Senape: From the cosmos to the desert, by way of Vercelli
Whenever I think of Andrea Mantegna, the colour mustard always comes to mind.
The image I am referring to is the one used in the catalogue to represent the Senape, or Mustard finish. This image portrays the Camera degli Sposi (“bridal chamber” also called “Camera Picta”) within the Castle of San Giorgio in Mantua and was painted by Mantegna himself yet this is not the photograph of the Camera degli Sposi usually found in all the essays and articles, which is the famous Court scene.
Our image is on the opposite side of the room where the entrance door is and it is a lesser-known detail, but closer to the idea of discovery that we wanted to convey, along with the belief that raw earth can imbue spaces with its own aesthetic character without demanding the use of easily applied effects.
This approach is opposite to that of finishes of style, such as Mediaeval or Renaissance to name but two, which aim to achieve an imitative effect. I believe indeed that we must allow every designer to create something that does not yet exist and that it is not the aping of an irreproducible past.
What distinguishes non-imitative finishes from those that are, can basically be summed up in two elements. First, there is the knowledge of the skilled craftsman used during the application process. This factor is frequently found from the Renaissance onwards and up to and including the whole of the nineteenth century, and one which offers satisfaction in the pure creative gesture and the pleasure of being created through the gesture itself. The fact that this is done as a form of labour, hard everyday work, makes the craftsman more like a designer than an artist.
Another element that distances this finish from imitative ones is the use of raw materials not too dissimilar from those used since antiquity.
The clay used for Senape comes from the Lozzolo area near Vercelli in upper Piedmont, a geographically hilly area without the typical waterlogged quarries of the Po Valley, and therefore particularly rich in extraction sites which provide earth with numerous slightly different colours.
Three other clays from our collection also come from the same area, including Cammeo (cameo color), originally from the same quarry. Being able to find three or four completely different colours in the same mining area makes it much easier to manage the entire procurement and sorting process, and so far, a similar situation has occurred only in Sardinia.
It should not be assumed however that the earth used to fresco the Camera Picta came from the Vercelli area, like that used for Senape: more probably it came from Siena or neighbouring areas. However, I like to imagine that Mantegna mixed an ochre clay similar to the one we use today with lime putty, rabbit glue and egg white, finely grinding it to obtain the pigment and then mixing it up to transform it into colour and mixture. This is precisely one of the things that fascinates me the most: although centuries have passed, and while also applying today's solutions and technologies, we are not reproducing colours through an industrial production process.
Admittedly, our process is different from the original one, but we respect its essential nature, to the point of transforming it into a genuine colour archetype.
Obviously we don’t use all the same substances: rabbit glue, for example, is not used today, because the industry has developed a cellulose with vegetable origins (colloids with a similar function, but more stable); however, the essence is the same. Like all the interior finishes we produce, Senape clay is practically the same as that used five hundred years ago to paint frescoes, a thousand years ago to make plaster and three thousand years ago to colour people’s faces on ritual occasions.
Earth, together with wood, is the matrix of design and a material at the core of many things and infinite types of human activities. I find this idea fascinating, and it enchants me every time I think about it.
In applying raw earth to inhabited environments, we are transferring a cosmetic action to architecture: this thousand-year-old practice which, as is explicit in the linguistic root of the term, does not only concern superficial embellishment, but has to do with the dialogue between the body and the order of the cosmos.
Senape was the dominant feature of one of the first projects in which we applied the product in a more eco-friendly artistic style and abandoning a more technological approach. It was the Lavazza stand at the Lingotto in Turin: one of the first times we applied this particular colour variant.
The setting was designed to present the ¡Tierra! Café, and the communicative design project was based on large photographic prints of shots by Steve McCurry, which captured the incredible details of cracked and bone-dry earth in Africa.
For the first time we created artistic applications on the wall: the expressive effect relied on the yellow and ochre of Senape (a mixture enriched with coffee beans for the occasion) which recalled the tones of desert earth and, when combined with the brown shades of the Cacao finish, of coffee foam at the same time.
The contrast between the temporary architecture and the use of “stable” and “eternal” materials and colours was really striking and the Milan agency in charge of the project got the order thanks in part to the choice of that finish. The harmony and the overall chromatic order were truly surprising, especially if you think that the clays that had been used to represent Africa and its coffee came from Piedmont and Calabria.
But, as Mantegna and his Sposi knew very well, cosmetic magic lies in tracing the essence of things in whatever field you are in, without limiting yourself just to chasing their shadows.