Pigment and parchment at Penn

By Louisa Shepard

Crushing lapis lazuli to create a celestial blue pigment, 20 pairs of students and scholars began to work together to paint an intricate letter “H” on parchment during a workshop at the University of Pennsylvania Libraries, tracing the steps that would have been used centuries ago in the creation of illuminated manuscripts.

The workshop was designed to give undergraduate and graduate students in the university’s School of Arts and Sciences a chance to collaborate with visiting specialists for the 11th annual Lawrence J. Schoenberg Symposium on Manuscript Studies in the Digital Age, held at the Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts.


At a table at the front of the room in the center of the sixth floor of the Van Pelt-Dietrich Library Center were Juliette Bellacosa, a first year doctoral candidate in Italian studies at Penn, paired with Paola Ricciardi, a research scientist from the Fitzwilliam Museum at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom. Taking turns, they meticulously filled in the pattern traced on the parchment, with the lapis blue and a cochineal red that is made from crushed red bugs. A second project was painting an angel on a wooden board to illustrate the differences in techniques.

Photo by Eric Sucar, University of Pennsylvania Communications.

“I have a whole new appreciation for the time that goes into them now that I have actually experienced a little snippet of it myself,” says Bellacosa, who specializes in the Renaissance and Baroque periods. “This sheds a new light on the various hands that were involved in creating something as complex as an illuminated manuscript.”


Leading them through the three-hour workshop in November was Rosemary Buczek, an artist from The Gilded Quill Studio in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, and an expert in calligraphy. The room was filled with more than a dozen tables, set up with the colorful materials. “Painting with your pigment is very different than painting with paint from a tube,” Buczek told the group. “Do not get discouraged.”

Ricciardi and Bellacosa agreed their favorite part of the afternoon was working with gold leaf, pressing the thin shiny layer on the parchment, rubbing it, and then pulling off the backing paper. “With one brush it all came together afterward,” Bellacosa says. “It was really beautiful to see. It had a very magnificent quality to it.”

Nicholas Herman, curator of manuscripts at the Schoenberg Institute, checks in on the gold gilding by Sonja Drimmer (seated, left), medieval art history faculty at University of Massachusetts-Amherst and Judith Weston (right), a Penn graduate student in comparative literature and theory. Photo by Eric Sucar, University of Pennsylvania Communications.

Nicholas Herman, the curator of manuscripts at the Schoenberg Institute for Manuscript Studies, organized the workshop to give Penn students, staff, and faculty a chance to work directly with the scholars who came to present their research at the conference. The visitors came from near and far, including from the University of Geneva, the University of Massachusetts, The British Museum in London, and The J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, as well as The Morgan Library & Museum in New York, The Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore, and, closer to home, Rutgers University and Bryn Mawr College.

“The goal wasn’t the finished product; it was the experience,” says Herman. “It brought people together.”


The graduate students invited to the workshop were from a seminar Herman taught this semester on manuscript illumination in the Renaissance with David Young Kim, an assistant professor of art history. Also invited were undergraduate students from a class on medieval manuscripts in the 21st century, taught by Will Noel, the director of the Kislak Center and the Schoenberg Institute, and Dot Porter, the Institute’s curator of digital research services.

Penn students were paired with visiting scholars in the illuminated manuscript workshop, including Juliette Bellacosa (right), a doctoral candidate in Italian studies, working with Paola Ricciardi, a research scientist from the Fitzwilliam Museum at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom. Photo by Eric Sucar, University of Pennsylvania Communications.

“We’ve been talking about how digitization works, so we thought it was important for the students to understand how the books themselves were made,” Porter says.

Senior Adelaide Gorelick, from Charlotte, North Caroline, is an English major with a concentration in literature of the medieval and Renaissance periods. “It gives me an appreciation for what they do,” she says. “It’s really special we get to participate in this.”


Louisa Shepard is News Officer at the University of Pennsylvania. Our thanks to Louisa and the University of Pennsylvania for this article. 

Top Image:  Alison Yarto, an undergraduate student pursing majors in art history and political science, concentrates on painting her letter. Photo by Eric Sucar, University of Pennsylvania Communications.