Brazilwood in the Fifteenth Century: Italy and Sunda

In an earlier blogpost I discussed a peculiar passage on brazilwood from Marco Polo’s Travels. While in Sumatra Polo picked up some seeds of the brazil tree (Caesalpinia sappan, aka Biancaea sappan), which grew locally, and brought them with him all the way back to Venice, where he planted them; the seeds didn’t sprout, which Polo attributed to Venice’s colder climate. This is presumably the first documented case of attempted bio-piracy in Southeast Asia and it’s a fun little story. In this post I’m going to take a look at two rather more mundane texts on brazilwood (aka sappanwood), both from the fifteenth century — one from Italy and one from Sunda in what is now Indonesia. Both describe the processing of brazilwood as skilled women’s work.

Brazilwood was one of a large number of important Southeast Asian commodities in the Middle Ages, used as a dye — for making paints and inks and for dyeing cloth — across the medieval world, from China to Europe and everywhere in between. The colour it produces varies depending on the methods used, but it tends to produce reddish hues ranging from orange to violet. A wonderful illustrated Twitter thread on medieval Middle Eastern brazil processing by the excellent Joumana Medlej (@joumajnouna) can be found here if you want to see what the stuff looks like.

The first text below is an extract from Il Libro dell’ Arte (lit. ‘The Book of Art’), a manual for artists written by the painter Cennino d’Andrea Cennini in the early fifteenth century. It is taken from the oldest manuscript of the work, copied in July 1437, and it describes in brief the processing of brazilwood alongside kermes, another dye commonly used in medieval Europe. The second passage is a section of the Old Sundanese narrative poem Bujangga Manik, which was composed in Sunda (i.e. ‘West Java’), in what is now Indonesia, in the mid/late fifteenth century (I suspect around 1470-ish). The poem is a codex unicus preserved in a single palm-leaf manuscript kept since 1627 in the Bodleian Library in Oxford, where it is catalogued as MS Jav. b.3. (R). It’s a wonderfully informative text about daily life and material culture in Java and Indo-Malaysia more broadly at that time, and I happen to be working on an edition and study of it for my Ph.D.

The two texts describe different but related uses of brazilwood — the same stuff in the same century in the same deeply interconnected hemisphere.

Cennini’s Libro dell’ Arte

Cennino Cennini (aka Cennino of Colle, 1360–1427?) was a painter from Tuscany. A small number of his paintings survive, including the Nativity of the Virgin, painted at some point between 1390 and 1410 (Figure 1), but he is most famous as the author of Il Libro dell’ Arte, an excerpt from which appears below.

Fig. 1 — Cennini’s Natività della Vergine (c.1400). Colle di Val d’Elsa, Museo Diocesano.

The Libro dell’ Arte was certainly not the only manual for artists written in Italy in the fifteenth century — Leon Battista Alberti’s De Pictura, written about a decade after Cennini’s death, is another — but it is a particularly practical and down-to-earth example. It is also a reasonably well-known and well-studied text, surviving in four manuscripts, the oldest of which is Florence, Laurentian Library (Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana), MS Plutei 78.23. This bears a date of 1437 CE (Figure 2). The translation below is adapted from the cheapo Dover edition of the English translation by Daniel V. Thompson, Jr. (The Craftsman’s Handbook; “Il Libro dell’ Arte” by Cennino d’Andrea Cennini — 1960), which I picked up for £2 in the secondhand bookshop at The Vyne last autumn. An older translation by Christiana Herringham (1899) can be found free online here (courtesy of the Warburg Institute).

Fig. 2 — The date at the end of the Libro: 31st of July, 1437. Florence, Laurentian Library, MS Plutei 78.23, f.75v.

The section on brazilwood below is on f.53r (Figure 3). The hand isn’t too tricky but there are a good few ligatures and I’m not a particularly fluent reader of Italian, to put it mildly, so I’ve relied in part on the 1821 edition of the text by Giuseppe Tambroni in transcribing the passage below. Tambroni’s edition is ‘incomplete and inaccurate’ according to Thompson (1960:ix), but this section is present and the readings don’t seem too out of whack. Any errors below are my own, of course.

The chapter from which these lines have been taken is actually about the production of violet tints — chapter LXII, ‘On the Character of Ultramarine Blue, and How to Make It’. The recipe here is intended to strengthen the blue of lapis lazuli (a stone from what is now Afghanistan, as you probably know) by mixing it with a crimson derived from a combination of brazilwood (uerzino) and kermes (grana in the text below), a red dye made from crushed insects of the species Kermes vermilio. You may remember from my previous post on brazilwood that the word verzino — and the word ‘brazil’, which is a variant of it — probably comes from the Arabic wars (وَرْس), a word that originally referred to a plant from South Arabia in the genus Flemingia.

Here’s the text, anyway:

Fig. 3— The text on brazilwood from a fifteenth-century manuscript of Il Libro dell’Arte by Cennino Cennini. Florence, Laurentian Library, MS Plutei 78.23, f.53r.


[…] togli· vna· pocha·
di grana pesta· e un pocho di uerzino· chuocili· insieme· ma ffa
chel uerzino· o ttu· il grattugia o ttu· el radi· con uetro e puoi· in-
sieme li chuoci con lisciua. e un pocho· dallume· di roccha.
e quando boglion· uedi· e ꝓfetto cholor vermiglio· ĩnanzi
ch’abi tratto lazurro· della schodella ma bene· asciutto de-
lla lisciua mettiui· su· un pocho· di questa· grana e uerzino
et col dito· rimeschola bene · insieme· ongni ·cosa e tanto·
lascia stare· che sia· asciutto senza ó sole o fuocho
e senza aria· quando il truoui· asciutto mettilo· in chuoro
o in borsa· et lascialo ghodere ·ché· é· buono ⁊ ꝓfetto e
tiello· inte· che· e· vna singhular virtu a ssaperlo·
ben· fare· essappi· chella piu· a᷈te di belle· giovani a
farlo· che non e· a huomeni ꝓchelle si stãno di continuo· ĩ
chasa et ferme· ⁊ ãno le mani· piu· dilicate. ghuarti ·pur
dalle uecchie


‘Take a bit of pounded kermes and a bit of brazil; cook them together; but either grate the brazil or scape it with glass; and then cook them together with lye and a little rock alum; and when they boil you will see that it is a perfect red colour. Before you take the blue out of the dish, but after it is quite dry of the lye, put a bit of this kermes and brazil on it; and stir it all up well with your finger; and let it stand until it dries, without sun, fire, or wind. When you find that it is dry, put it in leather, or in a purse, and leave it alone, for it is good and perfect. And keep it to yourself, for it is an unusual ability to know how to make it properly. And know that making it is an occupation for pretty girls rather than for men; for they are always at home, and reliable, and they have more dainty hands. Just beware of old women.’

Bujangga Manik

As mentioned above, Caesalpinia sappan comes from island Southeast Asia, where it is known as sepang (Malay, Old Javanese, and Old Sundanese) or secang (modern Javanese and Sundanese). It appears to have been used by people in the region for rather a long time; a word for the brazil tree, *sepaŋ, has been reconstructed to proto-Malayo-Polynesian, the ancestor of Malay, Malagasy, and Hawaiian, among others, which was spoken a little over four thousand years ago. The Malay reflex of this was loaned into Chinese —as 蘇枋木 (sūfāngmù, Middle Chinese: su-pjang-muwk) or 蘇木 (sūmù), a truncated form — and it is probably in Chinese texts that the first actual attestations of this name appear. The earliest Old Javanese reference to sepang, according to Zoetmulder’s 1982 Old Javanese-English Dictionary (OJED 1743:1 sub sĕpaṅ), is in the kakawin Smaradahana, written by Mpu Dharmaja in the thirteenth century and preserved in considerably more recent Balinese manuscripts. The word does not appear in the earliest Malay texts.

A description of dyeing and weaving cloth, including the boiling of brazilwood, does appear, however, in the fifteenth-century Old Sundanese narrative poem Bujangga Manik (Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Jav. b.3. (R)). I am working on an edition and study of this poem for my Ph.D and the text below is taken from my version as it currently exists. An earlier transliteration and translation can be found in Three Old Sundanese Poems by the brilliant Dutch scholars Jacobus Noorduyn and Andries Teeuw (KITLV Press, 2006), although it’s not entirely accurate with regard to the foliation and a fair number of the readings. (See below for a note on the transliteration of Old Sundanese.)

In the passage below — metrical lines 158–164 on f.4r (according to my assessment of the foliation) — the protagonist of the poem has just returned to Sunda/West Java from Central Java, where he had been learning ascetic practice at Damalung (modern-day Mount Merbabu). He finds his mother weaving on the veranda of her house: colouring yarn, setting out a pattern, and boiling brazilwood to make dye. In Indonesia, and in Malayo-Polynesian-speaking societies more generally, weaving has long been gendered as work for women, and it is clear from some other references in the poem (and in other Old Sundanese texts) that good weaving skills were desirable and normal in women at all levels of society.

The line numbers for this section are the same in Noorduyn and Teeuw (2006) and in my thesis, but the foliation is different (Figure 4). The interpretation of this section is based in large part on a recent article on Sundanese weaving by the wonderful Aditia Gunawan (‘Textiles in Old-Sundanese Texts’, Archipel, 2019, 78:71–107), particularly with regard to the colours in line 162.

Fig. 4— A line mentioning <sepang>, or brazilwood, in Bujangga Manik. Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Jav. b.3. (R), f.4r.


/0/ · a(m)buing kaso(n)dong ngeyek · buat nu di tepas bumi · [160] eker ngeyek eker meber · eker ñula(ng)gé mihané · nelem nuar ñangkuduan · ngara(ñ)cét ka(n)|téh pamulu · ngela sepang ngangen hayam ·


/0/ · ‘My mother was found weaving · doing that on the veranda of her home (1) · [160] making ready (and) tying up threads for dyeing · netting and rolling the thread on the pihané (2) · dyeing black, yellow, and red (3) · pressing the flossy yarn · boiling brazilwood, stewing hayam (wood?) (4)


(1) Bumi in Sundanese principally means ‘house’ or ‘home’ as well as ‘earth’ (as in Malay, etc., from the Sanskrit bhūmi). A tepas isn’t exactly a veranda but it’s not far off — it’s a section of a house outside the main building, usually with a roof overhanging it, fenced off but visible from the outside. ‘Terrace’ might be a better translation. A brief description of medieval Sundanese houses, incidentally, appears in Zhào Rŭkuò’s c.1225 account of Sunda in Classical Chinese, which I translated here.

(2) The pihané is a piece of equipment for weaving ikats. Jonathan Rigg’s 1862 Dictionary of the Sunda Language of Java, an important resource for the study of the Sundanese language, defines the pihané thusly (p.374–375):

‘[A]n instrument with upright stanchions, about a foot high, and which can be adjusted to different distances. Around these the different coloured threads are wound and thus the pattern to be woven is given.’

(3) This line is actually composed of verbs derived from the names of different plant species used in dyeing — e.g. ñangkuduan ‘to dye with cangkudu (Morinda citrifolia)’ — and these plants can all be used to make different colours. Cangkudu produces a range of hues between brown and red, for instance. Gunawan notes, however, that the colours black, yellow, red, and white (the basic colour of cotton cloth) were of particular symbolic importance in pre-Islamic Sunda, as noted in the Sanghiyang Siksakandang Karesiyan (1518 CE), a Sundanese text of similar age to Bujangga Manik. This black-yellow-red reading seems to me the proper interpretation of the line.

(4) Noorduyn, the previous editor and translator of Bujangga Manik, interpreted ngangeun hayam as ‘making chicken soup’, where hayam = ‘chicken’, as in Old Javanese and modern Sundanese, and ngangeun is a verb derived from angeun, a Sundanese vegetable stew. This is a possible interpretation but the surrounding lines are all about dyeing and weaving — so Gunawan suggests, and I agree, that it would make more sense to see hayam as a kind of wood (cf. also Old Javanese kayu hayam-hayaman ‘a part. kind of tree?’ [OJED 175:8.6]).

In Bujangga Manik brazilwood appears as a dye used in the making of cloth and in the Libro dell’ Arte as an ingredient in paint. While many paintings — including some of Cennini’s own — have survived from fifteenth-century Tuscany, few medieval textiles from Java/Sunda have come down to us, in large part because of the heat and humidity of the island. We have here a problem typical of the Hemispheric Middle Ages: The same commodity sourced from the same trees, in both cases worked into usable form by women, in one case rotting away and in the other being used in the creation of some of the world’s most famous and renowned artworks. Given such inequalities in the preservation and celebration of medieval art and culture between the temperate world and the tropics, it is hardly surprising that we have such a skewed collective impression of the medieval world as a whole.

Post-Script: Transliterating Old Sundanese

The transliteration of Indonesian languages in Indic scripts is a controversial topic and some scholars will be unhappy with the system used above. I don’t want to stray too far from modern Sundanese orthography, though, and ideally I’d like to be able to write Old Sundanese easily with a standard keyboard, so I’m using <ng> to transliterate the graphemes represented by <ṅ> in the IAST (= [ŋ] a voiced velar nasal); <e> to represent the vowel [ə] (not found in Sanskrit); and <é> to represent [e~ɛ]. <ñ> is used where modern Sundanese uses <ny> (for the sound [ɲ]). Nasal stops in brackets, as in kaso(n)dong, are emendations on the basis of modern Sundanese; homorganic nasals before stops are often left out in the Old Sundanese scripts. </0/> represents a piece of Old Sundanese punctuation similar in use to the Javanese pada adeg-adeg, and an interpunct <·> represents a metrical line break (as in the original Old Sundanese, as you may be able to see at the beginnings and ends of the line in Figure 4).

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A. J. West, February 2020.

Posting about ancient and medieval Indonesia, up to ~1500 CE. Mainly into 14th & 15th century stuff, but earlier is fine too.