Grant to the University of Antwerp for the joint project "Slovak Soil in Flemish Art"

  • September 30, 2019

(only in English) The project aims to evidence the technological connection between the Renaissance painters of the Antwerp School and Slovak’s leading mining industry.

At the beginning of the 16th century, the mining industry in Slovakia started producing a series of innovative copper pigments that instantly found its way to Flemish artists, thanks to Antwerp’s role as central European hub for trade, art production, and science. Today, the University of Antwerp will use its technological advances in chemical imaging and heritage science by bringing to light the use of these materials for the first time. In this way, Flanders high-tech of today can be used to showcase its high-tech of the past.

Funding: Department General Affairs and Finance (Principal funding)
Funding party: Flemish Government

The beginning of the 16th century marked the start of a prosperous time for Flanders with Antwerp becoming one of Europe's leading commercial and financial centres. The flourishing of culture, trade and science was directly reflected into the works of the Antwerp School, a class of highly skilled painters that initially combined the Flemish Gothic tradition with Renaissance elements. However, the year 1500 does not only mark a period of stylistic revolution, the works of art also change from a technological point of view, with Flemish painters experimenting with innovative materials and techniques, an aspect that has remained understudied. In particular, we will chemically analyse a relevant corpus of Renaissance paintings, which can be considered as tangible artefacts of technological history, in order to chemically trace a series of highly unusual copper pigments, recently reported in a few works of art. It is currently assumed that these innovative pigments were imported to Antwerp from a mining area in the current Slovak Republic through trade with the Thurzo-Fugger company. Since Jakob Fugger was the wealthiest and most influential man in the Renaissance, holding a quasi-monopoly on European copper trade, this hypothesis seems viable. Nevertheless historical research is needed to substantiate this theory. In this project, we propose employing the state-of-the-art, chemical imaging instrumentation that was recently developed by the University of Antwerp (Department of Chemistry, AXES group) to reveal the use of these 'experimental' copper materials that give evidence of the vanguard spirit of Antwerp Renaissance painters. The AXES group is a pioneer in chemical imaging on works of art, as illustrated by the development of a mobile MA-XRF scanner that allows non-invasive and in situ chemical analysis directly on to the paintings, in a museum gallery. In this way extraction of a sample or transport of fragile works of art to a laboratory is no longer necessary. Moreover, the fact that complex chemical information is translated into a set of straightforward images that can be easily interpreted by all stakeholders in the heritage field (and the general public) makes this scanner a true catalyst for multi-disciplinary research. Notable example of this added value was the vital contribution of MA-XRF scanning to the ongoing conservation treatment of Van Eyck's Ghent Altarpiece. Earlier this year (2018), the group introduced a MA-XRPD scanner during a high-profile, international research campaign of Vermeer's Girl with the Pearl Earring. This innovative instrument works in a similar way as the previous MA-XRF scanner, but goes yet another step further in the chemical characterisation of paint materials. For the first time, it is possible to visualize in situ, ongoing degradation processes (causing e.g. discoloration) and to differentiate various types of crystal structures inside pigments. It is this latter property that we propose exploiting in order to trace the aforementioned copper sulphates. In summary: thanks to new instrumentation, it is possible, for the first time, to distinguish these unusual pigments from traditional copper pigments. We want to consolidate our technical head start by being the first to document these innovative materials that were first used by Flemish artists. The goal of this project is tracing back the original mines, chemically characterise its ores and reproduce the pigments. Next, we link the produced chemical fingerprint of these copper ores to the materials found inside historical paintings, both of local Slovak and Antwerp production. Finally, we investigate Antwerp's historical trade route with Central Europe, and the role of the Fugger company by means of historical research. By reconstructing and evidencing this historical know-how, we anticipate illustrating Antwerp and Flanders' central role in European trade, art production and technology, both in the past and today.