist and independent scholar named Joumana Medlej who uses these recipes in her work not from an academic with purely intellectual curiosity.
Its rather terrifying to read from another independent scholar that “for two centuries (after the first printing of a passage of Theophilius in 1774), the quest to discover the origins of oil painting seems to have been the primary driving force for the development of technical art history, both in the development of chemical analysis for paint samples and in the development of art-technological source research.” (Mark Clarke, The Montpellier Liber Diversarum Arcium (2011) p. 84) This search was nothing but an attempt to save a casual statement by the sixteenth-century writer Vasari that Jan van Eyck of Bruges had invented oil painting in the early 15 century (both surviving paintings and artists’ recipe-books show that oil painting was common north of the Alps by the 13th century).
Using both scholarly tools and practical knowledge to revive old practices has a deep magic. People who reconstruct a performance of Beowulf or rebuild an ancient Athenian trireme or recreate martial arts from manuals have something important in common. A purely academic project or a purely modern activity have none of the power or mystery even if they seem easier or more comfortable.
Mazzaferro also reminds me of how few people these projects often depend upon. Without the Royal Commission of Fine Arts, Merrifield would probably never have published her translation which lead to further English translations. Writers since the 16th century had cited Cennini but only in 1821 did anyone get together the money to print it. And while by about 1970 Daniel V. Thompson regretted some things about his translation (or had decided that they were no longer as clear as they had been in 1933), neither he or anyone else got around to publishing an alternative until 2015.
As I make my shields, I am glad to have both Broecke’s and Thompson’s versions of Cennini beside my workbench. Broecke has a careful Italian text and learned commentary, while Thompson is full of love for his dead teacher and practical wisdom from the studio.
Lara Broecke’s edition of Cennini is available from Archetype Publications in the UK. Daniel V. Thompson’s books are available from Dover Publications and in most libraries. If you want to keep me writing in my garret, then please, support this site.
(scheduled 3 August 2022)