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Alum – A Material at the Crossroads of the Arts, Crafts, and Learned Inquiry

Workshop du comité de pilotage du GDRI : EMAE / Liège, University of Liège, Faculty of Philosophy and Letters / 27 novembre 2014

Suivi d’une présentation de Colour ConText. A Database on ColourHistoricalPractice and Knowledge

Résumé :

During medieval and pre-modern times, potash alum was used for a variety of purposes in artistic and craft contexts. Alum was one of the most important chemical compounds involved in the dyeing of textiles and the manufacture of organic lakes, used Colour ConText - rev IG2in painting and illuminating techniques. Knowledge on the various uses and functions of alum can be gathered by the studying of collections of recipes, of which hundreds of examples have survived from the Middle Ages and the pre-modern period.

Recipe sources have been made accessible through a specifically designed database (Colour ConText). Within these sources, alum is involved in a large field of technological procedures. It acts as a siccative agent in the preparation of oils and varnishes. It was employed in the making of glues, in the coloration and the treatment of various supports (bones, parchment, paper, wax, …), in the manufacture of pigments, such as verdigris, and the purification of ultramarine. Recipe books also provide us with data regarding the physical qualities of alum, the diverse states in which it was supplied and possible substitutes. They also deliver some clues concerning its various geographical provenances. Thus, these sources could serve to shed light on the multiple historical roles of alum but also help in accurately estimating its technical importance. In addition, through these collections of recipes we learn that alum not only served for artisanal purposes but it was also used in alchemical, medical, pharmaceutical and house-economical contexts.

In parallel, alum was also discussed in contexts of learned inquiry. Its physical properties were explained in lapidaries, encyclopedias, and alchemical treatises. Despite the evident importance of potash alum, the history of its use in the arts, crafts and contexts of learned inquiry has remained little studied.

This research project in the making on the history of alum aims at writing the history of the use of alum in the arts, crafts and learned inquiry. Investigating the history of alum, we consider the interconnectness and dissemination of knowledge between the arts, crafts and learned inquiry and the various ways in which it relied on commercial, cultural, technological and scientific exchanges.

 Pour consulter l’affiche de la présentation : Colour ConText – rev IG2