Sunday, April 24, 2011

What Dante felt like: Veltro and the feltro

I can truly admire when someone writes a book about something so specific that it should be nerdy and trivial, but in a manner that (at the end) you think to have read something really special.
This is exactly the case in Leonardo Olschki's 'The myth of felt'. Mr. Olschki is clearly a specialist in Dante literature, but he takes his reader on a journey on account of just one sentence in the first canto of the Divina Commedia:

E sua nazion sara tra feltro e feltro

No-one really knows what is feltro. Well, actually it is of course the word for felt as a fabric, but the meaning is obscure. To make things even more complex, one of the central themes of the canto is the 'Veltro', the Greyhound, as a symbol for the powerdul leader that would lead Rome/Italy out of its moral confusion. So it is also a grammatical joke(?) with its subject.
Olschki supplies a double explanation, first a tour in Tartaric tradition in which felt is also a royal fabric, and in which kings are lifted by their lower officials on felt, both at the start of their reign and at their burial.
Then he switches to the mythical twins Castor and Pollux, and their designation as the classical good sign/omen and their traditional depiction with felt Phrygian caps.

As the booklet build up slowly with its theory, the royal grandeur of the humble fabric works all over the pages. Felt-obsessed Beuys would have been proud (would he have known the book). One thing is clear at the end of the book. Felt can be seen as something royal, powerful, or if you want - that something this interlaced, and this strongly layered, can only be compared to life itself.
Fascinating read!

Friday, April 22, 2011

Coffin dyeing: black, white and ... yellow

In a very nice booklet called 'De volmaakte schrijnwerker' (the obsession with perfection is clear in the titles of craft books), published around 1860, some recipes are given especially for coffins. The reason for this is simple: coffins needed to be ready in several hours in the desired colour shade, and the usual recipes often called for days or even weeks of drying.
Black dye is made out of thin glue with Frankfurt black powder, and varnished with a mixture of 16 lood Venetian turpentine and 1 lood sandarac (thinned with hot turpentine-oil to the thickness of common oilpaint).
A more expensive version of the varnish was made with amber, which had to be boiled, mixed in small amounts with turpentine oil, and cleared through a clean cloth, and cooled afterwards before use.
In the text following more recipes are given for a luxurious white ('waardoor de kist zal blinken als glas') to glitter in the sunlight, brown (umbra or Keulsch aarde), and red (roode oker of Engelsch rood),
all more dark and sober shades of red.
But it surprised me to find a specific paragraph on yellow, to be made out of fine yellow ochre. Yellow is a rather unusual colour in the Dutch folkloristic spectre.
It just feels not Dutch, and out of its place. That must surely be my own prejudice.
Next time I visit an old cemetary, however, my thoughts will at least be more colourful than before...