Pentimenti : D.V. Thompson’s reflections on his translation of Cennini                  



Mark Clarke             


Universidade Nova de Lisboa                 

© 10 February 2013





In 1932 D.V. Thompson, Jr. (1902–1980) published a new edition of the Italian text of Cennino Cennini. In 1933 he followed this with a second volume containing his own new English translation. In 1960 this translation was reprinted by Dover, has remained in print to this day, and is extremely widely used: indeed, in English it is often the only art technological source read by the majority of art history students and, even the best paintings conservators rarely know many further sources. This has given it tremendous influence, and thus any imperfections in it can have influential consequences.


This communication therefore presents Thompson’s post-publication comments, corrections and reflections on his translation, together with his own clarifications and improvements. It also documents a little of the history behind his translation and its revisions.  


The evidence for this is preserved in the Smithsonian Institution’s Archives of American Art, Washington (hereafter ‘AAA’), in the form of the (mostly unpublished) ‘Daniel Varney Thompson Papers’, and in oral history interviews tape-recorded at Thompson’s home in Beverly Farms, Massachusetts 1974-6.


Early concerns with his translation


While visiting England in 1933 Thompson was, in his own words, “ordered to appear” before the Society of Mural Decorators and Painters in Tempera — of which in 1901 Lady Herringham (1852-1929) had been a founder — “to justify my temerity in upsetting the nice relation between Cennino, as the source of all good, and Lady Christiana J. Herringham, his translator, as the arch-priestess.” (Lady Herringham had published her English translation of Cennini in 1899.) He recalled this meeting in the oral history interview.


I went to a meeting of the Society, and said that there were a number of positive errors in Lady Herringham’s translation which I’d reluctantly corrected. Reluctantly because I’d been brought up on Lady Herringham’s translation, loved it dearly, and found it much more readable — and I still do find it more readable, far more pleasant — than my own, but I think it’s less accurate. [He discussed his translation with the Society, and finally] … they decided that time would reveal the truth … and my impertinent translation would soon be forgotten. I’m happy to say that it’s worked the other way and Allen and Unwin I think have now taken the Lady Herringham translation off the market and Dover tell me that the sales of my translation go on quite steadily even now. [Interview, 1974, Tape 3 Side 1; transcript pp. 63-4]


He concluded this reminiscence by expressing dissatisfaction with certain points of his own translation:


Well I don’t like it, and I do want to correct some infelicities in it and a certain number of positive errors.  [Interview, Tape 3 Side 1; transcript pp. 64]


Thompson did, in fact, take some action to correct these publicly. As he recalled:


A friend of mine… was having great trouble in obtaining drawing papers of suitable colours as backgrounds for certain designs that she was making, and I said, “Well, the answer is readily available in Cennino, he describes the tinting of papers which was very common in the 15th and 16th centuries, and you only have to follow the directions that Cennino gives.” She followed them and ran into several small difficulties which I was able to dispose of without any trouble at all. I said to myself, “If this girl has had these troubles, it’s worth while for me to write a paper to eliminate them in the experience of other students of Cennino.” So I wrote a paper for Tempera [the journal of the Society, 1971] disposing of the small difficulties which can arise in carrying out Cennino’s instructions. [Interview, Tape 3 Side 2; transcript p. 68]


Unfortunately it is extremely difficult to come by copies of Tempera, which was published in very small numbers (Thompson estimated “perhaps 50 copies”). In consequence these corrections have not become widely known; given this difficulty in finding copies, Thompson’s notice has been reproduced as an appendix below.


Reflections on his own translation


Now speaking of the mistakes that I made in my Cennino translation, Cennino speaks of tinting parchment as well as paper. [Chapter XVII] To do it, he says that the parchment must be held by chiodi, and I translated it as ‘large-headed nail’, and that is a goof of the first order. I was thinking it was something like shingle nails, and shingle nails, roofing nails, could be used, but they should be used not as nails to hold the parchment, but as holders to which the parchment can be attached by folding it over the head of the large-headed nail, the chiodo, and tying it with string to the stem of the nail. That’s a very feeble defence of my translation. You could use shingle nails. What you do use, what the parchment maker or tinter should use, is a mushroom-shaped peg or something, can even be cork-shaped, around which the parchment can be wrapped and tied, because no matter how large the head of the nail is, the parchment, which shrinks enormously as it dries, will tear through — the nail will tear through the parchment as it shrinks, and if the nail were not driven tight into [the] wooden support or some other support under it, the parchment would simply pull itself past the nail and fall limp. Or if the nail were driven in tight, even with a large head, it would still tear itself away — the force it exerts is colossal. But if the parchment is folded over the head of a mushroom and then tied tightly to it, the force is so largely distributed around the circumference of the peg that it can’t tear itself away. And the pegs in turn can be laced into a framework. [Interview, Tape 3 Side 2; transcript pp. 68-9.]


(Thompson’s published text has bullecte for chiodi and ‘big-headed’ for ‘large-headed’ but this does not alter the sense or point of his remarks.)


Among the AAA files [Series 4.1, Box 6] are found a number of loose disconnected sheets containing notes on Cennini. It is not clear for what purpose they were written, but it does not seem that they were published, apart from the typescript for the Tempera article found among them.


All translation is subject to obsolescence. … But few translators have the experience of having the rug pulled out from under a word in their lifetime so completely as I in the translation of Cennino’s word pastello. I know of few examples of changes of meaning so precipitous as that of the word ‘plastic’ in the last 50 years.

His pastello is described in Chapter LXII. It is a mixture of crude pine turpentine, mastic resin and fresh beeswax, melted together, strained and mixed with not-too finely powdered lapis lazuli. This mixture is made into a warm alkaline solution extracted from wood ashes, with a pair of wooden pestles to extract the ‘ultramarine’ blue of the lapis, leaving the bulk of the uncolored components of the mineral behind in the pastello. (In the rather rare Latin accounts of this process, the word is pastillum.)

A dough is a pastello; but my culinary sense was indisposed to call this mixture a ‘dough’. When hot, it is a viscous liquid; when cold, it is a tough, hard solid. It seemed reasonable, in the pre-plastics era, to call it a ‘plastic’.  That was an unwise choice.

Not only has the word ‘plastic’ taken on a multitude of meanings then undreamt of and all inappropriate; but the key to the right translation lay unnoticed in the text. When all the ingredients have been put together, Cennino says clearly “Poi … fanne un pastello, tutto incorporato insieme.” That is, the pastello is something not to be compounded but to be made out of a mixture already compounded, in this case that can be nothing but a ‘cake’. And ‘cake’ is a legitimate translation of pastello.


Thompson re-addressed this issue and expanded on it over another few apparently related ill-typed sheets. These, it is apparent, were composed in the late 1970’s, i.e. shortly before his death. There are ten sheets, similar in paper, typewriter face, and layout. It is not always clear where sheets were intended to be connected, partly due to Thompson’s frequent habit, when preparing a text for publication, of putting every paragraph on a separate sheet. (This, he explains in an apparently unpublished essay Mechanical Aids to Editing written while at the Courtauld, is so that during radical rewrites, good paragraphs may be salvaged.) Certainly in this case they have become mixed with some other sheets containing comments on Cennini and underdrawing, (extracts from which have been included below). It is therefore possible that the sequence presented below is incorrect. The start of a new sheet is indicated ¶.


¶ One reason for the obsolescence of translations is of course that changes in diction decelerate [sic] with time. So since the translation is always younger than the original the passage of time affects the translation more and the original less.

My translation of Cennino’s Libro dell Arte was made nearly fifty years ago and shows its age though for want of a better it is still read. The workshop English of 1930 is no longer current. That I cannot correct. But over the years since The Craftsman’s Handbook first appeared I have become aware of faults which need to be corrected.

Of these only one is attributable to the change of meaning of an English word used in translation; but that change is spectacular. In chapter LXII, on making ultramarine blue, I translated the word pastello, for the mixture of mastic and crude turpentine and wax with powdered lapis lazuli as ‘plastic’.

In 1933 the established plastics were rubber and celluloid, with Bakelites just coming into significant use. The word ‘plastic’ bore very little relation to its meaning now. Noone in his senses would translate Cennino’s pastello as ‘plastic’ today, and it was not a good choice in 1933. The English equivalent should have been simply ‘a cake’.

¶ One phrase remains recalcitrant, namely the title of the work, Il Libri dell’Arte. Previous translators read this as The Book of the Art. But arte is ambiguous. It may mean ‘art’, even specifically the art of painting as a late glossator of one of the manuscripts suggests. But it may also mean a guild, of which there were many in Cennino’s Florence.

In the opening chapter, the word ‘arte’ is used frequently in the sense of ‘profession’, and the thing professed is clearly the craft of painting. I adopted the rather free translation, The Craftsman’s Handbook for the English title.

This choice was not altogether happy; for in British English, ‘Craftsmanship’ implies Freemasonry, which is certainly not the intention.

¶ The error which now seems to me gravest and most far-reaching appears clearly in Note 2 on page 94 of my translation: “It is very tempting to interpret i dossi as “reflected lights” … but that would imply a degree of sophistication in the treatment of light and shade which Cennino probably did not possess.” 

The trecento Florentine treatment of light and shade was highly sophisticated; and every phenomenon was recognised. That the result was not naturalistic is the consequence of convention, not of observation.

¶ This monochrome rendering would be painted over but its effect would not be lost. The appearance of a color in tempera is profoundly affected by what lies under it.

The effect of a uniform coating of a semi-transparent tempera would be to turn a monochrome drawing or underpainting into a monochrome rendering in the color of the applied coatinf but with either the appearance of staining in the lights or of chalkiness in the shadows, or both. These errors are easily corrected but except for small areas they are better avoided. Cennino avoids them by mixing three values of the local color: first the local color mixed with white, second, some of that mixture with a good deal of white, and third, an intermediate value made by mixing the first two. The differences among these three may be made as wide or as narrow as you please. The intermediate mixture can always be modelled up wiith the lighter and down with the darker and perfect control of the rendered form can be maintained. So complete is it that painters report that they have less of the sensation of painting on a flat surface than of coloring a three-dimensional object!

The conversion of a monochrome into a monochrome of a different color is particularly striking when the color is by nature transparent, as lake pigments and terre vertes are. This perhaps as much as the colours to be found in the green earths may account for their general use as underpainting for flesh in tempera and fresco.

¶ Very much to this same point is Cennino’s recipe for burnish gold size in Chapter CLVII. : “a little gesso sottile, and a small amount of white lead, less than a third as much as of the gesso [then take] a little sugar candy, less than the white lead. Grind these things very fine with clear water. Then scrape it up; and let it dry without sun. When you want to use some for gilding [on parchment], take a little of it, as much as you need; and temper it with some [sic] white of egg, well beaten as I taught you before. And temper the mixture with it. Let it dry. Then take your gold: and you may lay it either with breathing or without breathing. … and burnish it at once.”

This formula seemed to be defective; for gold would not adhere to the size either with breathing or without, and at the first touch of the burnisher the whole thing crumbled away to nothing.

Not long after my translation appeared it suddenly struck me that “gesso sottile” might be, as I had supposed, the material described in Chapter CXVI, or equally well the compound material described in Chapter CXVII, that is, that it might be not the overslaked plaster of Paris, but a mixture of that material with size.

We very often use the same word for a simple material or one of its compounds: ‘Cement,’ for example, or ‘Cocoa’.

My recognition of this possibility was perhaps delayed by my one conversation with the late Guy Loumyer. In the early summer of 1927, his Mother and he entertained me most generously in their beautiful villa at Riant Mont, Lausanne. I asked him what underlay his suggestion of an equally friable gold-size to Edward Johnston who quotes it in his masterly Writing, Illuminating and Lettering.

¶ M. Loumyer explained that this was a consequence of a theory he had held that manuscript gilding owed its apparent flexibility to an infinity of minute cracks. He agreed that there was more evidence against this theory than in favor of it. […]

After substituting the compound gesso sottile with size for the simple material in Cennini’s recipe, it proved not only workable but by far the most useful of many such recipes from many sources which I have tried. The combination of an animal size with the glair of egg yields a compound of extreme smoothness and toughness, which is easily rendered slightly hygroscopic by the addition of a little sugar and dries, even with the suspended solids, to a glossy finish which makes the burnishing of the gilded surface extremely simple and reliable.

 ¶ In Chapter XXXVII Cennino describes a black pigment “which is made from vine twigs … a color both black and lean and it is one of the perfect colors which we employ and it is the whole……”. The gap which follows is tantalizing.

The words I translated as “vine twigs” are sermenti di viti. I was wrong. 

Sermenti, or better sarmenti, are to the botanist ‘runners’ like those of the strawberry, and to the dirt gardner, ‘cuttings’. Now the vine does not put forth runners, and fine charcoal is made from cuttings of the vine as well as from willow.

But one day when my translation was already old I tried to make a black pigment from the wood of the vine. Far from being ‘perfect,’ it was entirely unusable. I was dismayed, but confident in Cennino. What could he have meant?

The only answer seemed to be the tendrils. I collected a small steel box full, sealed it tight, and roasted it in a very hot oven. To my delight the little ‘corkscrews’, now jet black, ground down to a beautiful dense black pigment.

I don’t think a botanist would call the tendrils ‘sarments’. But Cennino was not a botanist. It wasn’t hard to find out what he meant if you were sure he meant something. We must be very sure before we write off as wrong the things we don’t immediately understand in these old documents.

¶ Translations as keys to the works translated tend to lose merit with time. A very few have and retain merit of their own even when their power to unlock their originals grows blunt.


Some final thoughts on his Cennini are recorded in a series of loose sheets written in a very shaky hand, all in block capitals, which the text indicates must date from c.1977. It appears to be a series of partial drafts. ¶ Indicates a new sheet.


Cennino Forty-Five Years After

It is not a simple matter to describe a technical operation in words which will be understood by a reader who is not familiar with the materials and the tools even if he is familiar with the end product. Indeed it is not simple even if the materials and tools are at hand. Given two knitting patterns and a ball of wool, how many words would it take to explain how to “knit two, purl two” without example or illustration?

¶ In 1933, the American Council of Learned Societies granted me a fellowship to search out other mediaeval manuscript sources of technical information, and while I was working in the British Museum the ‘Tempera Society’ called upon me to explain why I had thought it necessary to re-edit Cennino.

My answer was only moderately convincing. Lady Herringham made a few little blunders — such as translating violante as “ravishing”, instead of as “inclining toward violet.: There were …  [text breaks off, rest of page blank]

¶ When my translation of Cennino d’Andrea Cennini’s Libro dell’Arte was published in 1933, it was viewed with grave doubt by the London Society of Mural Decorators and Painters in Tempera, and the members of that high-minded and venerable group invited me to meet them and justify, if I could, my impertinence in seeking to supplant Lady Christiana J. Herringham’s translation, The Book of the Art.

Let me explain the background of my answer.

Lady Herringham’s delightful version had been my first introduction to Cennino fifteen years before, and I knew it pretty well by heart when in 1920 I became the greatly-favored pupil of Edward Waldo Forbes, and the curtain rose for me upon a world of adventure, mystery, beauty and challenge.

My formal training had been primarily in the physical sciences, the life of which is criticism (or so, at least, I had been taught) but painting was my hobby and Cennino’s disciplines fascinated me and [puzzled?] me.

Edward Forbes had at that time not only breathed life into Harvard’s dusty inheritance, the Fogg Museum, and enriched it with loans and gifts from his own modest and inspired collections, but has for a quarter century assembled information ¶ from every imaginable source about the materials and methods of painting. His studio used a matchless though unsystematic collection of pigments and related materials, gums, resins, oils, woods papers, parchments, slabs, mullers, mortars, minerals and metals. It was a paradise where weeds and orchids might flourish equally. A little bottle of genuine ultramarine more costly than gold might rub elbows with a jam jar of chicken-bones which were some day to be calcined and ground as Cennino directs in Chapter 40.

And to a small group of students each year Forbes would lecture on technical traditions and teach in practice the basic methods of preparing gesso grounds and gilding, painting in tempera and in buon fresco.

To make me a much more useful assistant, he educated my eye, and provided the opportunities for me to become friend and pupil to the incomparable [copyist] Nicholas Lochoff, in Florence, and the brilliant Federigo Ioni of Siena, pittore-restauratore (whose range of ‘restoration’ covered supplying gaps in an original amounting to up to 99 percent).

For all our work together, Mr Forbes and I relied constantly on Cennino. My scientific background made me more uneasy about so complete dependence on a text known only at second hand. So I determined to review the Italian ¶ text as found in two manuscript copies, neither of them original. (That is not known to exist.) With the text carefully established, I would make a new translation into English.

This resolution gained strength [when] I was made the first instructor in the History of Art at Yale in 1926 and was at the same time encouraged by the broad-minded great-hearted Professor of Painting in the Yale School of the Fine Arts, Edwin Cassius Taylor.

My students there had dexterity and draughtsmanship that I lacked and they kept me on my toes. It is no exaggeration to say that I learned more than I taught.

For example, Edward Forbes and I had taken for granted pinholes in a gesso surface, and patched them up. Joni did not. And impatient students forced me to learn the cause and cure. The cause proved to be underheating the gesso. The cure was obvious!

Cennino was our textbook. My plan to reedit the text became more than ever urgent. My good friend Belle da Costa Greene of the Morgan Library in New York had photostats of the manuscripts made for my use, and in 1932 the Yale University Press published my edition of the Italian text, and a year later, my English translation.

¶ When, in 1932 I had done my best to produce an accurate translation of the Libro dell’Arte of Cennino d’Andrea Cennini, based on a painstaking study and new edition of the Italian text, I knew that it was imperfect.

I knew, for example, that my translation of the title was not good. But The Book of the Art is meaningless, unless Arte is taken to mean the guild, the profession, the craft.  It might have been wiser to supply “della pittura” and call it The Book of the Art of Painting, but there are chapters not concerned with painting, though possibly still within the limits of what might be asked of the master of the painters’ guild. (I was not aware of the association in British English of ‘Craftsmanship’ and Freemasonry.)

It is better, I think, to make a few mistakes and let a work enjoy some useful life than to keep it under cover, unseen, unread, unused, hoping some day to perfect it. And thanks to Dover publications my translations of Cennino has found its way into more hands than I should have thought possible 45 years ago. 




May I sum up the difficulty by saying that of you know what the author means, it’s usually not very hard to translate him accurately. But if you don’t know, you make the kinds of mistakes that I made. I can’t even claim the benefit of picturesque beauty that appears here and there in Lady Herringham’s translation of Cennino when she translates the word for ‘emery powder’ as ‘powdered emeralds’ [Laughs] There’s something extravagantly beautiful about grinding things with powdered emeralds. [Interview, Tape 3 Side 2; transcript p. 69. See Craftsman’s Handbook p.83 n.3 and Herringham p. 112.]


Given the length Cennini’s treatise, and the length of time passed since publication, the number of regrets that he expressed seem few and relatively minor, and for that we must be grateful.

Thompson always emphasised that practical experience was an invaluable tool in comprehension of historic art technological texts, and since 1933 a tremendous amount of experience has accumulated worldwide, through philological examination of Cennini and other contemporary texts, through technical examination of paintings, and through careful reconstructions based on these two kinds of examinations. In consequence of these careful researches, many words in Cennini would today be translated somewhat differently (consider for example the analysis in Nadolny 2008  of his use of ‘glue’, ‘size’, ‘gesso’, and ‘tailor’s chalk’, or Thompson’s identification of giallorino as massicot (PbO), now believed to be lead-tin yellow (Pb2SnO4), and metą di oro, the substitute for gold leaf, now not thought to be an alloy but Zwischgold, a two-layer leaf of gold over silver; see Burns 2011:11).

One can easily imagine that he would have been delighted that his baton has been taken up so enthusiastically.




Publications cited


Burns, T. (2011) ‘Cennino Cennini’s Il libro dell’arte: a historiographical review’, Studies in Conservation 56, pp. 1–13.


Herringham, Christiana. J. (1899) The Book of the Art of Cennino Cennini: A Contemporary Practical treatise on Quattrocento Painting, London: Allen. Reprinted 1930, George Allen & Unwin, Ltd.


Nadolny, J. (2008) ‘European documentary sources before c. 1550 relating to painting grounds applied to wooden supports: translation and terminology’ in: Townsend, J., Doherty, T., Heydenreich, G., Ridge, J. (eds) Preparation for Painting: The Artist's Choice and its Consequences, London: Archetype Publications, pp. 1-13.


Thompson, D. V., Jr. Cennino d’Andrea Cennini da Colle di Val d’Elsa. Il Libro dell’Arte. New Haven: Yale University Press. Volume 1: Text (1932), Volume 2: The Craftsman’s Handbook (1933). Reprinted Dover Publications, New York, 1960 and subsequently.


Thompson, D. V., Jr. (1971) ‘Letter from America’. Tempera. Published by the Society of Painters in Tempera. April 1971, pp. 7–8. [Editorial, pp. 1-2, also refers.]


Unpublished papers


9.6 linear feet of material, referred to simply as the Daniel Varney Thompson Papers, are held in the Smithsonian Institution’s Archives of American Art at their offices in Washington D.C.  A finding list has recently been compiled.


Oral history interview


Oral history interview with Daniel Varney Thompson, 1974 Sept. 25-1976 Nov. 2, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. Tape-recorded interview conducted by Robert Brown. Four cassette tapes and a typed transcript (with corrections by M. Clarke), which may be heard at the Archives of American Art, Washington D.C.  Sadly the first tape is almost unusable through a technical mishap.








The author is extremely grateful to the Association for Manuscripts and Archives in Research Collections for a generous grant which made possible the visit to Washington in April 2007.


The author would like to thank the AAA for access to these papers, and in particular Cathy Gaines who prepared a finding list before my arrival. The friendly and efficient staff contributed to making the visit productive and enjoyable: Marisa Bourgoin, Elizabeth Botten, Wendy Hurlock Baker, and Tessa Veazey.


The Daniel Varney Thompson Papers are owned by the Smithsonian Institution’s Archives of American Art. Literary rights as possessed by the donor have been dedicated to public use for research, study, and scholarship. The collection is subject to all copyright laws



Appendix — ‘Letter from America’, Tempera April 1971, pp. 7–8.


[The footnotes are Thompson’s.]


In a review of recent translations of Theophilus Presbyter 1 I tried to point out some of the dangers which attend the interpretations of descriptions of technical operations. It occurs to me that I fell headlong many years ago into the pit of literal-translation and did not discover my fault for several months, and that, worse still, I have until now never reported it.

In the Libro dell’Arte, Cennino Cennini describes a size, an assiette, for gilding on parchment. 2 I translated his rule: ‘… a little gesso sottile, a small amount of white lead, less than a third as much as the gesso … a little sugar candy, less than the white lead … temper it with white of egg.” 3

   As far as it goes, that translation is accurate enough but it is not helpful: because it takes no account of an ambiguity in the Italian on the correct resolution of which the author’s meaning depends.

In the same text Cennino defines gesso sottile by means of a chapter devoted to making it from gesso grosso (= plaster of Paris) by long slaking in so much water as will prevent its setting. 4 It acquires through recrystallization a diffused needle-like structure very different from that of the burnt gypsum from which it is made. This revised material has high optical reflectivity when it is dry, even when it is bound by the admixture of a gelatinous size. 5 This ‘tempered’ mixture is also called gesso sottile, as is also the surface produced by its application. 6

At the moment of publication of my translation I was uncomfortably aware that this rule of Cennino’s for a gold-mordant for use on parchment did not in my hands give a successful result. Compounded from the untempered gesso sottile, the resulting size was brittle, almost impossible to gild, and crumbled under the burnisher. Mistakenly I allowed myself to believe that the text might be imperfect, or that the author was writing of operations outside his own field of competence, perhaps on hearsay. Perhaps I was influence by the ingenious but untenable proposal (privately communicated in 1927) of the learned Guy Loumyer 7 that the apparent flexibility of manuscript gold grounds was due to minute cracks in them and not to the use of an inherently flexible material. Whatever the reason, the fault remains.

Even a young and inexperienced translator should have been alert to the ambiguity in the term ‘gesso sottile’. And almost immediately after my translation appeared it struck me that the choice of a valid alternative which I had not tried in practice might yield a successful result in practice. If any interpretation justified by an author’s usage confirms his technical recommendation, it must obviously be preferred to any interpretation which does not.

To my delight — and chagrin  — I found that when the compound, tempered gesso was substituted for the simple gesso, an admirable water-mordant was formed, ideally suited to gilding on parchment with no trouble at all. This had the effect of adding gelatin to the egg-albumen used as the binding medium and this combination, together with the hydrophile element of sugar, has precisely the flexibility and toughness and temporary hygroscopic quality needed to form an ideal mordant. As Cennino promises 2, 3 ‘you can write letters with a quill, grounds, or whatever you please; for it is most perfect.’ Even the finest strokes dry glossy, and accept the gold leaf readily. 8

Cennino was not at fault. (We may speak of ‘gelatin’ and trust to the context to make clear whether we are referring to the material itself, in grains or leaves, or to a jelly prepared from it.) I was at fault in not resolving the ambiguity by experiment; for the duty of the translator of technical material is not merely sparing a reader the trouble of consulting a dictionary but far more discovering and representing the meaning and intention behind the words of his text.

Daniel V. Thompson

Beverly Farms, Massachussetts


1. Speculum, XLII (1967), 312-339.

2. Cennino d’Andrea Cennini da Colle di Val d’Elsa, Il Libro dell’ Arte D.V. Thompson, ed. (New Haven, 1932) pages 95–6.

3. Cennino d’Andrea Cennini, The Craftsman’s Handbook D.V. Thompson tr. (New Haven, 1932; facsimile reprintings by Dover Publications), page 100.

4. Ibid., page 71.

5. Ibid., page 72. See also my Practice of Tempera Painting (New Haven, 1936), pages 36–39.

6. Craftsman’s Handbook, op. cit.,  pages 72–3 and page 74 and page 7.

7. Author of Les Traditions techniques de la peinture Mediévale (Brussels, 1914) and L’Outilage et la Matériel du Peintre de l”antiquite grecque et romaine (Brussels, 1922).

8. Publication of this ‘laboratory’ translation was delayed my a romantic desire on my part to convey the information first in chrysographic form to Miss Belle da Costa Greene of the Morgan Library who had graciously supplied me with photographs of the Cennino manuscripts. Like the objects of St Jerome’s contempt (Ad Eustochium de custodia virginitatis, I, 115) I ‘stained parchment with the purple and liquified gold into letters.’ When I felt competent, I invited the venerable Professor Henderson of Yale’s Classics Department to vet the Latin of my communication. Professor Henderson urged that the words of the memorial form on the page the shape of an Urn, or other elegant figure; and in the end, through over-complication of the wording and the presentation, my presentation was never made.