Graduating to Sheepskin
Only in Florence. Zecchi, on the via dello Studio, is one of the world’s great art supply shops. Not necessarily because of the quantity of goods on display (it’s actually rather small, just one room), but for the quality of the traditional media available and the knowledge of the proprietors. Having supplied the raw material for generations of artists working in traditional media like egg tempera and fresco (I’ve bought my pigments for fresco here since I studied with maestro Leonetto Tintori in 1989), they’ve taken to packaging their own paints in egg tempera and oil, along with all the exotic ingredients for working in traditional media. Stopping in a couple of weeks ago, and having had for a while an interest in experimenting with the gouache on vellum (sheepskin) techniques of 18th century artists like Marco Ricci, I asked for a sheet of pergamena (sheepskin or vellum), and was conducted (for the first time in my experience) to a back storeroom where they stored, among many, many other things, a roll of sheepskins—yes, the skins of sheep, laid out looking like the headless and legless bodies of sheep. I learned that pergamena was treated in a way that tended to make the top surface water-resistant, so for the watermedia I intended to use I needed to treat it with ox gall (fiele di bue), the bile of an ox’s gallbladder; Zecchi sells it under their own label. To some this bilious media might be old news, but for me it had the ring of the ancient and exotic about it. I learned later (online) that it had some interesting properties for watercolor painting; its role with sheepskin is to make the surface able to accept or bond watermedia like gouache.
What actually spurred this interest in gouache on vellum was an elegant little bronze frame I’d bought months earlier in Florence at the remarkable shop of Duccio Banchi on the via del Serraglio in the Oltrarno. Father and son still make these refined bronze frames and decorative objects, and the one I’d purchased seemed to call for something appropriately delicate and classical. I worked out a series of subjects based on 18th century capricci, in monochrome, and gave them my own spin by treating the scenes as narratives, of a kind (I’ll leave it to you to read them). Letting a bit of the vellum read through gives the grisailles a warm aspect. The images here show the process from the raw sheepskin to a smaller section prepared with ox gall to the painting of the scenes, Diana at Her Bath and Hercules at the Crossroads.