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18x15 cm

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60x50 cm (oil on wood)
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15x20 cm (oil on wood)

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80x70 cm

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60x50 cm

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152x112 cm
 
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On Lapislazuli

by Andrea Fortina


(italian version)

It is difficult for us to know what the Ancients appreciated in a stone.
Of course the colour and its rarity. Perhaps also its hardness and resistance to corrosion which turns  everything into something else.
Or an inner affinity with Hours, Locations and mysterious talks between Nature, Gods and the Elemental Spirits that come with it.
From these hidden connections of sympathy and their natural extensions derive visible virtues, such as the ability to meet the eye that admires them, and other more secret but equally valuable properties.

So the Lapis Lazuli, the rock and not the mineral-mind you, has always been used in treating hypertension, sometimes the anxiety that generates it and certainly the affections of the throat and larynx.
It was prized already in Ur, in the fourth millennium BC, used to light up the eyes of the sculptures of the Gods, finely processed as a cosmetic for the most powerful in the world at that time.
Always the best ones come from Asia, and among those the mines of Afghanistan provide an even better quality. Still, unsurpassed, is the Lapislazuli from the mines of Sar-e-Sang, in Badakhsan.

It can still be purchased in the old markets of Peshawar. You have to look for it in fragments no bigger than an almond. This is a size that is not worth dyeing to make it appear more beautiful; one can also be assured the cuts come from a stone bigger and important.
Many mineral origins are mixed in this blue gravel so as to ensure, just like in the recipe for the Sultan’s jam, that there is a mix of excellent and poor, old and fresh.

Thoroughly washed, slightly dried, this seed of colour goes in the mortar, one made of bronze, never of stone.
Insert in the mortar slightly more than twice the volume of the head of the prouder at a time.
The mouth of the mortar must be wrapped in an old damp cloth so that the mill dust is not lost and any other particles from the outside do not get mixed with the prince of colours.

The first strikes of the pestle are directed towards the bottom of the mortar. The process would be similar to churning the milk. One should apply a rhythm followed by a gentle circular motion of the left hand, then shake the mouth of the mortar to send to the bottom the large and heavy pieces.
When the stone is reduced to fragments as large as a grain of rice, it’s time to give it a rest.
The pestle should be lightly rubbed with almond oil. Covering the opening with a rag, one starts grinding with a continuous circular motion, holding the pestle firmly and tilted.
This is the moment of truth: from the smell of the grinded stone one will understand when is pure, but, above all, when it's time to stop grinding.

As Bellini learned at a great cost, the Lapis grounded for too long wears out, and sadly becomes forever gray. The grinding must enhance and not mortify. Even when the result looks perfect, the powder must still rest some days, allowing the resulted new surfaces of the mineral to meet the air, oxidize and breathe.
Rubbed between the fingertips this dust must feel uneven and a little grainy, not a fine powder as some chemists write. At this point one must take a heavy iron saucepan filled with white vinegar, even better if distilled. Use a damp cloth mask to cover the nose and mouth, and in addition to the fire, pick a beautiful day so one can work at the open windows.
The lapis powder must be baked in the pan, stirring  with a wooden spoon until it will almost become black. Removing the pan from the heat is sufficient to have the powder covered by a thin layer of vinegar, allow it to sizzle and observe it releasing a smelly cloud of sulphur.
This purification called "spegnitura" (extinguishment) must be repeated after slightly cooled to no less than four and not more than nine times depending on the quality of origin.
At each spegnitura the lapis becomes more brittle, thinner and more black.

The powder should be left to cool and well-placed in a closed glass jar, dry and clean. Shake it often, as a good barman does with a shaker.
We will then melt in a bain marie one part of Venetian turpentine, one powder rosin, beeswax and adding the last half part of linseed oil purified in the sun. Only when the amalgam feels smooth and sleek to the wooden spoon one can slowly sprinkle the powder, avoiding lumps and clusters, a part and a half of our black lapis.
The warm amalgam is quickly poured into a glazed bowl almost full of iced water and, with your hands well greased with linseed oil, knead  it vigurously as one would do with the mass of dough.

Inevitable burns… As soon as the dough tends to cool, one must shape it into sticks with a diameter of one inch and a length of just less than a hand span.
At this point, there are many ways to proceed.
Some leave the crayons rest in water for weeks; my father taught me that way.
Others scramble furiously the sticks in water until they have a blue liquid in containers; this would look differently depending on the saturation. Thus, it can be separated between their various qualities of colour and clarity There are some benefits in this method as well.
Others still, cradling the sticks in a mixture of water and turpentine, or essence of turpentine and oil until the colour will slowly become pure, releasing into the wax all impurities separated during this process.
Whichever way is followed, no recipe can tell when it is time to stop an operation, which colour the grain must have for the purpose that it is intended, which smell warns us of the end of the purification.
And certainly no words can convey the pure joy that comes when the cloudy waters of the washing settle down, leaving on the glazed white bottom of the pan the most sumptuous and deep blue hues of purple that man has ever been gifted by Nature.