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Title: Composition of iron gall inks in Illuminated Manuscripts (11th -16th century). The Use by Scribes and Illuminators
Authors: Watteeuw, Lieve
Van Bos, Marina
Issue Date: 2014
Publisher: Museum Tusculanum Press, University of Copenhagen
Host Document: Care and conservation of Manuscripts. Proceedings of the 14th international Seminar held in the Royal Library Copenhagen 2012 vol:14 edition:1
Conference: Care and conservation of Manuscripts edition:14 location:Copenhagen date:17-19 October 2012
Abstract: Over the centuries, black and/or brown inks have been used by scribes. The primary writing ink was carbon ink which was mainly replaced by iron gall ink around the 10th century, although the reaction between tannins and iron salts was already known in Antiquity. Since then, a large number of historical ink recipes are published. The four main ingredients of these iron gall inks are gall tannins, iron salts, Arabic gum and water. The main source for the iron salts is vitriol, obtained from different mines by different techniques. The exact composition of this vitriol is hardly specified although iron sulfate is the main component. X-ray fluorescence (ArtTax) offers an excellent possibility to characterize these inks in a non-destructive way, revealing the presence of different relative amounts of mainly copper, iron and zinc with manganese in minor cases.
In order to try to understand these differences and to relate them to the historic ink recipes, a range of illuminated manuscripts conserved in the Royal Library of Belgium and in the Library of the University of Leuven have been analyzed during the last years. Manuscripts originating from the 9th century to the 15th century from Italian, British, French and Low Countries provenance were investigated during their conservation treatment. Clear differences in ink composition have been observed, which can be related to the origin of the vitriol. Hypothesis on the trade routes to the Low Countries for some materials could be formulated.
In addition to the black and brown ink research, some blue, red or golden inks have also been analyzed. In particularly the reds used for rubricating the text, didn’t always contain the most probable material minium or red lead, but differed for organic reds to vermillion. Complementary, comparisons could be made to the materials used in the illuminations in the manuscripts in focus. In addition to paint, the miniaturist used occasionally ink to draw the preparation lines, or to accentuate the painted surfaces during the production of the illumination.
The presented research aims to link analytical measurements with book historical, codicological and art-technical sources.
Publication status: submitted
KU Leuven publication type: IC
Appears in Collections:Art History, Leuven

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