Venice paper experiment #1
Here’s a neat party trick that will impress your friends and family, brought to you by the natural philosopher and former physician to Charles I, Walter Charleton, in 1654:
a sheet of the thinnest Venice Paper if so folded upward in its Margines, as to hold Oyle infused into it, and laid upon a gridiron over burning coals; doth endure the fire without inflammation for a good space: Which some Cooks observing, use to fry Bacon upon a sheet of Paper only
Early modern DIY parchment/wax paper, but even better because it can tolerate higher heat! Since I ♥ bacon and am currently researching the attributes of Venice paper, the quiet luxury product used for letterwriting by some of early modern England’s wealthiest and most cosmopolitan people, I had to try it out. I used printer paper (about the same thinness and porosity as Venice paper), a gas stove, Canola oil, and a fire extinguisher. I spread the oil over the paper until it was translucent, and then wiped it off. I folded up the sides of the paper (I love how Charleton refers to them as margins, acknowledging that the textual potential of this paper was being usurped) and placed it on a grate about 3 inches above a low flame. Within minutes, the bacon fat started oozing and then bubbling.
Once I realized I was Actually Making Bacon and not burning down my house, I wanted to high five all the early modern cooks who came up with this trick. I felt like I was part of their secret club, even if we were separated by 375 years. (And I might actually use the technique on my next backpacking trip – oiled paper is so much lighter than a skillet!).
The reference to infusing “the thinnest Venice paper” with oil appears as an aside in Charleton’s chapter “Of Heat and Cold,” right after he explains another “culinary Wonder (so our Housewifes account it)”: “Why the bottom of a Caldron, wherein Water is boyling, may be touched by the hand of a man, without burning it.” In this chapter, Charleton swerved from dispensing the expertise of Epicurious and Pierre Gassendi on all things atomic to the wisdom and practical applications of housewives and cooks. His explanation for the touchability of the base of a cauldron of boiling water and the fireproof qualities of oiled Venice paper was that atoms of fire and water/oil particles were constantly displacing each other in the pores of the cauldron/paper. The little fire atoms didn’t stick around in the cauldron base or on the paper, so these surfaces never reached a temperature where they would burn you, or burn up. 1
Charleton’s digression is not actually that big of a leap in this period, when recipe books were evenly split between medical and culinary receipts and experimentation happened in the laboratory and the kitchen, with wives and children serving as partners and assistants (see Elizabeth Yale’s “A Letter Is a Paper House: Home, Family, and Natural Knowledge” in Working with Paper). Within this environment, different kinds of paper were used to record recipes and observations and to make plasters, medicines, and food, performing as a substrate, a filter, a liner, a holder, a conduit, and ingredient because of its “absorbency, malleability, foldability” (see Elaine Leong’s “Papering the Household: Paper, Recipes, and Everyday Technologies in Early Modern England,” also in Working with Paper. Leong mentions a disturbing recipe for a beautifying facial tonic that includes six sheets of Venice paper “cut into small bits” and two six-day-old headless puppies, flayed and quartered, among other ingredients).
Venice paper experiment #2
Infusing Venice paper with cooking oil allows it to perform other feats as well! The oil not only makes the paper impermeable to water and grease and resistant to heat, but it also makes it translucent. Artists utilized this feature for tracing and transferring images from one piece of paper to another (for another method of transferring images, see Erin Blake’s post on pricking). A recipe written into the blank leaves of a 1688 almanac at the Folger explains how to prepare Venice paper for your project:
take a Sheet of Venice Paper or Else of the finest white paper that You can Gett wett it all over with Clean Sallet oil then wipe the oil of[f] from the paper as cleane You can So that the paper may be dry otherwise it will spoil a printed Picture having thus prepared your Paper lay it upon any Painted or printed picture and you shall see the Picture thro the same more Perfectly appearing than thro glass and so with a black lead pen you may Draw it over with Ease and better first with a soft Charcole and then with a pen after that you have thus drawn the picture upon the Oiled paper put it upon a Sheet of white paper and with a little pointed [sic.] or a feather taken out of a Swallow’s Wing Draw over the picture again and so you shall have the same very pritteley and neatly Drawn upon the White paper which You may Sett out with Colours as shall be taught here after.
Similar instructions appear in various printed drawing manuals, such as A Book of Drawing, Limning, Washing or Colouring of Maps and Prints… Or, The Young-mans Time well Spent (London, 1652), Odoardo Fialetti’s The whole art of drawing (London, 1660), and William Salmon’s Polygraphice (London, 1673). The main difference between the recipes is whether the image is transferred from the back (creating an image in reverse) or the front of the tracing. I tried both ways, using a small square of printer paper infused with Canola oil, a charcoal pencil and stick, a small square of rag paper to receive the image, and a chopstick for retracing the tracing (rather than a swallow’s wing feather). My source image came from a facsimile copy of The Trevelyon Miscellany.
Venice paper as writing paper and a state of mind
6 Quires of pure fine Venice gilt paper follio 00.12.00
6 – more of fine gilt quarto 00.06.00
While most early modern English account books describe paper from the Venetian Republic as “Venice paper,” Henry Seile, the king’s stationer, gives it four additional adjectives: pure, fine, gilt, and folio. Today we can identify Venice paper by its thinness, creamy colour, and watermarks. Venice paper was smooth, well-sized (with a coating of gelatin), and semi-translucent. It was made out of high quality white rags retted (fermented) to a perfect pulp, making it brighter and less yellow-brown than other papers, and it was relatively free of detritus from the rags or water.
The edges almost always came pre-cut (no ragged deckled edge for fancy people) and were sometimes gilt (which is only visible under raking light, the epitome of quiet luxury since you wouldn’t know to look for it unless you knew it existed in the first place).
Enacting the bacon-frying experiment and tracing paper activity (rather than just reading them) helped me think about Venice paper’s affordances from a different perspective. While I still need to consider a handful of other experiments and observations that employ Venice paper, by Robert Boyle, Robert Hooke, Walter Charleton, and Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, I think it is safe to say that for scientists and artists, it wasn’t Venice paper’s superficial beauty that made it attractive, but instead, its structural composition. The finely beaten and closely interlocked clear cellulose fibers created a thin, semi-translucent, and minimally porous sheet that when oiled, became fully translucent, greaseproof, waterproof, and heat resistant.
In fact, Charleton and other natural philosophers were suspicious of Venice paper’s external virtues, in the same way that they were suspicious of the perfection of anything not from the natural world. When Charleton examined Venice paper under the microscope, he was aghast (p. 268):
when a man looks through it upon a sheet of the finest and smoothest Venice Paper, which seems to the naked eye, and most exquisite touch, to be equal and terse in all parts of it superfice [surface] He shall discern it to be so full of Eminences and Cavities, or small Hills and Valleys, as the most praegnant and praepared Imagination cannot suppose any thing more unequal or impolite.
I’m not aware of any early modern writing paper that was used so differently by different audiences. While the earliest high status users of Venice paper in England, in the 1590s, used it to write love letters and to quietly signal their refined taste to their peers, by the 1650s it had become more readily available, taken up by cooks, apothecaries, natural philosophers, and amateur artists, who took advantage of the qualities that made it perfect for writing for a wide range of non-epistolary activities.
Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.