Our 27th paper comes from the author of our 26th research paper, Lady Agnes Marie de Calais (Brandy Whitney). This follow up piece chronicles the author’s continued research journey, as her inquisitive nature takes her beyond where many SCA artisans end their research process. This paper details Lady Agnes’s exploration into archival research, as she asks important questions about how information regarding extant items is formed by museum professionals. She shows how their information can sometimes be limited or incomplete, and how amateur researchers like us can step in to contribute to the scholarly record.
(Prospective future contributors, please check out our updated Call for Papers.)
The Quest for Understanding an Extant Work
When we look to extant pieces to help document our work researching and recreating items, it is important to ask questions about how we know what we think we know about an object. What is its provenance or history from discovery to donation? It may have been discovered and classified before modern scientific methods and other discoveries were made. Museums with large collections may not always know that a smaller piece in their collection was misidentified a century ago. Even if identified correctly, further knowledge made more available in the age of digital communication may not have been linked to the item. I have been on such a quest to better understand a Medici cruet from the Medici Porcelain Factory of the late 16th century. Researching this piece has led me to discover previously unknown resources, not just for my research, but for researchers and students in the mundane world.
This further inquiry began with me asking how this cruet is Medici porcelain when it looks nothing like the other extant pieces in the museum or matches their quality. Previously, I found that the cruet had been donated in 1912 as a gift of the estate of Professor Henry Williamson through Miss Sarah H. Blanchard, his niece. Curious as to who the Professor was, where he obtained the cruet, and how it came to be known as a Medici despite its lack of a maker’s mark, I emailed the curator at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) asking for more information. They responded to me with a list of further resources about Medici Pottery in general, however, sadly, they informed me no more was known about the cruet. Taking my new peer reviewed and published sources, I compiled my research about how the Medici’s sought to copy Eastern porcelain and wrote what would become the twenty-sixth published research paper of the East Kingdom Gazette. However, even after this iteration of this project, I was still left with the same question about the cruet’s origins and history.
How did we know it was truly a Medici if the provenance was unknown before 1912? My search for these answers started back with the last person to have known without a doubt where the cruet was from, Professor Haynes. Professor Henry Williamson Hayes was a noted archeologist and educator in the late 19th and early 20th century who primarily resided in Boston. Curiously, the majority of his papers dealt with early Greek and Roman pottery, Native American artifacts, and matters of natural history and science. None of them focused on Medici art or porcelain in Medieval Europe. In trying to understand more about the Professor, a Google search led me to the Massachusetts State Historical Society who received all of his papers upon his death.
Among his papers were travel journals detailing a several year tour of Europe. As it was likely that the cruet had been purchased on this trip, I requested access to his travel journals. The journals, like all of the assets at the Massachusetts State Archive, were able to be accessed by any member of the public who presented a legal ID, requested the documents in advance, and completed a brief training about how to safely handle items.
In July of 2019 I accessed box seven of Professor Henry Williamson Hayes’ papers. This box contained the travel journals and details of what he had researched and purchased. In fading ink on delicate pages I read about him participating in archaeological digs throughout Europe in places like Salisbury Hill, England, and Pompeii. He took detailed daily notes and kept reflections on tasks such as cleaning and tagging Etruscan pottery. However, I found no mention of Medici pottery. They did not seem to be part of eras he had interest, research and expertise in.
Rethinking my search, and briefly reviewing the articles suggested by the MFA again, I moved from looking for mention of Medici pottery to mentions of Florentine or Asian pottery. This shift was based upon an article published in the 1990’s that detailed a 1721 inventory of the last Medici Grand-Duke’s estate which mentioned 256 items of Medici pottery and “bric a brac.” The article went on to discuss the subsequent auctioning of the pottery in 1722 in Florence, and it occured to me that perhaps the cruet had been one of the items of “tableware” or “bric a brac” auctioned at that time. Perhaps the cruet had remained in the area of Florence after being sold.
In reviewing the multiple volumes of Professor Hayes’ travels, I found several entries detailing that he had indeed spent time in Florence. One entry stood out to me because it was so different from the rest. On December 16, 1876, in Florence, the professor visited a “Japanese Shop of Antiques.” In previous journal entries he had mentioned shopping in antique stores for artifacts, but this is the only entry that talks about Japanese or Asian shops and pottery in his journals. The Medici’s had sought to emulate the pottery from the East, and it would seem logical that if they succeeded it would end up in such a place. While not an entry specifically describing the cruet, it is the only one that closely fits the item.
When the cruet was donated to the MFA in 1912, it was placed in a gallery with Persian and other blue and white pottery. In a way, the Medici’s succeeded in their goal, because at that time it was believed to have been imported into medieval Europe by 1876. It wasn’t until the Summer of 1958 that Arthur Lane, a curator from the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A), noticed that the MFA’s cruet had a similarity to a cruet currently on display at the V&A. This led the MFA’s cruet to be reclassified as a Medici. Lane noted that in comparison the cruet at the V&A, the MFA’s cruet was crudely made, had cracks, and that the artwork was more of a placeholder then the delicate painting seen on other extant Medici works. However, it did have the signature glaze and composition of Medici pottery. He concluded in his paper, published in a MFA Bulletin of the time, that it was likely one of the earliest pieces made at the Medici Porcelain works, and thus was not stamped because it was a prototype.
Because the MFA had not previously known about the travel journals, many of which mention other artifacts they and other local museums hold, I was able to add to the curatorial file for the cruet and shed more light on its journey. A curatorial file is a museum’s record about an object, its provenance, history, handling instructions, and any other research compiled about an item. If an item is placed on tour, in a new display, or researched by someone, these documents are used to better understand, preserve, and catalogue the item. Additionally, I was able to point the museum staff to the 1958 Bulletin article. Now, if in the future, a researcher asks about the Medici Cruet for Oil and Vinegar, they will have two new resources to access, that Bulletin article, and more specifically, the primary accounts of Professor Hayes obtaining this extant piece and others through his travels, purchases, and archeological digs in Europe during the late 19th century. So, while the dinner conversations held around the table where the cruet was used in the past, and the hands that filled and used the cruet, are unknown, it now has a timeline that can be traced from the factory, to the Medici storehouse, an auction in the 18th century, a Japanese shop in the 19th century, the Museum of Fine Art in the 20th century, and then to the correct gallery in the mid-20th century.
Even more fascinating is the rediscovery of Professor Haynes’ journals, which detail archaeological digs and purchases of items not only found at the MFA, but also at other museum, such as the Peabody Harvard Museum in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I was able to email the Collections Steward at the Harvard Peabody Museum and they let me know that these boxes of resources at the historical society about many of the museum objects had been unknown. Now, it has been shared with the curatorial staff there. In conclusion, what started as a quest to better understand an extant piece led to more information, avenues of research and ultimately helped others as well.
Sources referenced in this paper, and other useful sources relating to the topic of the Medici Cruet, have been included below.
“Cruet for Oil and Vinegar.” Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 12 Apr. 2018, www.mfa.org/collections/object/cruet-for-oil-and-vinegar-58789.
Harris, Courtney. “Medici Porcelain Query.” Medici Porcelain Query, 25 Sjeptember 2019.
Harris, Courtney. “Medici Porcelain Query.” Medici Porcelain Query,13 September 2019.
Harris, Courtney. “Medici Porcelain Query.” Medici Porcelain Query, 6 May 2019.
Haynes, Henry W. Travel Journal, 5 Sep. 1876- 19 Nov. 1878. Vol. 16, Haynes, 1878.*
Lane, Arthur. “A Rediscovered Cruet of Medici Porcelain.” Bulletin of the Museum of Fine Art, Boston, vol. 56, no. 304, 1958, pp. 77–83.
Le Corbeiller, Clare. “A Medici Porcelain Pilgrim Flask.” The J. Paul Getty MuseumJournal, vol. 16, 1988, pp. 119–126. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/4166583.
“Medici Porcelian Factory” The J. Paul Getty Museum http://www.getty.edu/art/collection/artists/1192/medici-porcelain-factory-italian
McDowall, Carolyn, and Carolyn McDowall FRSA. “Pottery to Porcelain with the Medici.” The Culture Concept Circle, 20 Aug. 2012, www.thecultureconcept.com/pottery-to-porcelain-with-the-medici.
Peabody, Charles. “Henry Williamson Haynes.” American Anthropologist, vol. 15, no. 2, 1913, pp. 336–346., doi:10.1525/aa.1913.15.2.02a00130.
Pollard, A. M. (2015) Letters from China: A History of the Origins of the Chemical Analysis of Ceramics, Ambix, 62:1, 50-71, doi: 10.1179/1745823414Y.0000000008
Spallanzani, Marco. “Medici Porcelain in the Collection of the Last Grand-Duke.” The Burlington Magazine, vol. 132, no. 1046, 1990, pp. 316–320. JSTOR,www.jstor.org/stable/3100456.
“Soft Porcelain vs. Hard Porcelain.” Whitehalls Auctioneers & Appraisers, 20 Feb.2014, www.whitehallsauction.com/soft-porcelain-vs-hard-porcelain/.
Vasta, Meredith. “PMR-20-067 Whitney Donations/Provenance of Objects Donated by the Estate of Professor Henry W. Haynes in 1912.” PMR-20-067 Whitney Donations/Provenance of Objects Donated by the Estate of Professor Henry W. Haynes in 1912, 25 Sept. 2019.
*This is one diary held at the Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston, as part of the Henry W. Haynes papers.