Mary's musings

Mary Hoffman, author of over 90 children's books, including the Stravaganza series and Amazing Grace, has begun a web journal which will be updated roughly once a week. You can read more on

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Spices and Pigments

I spent last Saturday in Renaissance Italy. There was a dayschool in Oxford, covering Art, Politics, Trade and Philosophy. The first session was the most homesickness-inducing, with its slides of Florence and Venice.

We were a bit disgusted when the Director of Studies for the day pronounced Brunelleschi as “Brooneshelly” and the art historian said “Benedetto” Gozzoli, instead of Benozzo but that’s just the kind of Renaissance-bores we are.

One of the most fascinating insights came in an aside at the end: in the 13th and 14th centuries, Europeans used and enjoyed spices without knowing what they were. Literally, they did not know whether these items were animal, vegetable or mineral. It all helped to establish an aura of mystery around them and keep the prices up. Pepper was the most popular, followed by ginger.

What 14th-century Europeans thought is of particular interest to me at present, for the research I am doing on a mediaeval book for Bloomsbury. I particularly need to know about pigments and fresco-painting. There is a book on artistic techniques by Cennino Cennini and, amazingly, the Internet produced extracts in English. Listen to the colour names: azurite, porphyry, cinnabar, dragonsblood, orpiment, realgar, terre-verte...

Even more amazingly, you can get this “Libro dell’Arte” from Amazon, bundled in with a book on mediaeval painting techniques for fewer than fifteen of your earth pounds. Cennini was writing 120 years after the period I shall be fictionalising, but he talks about Giotto’s fresco technique. “I will give you the exact proportions of a man,” he says. “Those of a woman I will disregard, as she does not have any set proportion.”

Good news this week. Jacqueline Wilson has generously provided a cover quote for “Bravo, Grace!”, which will come out next March. Same month as City of Flowers, which will keep me busy with possible signings in Oxford, Exeter, Huddersfield and somewhere in Scotland.

And how we have needed good news. A school in Denmark has just sent to me and Rhiannon stories and poems inspired by Lines in the Sand. Will you do More Lines in the Sand?, asked their English teacher. There is certainly plenty of need for it, as the news of terrible atrocities on both sides comes from Iraq. Equal disgust for what happened to Margaret Hassan and the wounded man killed by US marines in the mosque in Fallujah.

And the news that “dove” Colin Powell will be replaced by the more hawkish Dr. Rice does not cheer; Powell was a dove only comparatively but even comparative doveliness would be welcome.