The term “lac” originates from Hindi and Sanskrit words, respectively lakh and laksha, which mean “hundred thousand,” referring to the large quantity of insects needed to produce enough lac material.
Used as early as around 1200 BCE in India, lac was employed in making sealing wax, dye, and varnish (like shellac). In the seventeenth century, Europe began to import shellac and lac dye, for which lac was particularly valued as a dark red colorant.
Lac lends its name to lake pigments, a broader term for a number of colorants derived from organic sources such as plants or animals. This more general meaning is found in Ms. 640:
Lacque platte – dried lake pigment, formed into a flat shape for storage and sale (flat squares or tablets).
Lacque ronde – dried lake pigment, shaped into round beads for storage and sale.
Fol. 40v - “Cross of the commanders of Malta”
This beautiful rouge clair which makes the field of the white enamel cross is of fine tear of dragon’s blood tempered with eau-de-vie or else Indian laque platte, which in my opinion is made in Flanders, tempered with clear turpentine & tear of mastic & laid down on a silver leaf, not the kind which the painters use, but a thicker kind, which is burnished by those who make gemstone foils or by goldsmiths, & that gives it this beautiful brilliance.
Fol. 6r - “For laying down and seating burnished gold and giving red or green or blue” … Having rubbed, wash with a clean paintbrush soaked in clear water the place that you want to gild & immediately apply the gold, which you will burnish once dry. And if you want to lay in rouge clair & glaze with it de, grind Venice laque platte on marble with walnut or linseed oil. Once ground, mix turpentine or spike lavender varnish & apply on the gold with the paintbrush. Brazilwood & laque ronde die…
Fol.3r - “Counterfeit coral”
One needs to first make the branches of wood or take a bizarre thorn branch, then melt a lb of the most beautiful clear pitch resin and put in one ounce of subtly ground vermilion with walnut oil, and if you add in a little Venice laque platte, the color will be more vivid, and stir everything in the resin melted over a charcoal fire and not of flame, for fear that it catches fire. Next dip in your branches while turning, & if any filaments should remain on it, turn the branch over the heat of the charcoal.
Donald F. Lach, “The Individual Arts,” in Asia In the Making of Europe, Vol. 2, Book 1 (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1965).
“Lac (resin),” The Getty Art & Architecture Thesaurus Online, http://vocab.getty.edu/page/aat/300012946.
Jo Kirby and Marika Spring, “Ms. Fr. 640 in the World of Pigments in Sixteenth-Century Europe,” in Secrets of Craft and Nature in Renaissance France. A Digital Critical Edition and English Translation of BnF Ms. Fr. 640, ed. Making and Knowing Project, Pamela H. Smith, Naomi Rosenkranz, Tianna Helena Uchacz, Tillmann Taape, Clément Godbarge, Sophie Pitman, Jenny Boulboullé, Joel Klein, Donna Bilak, Marc Smith, and Terry Catapano (New York: Making and Knowing Project, 2020) https://edition640.makingandknowing.org/#/essays/ann_321_ie_19. DOI: https://www.doi.org/10.7916/vsrt-8r31.
“Lac.” The Conservation and Art Materials Encyclopedia (CAMEO), ed. Michele Derrick. http://cameo.mfa.org/wiki/Lac.
Teresa Soley, “Imitation Marble,” in Secrets of Craft and Nature in Renaissance France. A Digital Critical Edition and English Translation of BnF Ms. Fr. 640, ed. Making and Knowing Project, Pamela H. Smith, Naomi Rosenkranz, Tianna Helena Uchacz, Tillmann Taape, Clément Godbarge, Sophie Pitman, Jenny Boulboullé, Joel Klein, Donna Bilak, Marc Smith, and Terry Catapano (New York: Making and Knowing Project, 2020) https://edition640.makingandknowing.org/#/essays/ann_040_sp_16. DOI: https://www.doi.org/10.7916/tpgj-d438.
Image: Drawing of the insect Kerria lacca and its shellac tubes, from Indian Insect, Life: a Manual of the Insects of the Plains (Tropical India) by Harold Maxwell-Lefroy (Calcutta; Thacker, Spink & Co., W. Thacker & Co., 2 Creed Lane, London, 1909). NCSU Libraries (archive.org).
Helena Seo, Columbia University