Saturday, October 06, 2007

The Barber of Seville & Oak Gall Ink

Yesterday, we spent the day with 2 other homeschool families. First, we attended an outdoor opera, especially for kids and in English, of The Barber of Seville. One of the main characters is Figaro, and you're probably familiar with the opera song that repeats his name. The story was great and had a lot of humor and the opera performers were wonderful. We all enjoyed it.
This photo is of the characters warming up. The singer for Figaro actually had a sore throat and wasn't able to perform all of his songs on his own. So, his understudy sang near the piano (it had live music and the pianist was wonderful) while the actor acted and mouthed the words. It worked out very well and it's a great time to talk about what an understudy is.

This was our 4th children's opera, I believe, but I think it was the first for the other 8 in our group. We enjoyed how the singers/actors stayed out on stage afterwards and talked about what part they sang in the opera (ex. baritone, the lowest of the men's voices) and answered questions.

Afterwards, we had a picnic which turned into a small nature study. We found some growths on an oak tree and didn't know what they were called until the 13-year-old girl told us they were oak galls. And, she told us they used them to make ink! I was shocked that she knew this, and intrigued! So, I did some research. (Above: kind of blury photo of oak gall.)

So, here's some of what I learned:

What is an oak gall?
"Galls are irregular plant growths which are stimulated by the reaction between plant hormones and powerful growth regulating chemicals produced by some insects or mites. Galls may occur on leaves, bark, flowers, buds, acorns, or roots. Leaf and twig galls are most noticeable."
Also called iron gall ink, just what is it?

Definition: "Iron Gall Ink is a highly acidic ink produced from oak gall nuts. It fades to brown in the light, and its corrosive effects cannot be halted. The acids in iron gall ink react with the collagen in the surface of parchment, making it highly permanent, unlike carbon inks which easily rub off the impervious surface. However, the acids can also destroy documents, creating a challenge for historians, who have to read the holes burnt in ancient papers, and conservators, who need to find a way to neutralize the acid. For this reason, it is advisable to choose a modern archival ink in preference to making this traditional ink." (Above photo and definition taken from this site shows how the ink can burn holes in ancient papers.)

Who used it and what has happened?
"Iron-gall ink was the most important ink in Western history. Leonardo da Vinci wrote his notes using iron-gall ink. Bach composed with it. Rembrandt and Van Gogh drew with it. The Constitution of the United States was drafted with it. And, when the black ink on the Dead Sea Scrolls was analyzed using a cyclotron at the Davis campus of the University of California, it was found to be iron-gall ink."

Why is it brown?
"IRON GALL INK is naturally a purplish-black, but with time and exposure to light, it changes to a brown color. Its essential ingredients include plant tannins extracted from gall nuts, to which are added iron salts and gum arabic. This ink has a natural acidity whose corrosive effect on paper can often be seen in old master drawings." (from this site)

So, when they used this ink, it became this highly recognizable brown color as shown in the ink sketch by Rembrandt above. Can't you just picture da Vinci's drawings and notes from his notebooks?
Well, I just found this whole topic intriguing. And, I asked the girl and her mom where she learned this from and they didn't know. The mom said she just knows lots of "stuff" because she's always reading! Another reason to read!


Anonymous said...

How cool! This info is fascinating. Thanks for sharing.

Robin said...

It's funny that you should run across one of these this week. When we went on our nature field trip this past week, one of the kids brought a gall to the ranger and she explained to us that they start from insects eggs. And that the wood of the tree actually grows around the insect egg, creating the gall. We were amazed. You learn something new every day! And now I've learned that it can be used as a source of ink... sweet!

Unknown said...

I was just doing research on the very same thing....I have been busy trying to figure out what insects make the oak gall and then I found out that in our area they are gallwasps.

Must be the time of year to notice oak galls.

Barb-Harmony Art Mom

Anonymous said...

Ooh! Opera. The Atlanta Opera is putting on Hansel and Gretel this November so I am trying to put a mini unit on opera together. Any suggestions?

Sherri said...

That is so cool!!! Don't you just love to learn something unexpectantly?!?

Dana Leeds said...

A mini-unit on Hansel & Gretel would be great! But, I don't have any ideas except for making a gingerbread house. We went last year and it was one of the best theater events I've ever attended. See:
- Dana

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