When I was a child, one of my favorite books was The Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, by E.L. Konigsburg. If you’ve never heard of it, it is about two children who run away from home and live in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. While staying there, they try to solve the mystery of whether a sculpture in the museum is really by Michelangelo. This book led me to desperately wish to one day live in the museum and solve an art mystery.
The scanning electron miscroscope at the Getty's Conservation Institute. See, it is so complicated looking! I am having bad chem lab flashbacks already!
It always makes me a little sad that I will never get to be a conservator. Not to discount my ability to be anything I want to be in life, but conservators are a rare breed. They must be part science-geek and part art historian, while also being an accomplished artist in their own right. Not only that, they had to have known from the beginning of their academic careers what they hoped to do. After all, how many people just happen to double major in chemistry and art history?
As an intern at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, I often would follow the lab coats hoping to catch a glimpse of what they did behind those heavy doors in the basement. So as a master’s student I felt lucky to be required to take a course in conservation. Like most people who end up in the humanities, chemistry has never been my strong suit. It was a bit intimidating to be forced to understand all that sciencey stuff (yeah, that’s a technical term). The final project for the course required me to work with a conservator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I was supposed to look at an artwork from the collection and use science to understand how it was made.
I was assigned a piece of Islamic ceramics known as minai ware, which are from medieval Persia (modern Iran) from 1179-1219. When I say a piece, I mean literally, a piece of a bowl, which is probably why I was left alone with it – I mean, how much damage could I do to something that was already broken? But at the time, I couldn’t believe that anyone would let me touch something from the 13th century, let alone leave me to my own devices with it. It was the first time I felt like I was really an art history professional, not someone who just liked pretty pictures.
Minai bowl from the Metropolitan Museum of Art
My bowl sort of looked like this one, but you know, broken
He gave me a study that a previous Met conservator had done on this type of ceramics, which used four methods to analyze them: surface examination under magnification, reflected light microscopy of mounted glaze cross sections, open architecture X-ray diffraction analysis for the identification of crystalline phases, and scanning electron microscopy–energy dispersive X-ray spectrometry for elemental analysis.
Huh? Yeah, that’s what I thought too.
Basically, they used those big crazy machines to magnify down to the teeniest layers of the surface of the bowls. As a result, they found out that some of the colors were put onto the unfired base glaze (inglazing) and some were put on over the fired base glaze (overglazing). This means that each piece is fired three times: once to form the bowl itself; twice with a base glaze and certain colors (usually blue and sometimes black); and thrice with the rest of the colors applied as enamels. If you know anything about ceramics (don’t worry, I didn’t either), each time a vessel is fired, it is a risk. It is easy for things to go wrong in the process, in which case you will have to start over. So each of these vessels would have faced that risk three times before completion.
While this all seemed interesting to know, it wasn’t until two years later that I realized the significance. At the time, I didn’t know anything about Islamic art or all that much about ceramics really. But after that semester my interests changed and most of my coursework in graduate school focused on Islamic and Indian art.
This year I am a TA for a course on Islamic Art. The professor for the class showed one of these bowls in lecture and told the class that they were expensive because of the materials used and because they had to be fired twice. This sparked something in my memory. I raised my hand tentatively, and told him, “I worked on this with a conservator at the Met.”
“Oh no, don’t tell me it is a fake!” he groaned. (Fakes are a constant problem for museums, but that is another story.)
“No,” I told him, “But they are actually fired three times, because some of the colors are done with inglazing.”
I was shocked to hear that he had never heard this. But when I found the article the conservator had given me, I saw that it was only published in the Met’s conservation center newsletter. This is hardly a well-read journal – it is all of 12 pages long and not widely distributed. (“I must have missed that issue,” my professor quipped.) Therefore, these vessels were even more expensive to produce than scholars have realized and hardly anyone even knows about it.
This helps to explain why these beautiful ceramics were only produced for about 40 years. After that, the technique was abruptly abandoned, which is usually attributed to the Mongol invasion in the subsequent years. Other ceramics traditions however, continue on after this momentous turning point in Islamic art history. This scientific discovery sheds light on the technological developments of medieval Islamic ceramics. Minai wares are the first that use inglazing and overglazing techniques on the same vessels, which is, again, something most scholars don’t realize. It is surprising that the people who can find out the chemical makeup of artworks are not really connecting with those who study how they were made and the social conditions of their creation.
So, I didn’t exactly figure this secret out myself. But by taking the time to understand the scientific findings, I was able to make the connection that others had been missing and teach a professor something he didn’t know. Hopefully as art historians learn to not fear the sciencey stuff, we will be able to jointly make new discoveries that combine technology and aesthetics. Until then, I’m going to keep hunting for mysteries. And picking out the period room I’ll be sleeping in at the Met.
Probably this one!
Bedroom from the Sagredo Palace, Venice, c. 1718
Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art