A little while ago we decided to run a course in Tempera painting. This is a traditional technique used extensively in Italy during the Renaissance and, in it's classical form, is called Egg tempera as the powdered pigments are bound together with egg yolks. After about 1500 oil painting took over in Italy and these days tempera has been transformed into what we now call poster paint or Gouache.
There was a wonderful moment in Florence in 1483 when a painting (The Portinari Altarpiece - Adoration of the Shepherds) was carried with much 'pomp' into the city all the way down from the Northern European city of Bruges. It had been painted by the Flemish master Hugo van der Goes in oil paint and it was a revelation.
People queued to marvel at the extraordinary realism and detail of this spectacular altarpiece and, amongst many other things, made particular mention of the dirt visible under the fingernails of the shepherds adoring the Christ child.
This was a real wake-up call to the painters of Florence who had always thought themselves and their techniques to be the best in the world and so was also a real threat to the method of tempera painting they used. One artist took up the challenge.
Determined to prove that Florentines were at least as good as the Flemish oil painters, Domenico Ghirlandaio produced an 'Adoration of the Shepherds' in Florentine style and in tempera, but with more than the occasional reference to the rival Flemish painting, including dirt under the fingernails of the shepherds, one of whom is Ghirlandaio himself, with breathtaking realism, stubble and watery eyes, showing us what he can do.
Detail of Ghirlandaio's Adoration, he is the handsome man on the bottom left!
Both paintings are still in Florence, one in the Ufizzi, carefully protected and preserved amongst all the other masterworks of Italy, and Ghirlandaio's in a dark corner of a comparatively small church called Santa Trinita, with a broken light, no entrance charge, no queue and no guard. You just have to walk in and admire.
Anyway, I want to try as many traditional methods as possible, so I went to Arezzo to do a little research into tempera. I can find the eggs myself, but dry powdered pigments and gold leaf may be a little harder to come by!
I found a workshop with a wonderful old man who restores and repairs all sorts of artwork, with paintings and frames piled up against the walls and hanging from the ceiling. So, I made myself a nuisance and tried to get as much information as I could out of him, wandering around the studio, staring at his brushes, pigments, mouldings, powders, pots and tins of strange mixtures of gesso, gold leaf, silver leaf, glues, sizes, boles etc.
In another life I would have jumped at the chance to become his (unpaid) apprentice. Not least because his knowledge and his recipes have been so carefully developed over 60 years and, when he goes, a lot goes
There are a lot of mysteries in those tins and jars.
But of the photos I took that day, one stands out. This one. I could look at it for hours. It is a picture of one part of one wall of his studio and it tells us so much about him, his family, his life and his career. Next week I might just have to go back to ask him a few more questions...