J.P. Gumbert

On « outils » and « vernice »

Gazette du livre médiéval, n° 33

[...] Prof. Stefano Zamponi [...] feels « che la vernice non sia una polvere (il termine non sarebbe sensato in italiano) ma un liquido, una vernice cioè, ed esattamente quella vernice che si dava col pennello sulla carta, per evitare un assorbimento eccessivo dell'inchiostro (talora la vernice è data solo all'interno dello specchio di scrittura... e quindi è oggi perfettamente visibile) ». Indeed the shiny aspect of many Italian paper manuscripts, often only (approximately) on the written area as Zamponi describes it, is a notable feature. It is often apposed in a haphazard way, with coarse strokes which do not cover all of the relevant terrain and often overshoot into the margins; it is made with some instrument of say half a centimetre in width. I tend to think that it is polishing, with a hard stone (an agate), but am far from certain.

As to the vernice, however, I wish to refer to the recipe given by Palatino himself (p. 240 of the Ogg edition), which runs (according to the Osley translation, p. 93) :

« (Pounce)... it must be used sparingly, as too much of it will stop the ink from flowing. If (...) you want to make it yourself, place a quantity of egg-shells, cleaned of the inside skin, to dry in an oven and make powder of them. Put two parts of this powder with one of finely crushed incense and mix well. This mixture will be excellent and far better than any that you can buy. When your writing is finished and dry, and you wish, because of the smell, to remove from the paper the pounce which you have put on it, rub it with a bit of bread. This will remove it as completely as if you had not put it on in the first place. The hare's foot is employed solely to spread pounce lightly and evenly ... »

I think this already makes clear that the mixture of crushed egg-shell and crushed incense, which you spread with a hare's foot, is a powder, not a liquid. The recipe is strikingly similar to a fifteenth-century Dutch recipe (unpublished, found in Utrecht UB 387 f. IIv, together with a number of other interesting recipes):

« To make vernis. One shall take shells of eggs and rub them to pieces, and put them into a basin and pour water onto them and wash them between the hands (...) until the membrane is off, and when it is off or as well as it can get, put in into the sun and let it dry very well. And then you shall put it into a mortar and pound it as small as you can, and then grind it on a stone until it is small enough. And further you shall take the whitest grains of incense and pound them also in the mortar and grind it also on a stone. And then you shall mix it, so that a third part is incense and two parts egg-shell. And then stir it together a bit. »

This also is evidently a powder. (In Dutch too the word normally means a varnish.)

Further I wish to quote from L. Rockinger, « Zum baierischen Schriftwesen im Mittelalter », Abh. d. Hist. Classe der kön. Bayerischen Akademie der Wiss. 12.1 (1872) 3-72, 12.2 (1873) 169-230 - an insufficiently known goldmine. On p. 21 he quotes a recipe for creta, which is to be « strewn over » a fresh palimpsest : it consists of two parts of ground eggshells and one part of chalk (creta) ground with white of eggs, « which others use by way of vernisium ». The pulvis vernisy quoted from a Tegernsee source on p. 26, however, which is « a powder one puts on paper or parchment so it does not flow and writing stands cleanly on it », is a different composition.

The relationship of these powders (for which the English name is pounce, and a French word seems to be groi(n)son) with the group of preparations called creta should be investigated. (On pounces, one should read M. L. Hodgson in C. M. Lamb, ed., The Calligrapher's Handbook, 1956, p. 83-86 !) Both vernice and creta normally combine an amount of calcium carbonate (ground egg-shell, marble, chalk...) with organic matter, sometimes a protein but more often a resin - incense in the Palatino and the Dutch text, but often sandarac. And in fact the word vernice is also found as a synonym of sandarac. Both the powder and the fluid are called vernice, not because of their physical appearance (which is different) but because they both contain sandarac (or something similar).

Finally I quote: « Vernice è anche una specie di gomma pulverizzata, con cui si strofina la carta primo di scrivere; detta comunem. Sandracca », from N. Tommaseo, Diz. della lingua italiana 7, 1916, 1803, who quotes sources.


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