Friday, May 16, 2014

Scraping the Barrel

4th century BCE philosopher Diogenes
(supposedly lived in a wine barrel)
by Gaetano Gandolfi (1792)
To seventeenth century glassmaker Antonio Neri, "tartar" was a well-known byproduct of the winemaking process. If we chill wine or grape juice to below 50 degrees (10 deg. C.) crystals of tartar start to form and once they do, then tend not to dissolve back, even at room temperatures. Today, these crystals are commonly found in a powdered form, in kitchen cupboards as "cream of tartar." Bakers and cooks use it to stabilize whipped egg whites, and it has a number of other applications. 

Neri used it in his glass to add sparkle, a trick known to Venetian glassmakers as early as the 1400s. It was obtained from the dregs at the bottom of wine barrels. To understand how this works, it is useful to know that Florentines, Venetians and most southern Europeans made glass from crushed up quartz pebbles or sand mixed with a specific flux known as "glass salt." This salt was rich in sodium carbonates, which greatly reduced the melting point of the quartz. It allowed artisans to work the material at the temperatures easily achieved in their furnaces. Tartar turns out to be very similar, except that it is rich in potassium rather than sodium. 

Potassium atoms are bigger and heavier than sodium atoms and when light passes through a piece of potassium-fluxed glass, it bends and refracts more. This effect is not as pronounced as when adding the even heavier lead to form fine crystal, but it still adds noticeable sparkle to finished pieces. Using all tartar as a flux has the undesirable effect of reducing the workability of the hot glass. Outside the furnace, it becomes stiff quicker and artists have less time to create fancy shapes and forms. The solution to this dilemma is to use a mix of sodium and potassium fluxes together, which is exactly what Neri did. 

In his 1612 book L'Arte Vetraria, he shows how to prepare tartar and then adds it to a number of his glass recipes saying, "The tartar is the secret way to produce more salt and to make cristallo which is whiter and of rare beauty." Here is Neri’s prescription:

To make Purified Tartar Salt you should obtain tartar, which is also called gruma, from barrels of red wine in which it forms large lumps, however do not use powder. Roast it in earthenware pots amongst hot coals until it becomes calcined black and all its sliminess is roasted away. It then will begin to whiten, but do not let it become white, because if you do the salt will be no good.  
Calcine tartar this way: put it in large earthenware pans full of hot common water, or better yet in glazed earthenware pans then made to boil on a slow fire. You should do it in such a way that in two hours the level of the water will slowly decrease to one-quarter, at this point lift it from the fire and leave it to cool and to clarify. Now decant off the liquid, which will be strong lye and refill the pans containing the remains of the tartar with new common water. In the way stated above, boil as before and repeat the procedure until saltiness no longer charges the water. 
At this point, the [decanted] water is impregnated with all the salt. Filter the lye clear and put it in glass chamber pots to evaporate in the ash of the stove over a slow fire. In the bottom, white salt will remain. Dissolve this salt in new hot common water and leave it in the pans, letting it settle for two days. Then filter it and return it to chamber pots to evaporate over a slow fire. In the bottom, a much whiter salt will be left than the previous time. Now dissolve this salt in fresh hot common water and leave it to settle for two days. Evaporate, filter and repeat everything as before. Overall, repeat this procedure four times to dissolve, filter and evaporate the salt of tartar. This will make the salt whiter than snow and purified from the vast majority of its sediment.
When mixed with sifted polverino, or rocchetta, with its doses of tarso [quartz] or sand, this salt will make a frit that in crucibles will produce the most beautiful crystallino and common glass, which one cannot make without the accompaniment of tartar salt. Without it [tartar], good fine crystallino can be made, nevertheless with it, it will be the absolute most beautiful.

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