Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
December 17, 2004
Pamela H. Smith The Body of the Artisan: Art and Experience in the Scientific Revolution Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004. 408 pp.; 28 color ills.; 157 b/w ills. Cloth $35.00 (0226763994)

In her recent book The Body of the Artisan: Art and Experience in the Scientific Revolution, Pamela H. Smith contributes to a growing body of scholarship that reevaluates the relationship between art and science in early modern Europe. She argues that the roots of the Scientific Revolution may be found in the products and practices of fifteenth- and sixteenth-century artisans. Equating active knowledge with handworkers, Smith sees the physical engagement of craftsmen with matter and nature as a particular, valuable form of cognition linked to what she calls a “vernacular” or “artisanal epistemology.” She proposes that we consider this vernacular epistemology as “forming a kind of common intellectual currency” shared by artisans, alchemists, medical practitioners, and “all practices associated with changes of state…” (145).

Drawing from a range of evidence that includes prints, drawing studies, paintings, and small precious sculpture, as well as a welcome assortment of artisans’ own writings about art and nature, Smith outlines the parameters of this artisanal epistemology. She sees artisans articulating in their works and writings “a view that certainty is located in matter and nature and that knowledge can be gained by observing and experiencing—often by bodily struggle—the particularity of nature” (6). Artists during this period in Europe not only observed and imitated the appearance of nature, for example, by representing it in a self-consciously naturalistic and descriptive style, but they also incorporated nature’s processes, notably that of (re)generation and the transformation of matter. Smith suggests that there is a line—albeit not strictly solitary or unidirectional—running from these sorts of direct physical encounters with nature and the practices of the so-called new philosophers, who actively sought and produced knowledge in nature, the field, and the laboratory.

Smith examines the artisanal approach to nature chronologically in case studies across three moments and three locales: fifteenth-century Flanders, sixteenth-century southern Germany, and seventeenth-century Amsterdam and Leiden. Immediately it is apparent that she limits her case studies to centers of commerce and religious reform north of the Alps, begging the question of what roles these factors might have played in the emergence of the experimental philosophy. (It is a question that resides largely in the subtext of her chosen narrative and an issue more suitably addressed in her anthology, Merchants and Marvels: Commerce, Science, and Art in Early Modern Europe, co-edited with Paula Findlen [New York: Routledge, 2002]).

In chapter 1, “The Artisanal World,” Smith focuses on the first generation of Flemish panel painters and the emergence of “van Eyckian naturalism” in painting. She links such naturalism, with its particularizing effects and detailed illusionism, to a growing artisanal self-consciousness, seeing it as the favored mode for artisans to express their claims about their knowledge of nature and their skills in representing that knowledge.

In chapter 2, “Artisanal Epistemology,” Smith follows the development of the naturalistic aesthetic as a visual articulation of an artisanal epistemology, directing her attentions to three sixteenth-century German artisans, all of whom were trained and well versed in the practices of metallurgy: the painter and engraver Martin Schongauer (ca. 1450–1491), the painter and printmaker Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528), and the master goldsmith Wenzel Jamnitzer (1508–1585). Nuremberg’s Dürer and Jamnitzer expressed their special status as “nature-knowers” and their views that nature was a primary source of certain knowledge (Aristotle’s scientia) not only in works of art, but also in illustrated treatises on human proportion and the depiction of solids, respectively. Smith demonstrates, however, how neither Dürer nor Jamnitzer were satisfied with abstract principles, but rather joined their theorizing with experience, practical skills, and knowledge of the particularities and copiousness of nature. Jamnitzer’s wondrous silver casts of lizards and plants from life are the most noteworthy examples of natural objects quite literally transformed into collectible works of art through a process of destruction and regeneration. Smith concludes the chapter by introducing the pivotal and label-defying figure, Theophrastus Bombast von Hohenheim, also known as Paracelsus (1493–1541). Described by Smith as an itinerant lay preacher and physician as well as a man attuned to artisanal practices and terms of alchemy, Paracelsus is for Smith the quintessential philosophizer and communicator of early modern artisanal epistemology. He also becomes representative of a new “persona under which practitioners and artisans could claim authority” (25).

In the next two chapters, “The Body of the Artisan” and “Artisanship, Alchemy, and a Vernacular Science of Matter,” Smith closely examines the considerable overlap of terms, goals, attitudes, and methods among the works of Paracelsus, artisanal writings, and alchemy. Together with the previous chapter, they form the structural and conceptual core of the book. It is in this middle section on Germany where Smith formulates most clearly a shared “vernacular science of matter” (145).

In the third and final section of her book, Smith moves her attentions to the Dutch Republic of the seventeenth century, territory perhaps more familiar to existing narratives of the Scientific Revolution. “The Legacy of Paracelsus: Practitioners and New Philosophers” shifts almost entirely away from art making, focusing instead on three transitional figures who occupy a realm between that of artisans and university-trained scholars. Smith shows how a figure such as Johann Rudolf Glauber (1604–1670), an apothecary and entrepreneur, created a niche for himself in Amsterdam by advertising his special salts, thereby implicating the new experimental philosopher in the commodification of knowledge, while at the same time trying to claim its redemptive, spiritual value.

In the final chapter, “The Institutionalization of the New Philosophy,” Smith focuses on an Amsterdam physician named Franciscus dele Boë, also known as Sylvius (1614–1672), and his collection of paintings, to reveal a growing anxiety about bodily involvement in the construction of knowledge in the late seventeenth century. She sees the emergence of a new dispassionate, university-trained philosopher who found a need to demarcate and distance himself from lowly practitioners like artisans and quacksalvers as the real expert on nature and its processes.

In writing a work with ambitions of introducing a new strand into the genealogical fabric of the Scientific Revolution, it is important to ask about what, or whose, Scientific Revolution Smith is speaking. She suggests early on that the most wide-reaching impact and appeal of the new science in its own day was likely rooted in its new practices of observation, ocular demonstration, and experimentation, rather than in any new transformative theory, say, of Nicolaus Copernicus (19). By focusing on knowledge as a social construction and viewing science as a cultural activity made up of a set of historically contingent practices, rather than as a changing body of theories, Smith follows a revisionist approach to the Scientific Revolution articulated in the writings of Steven Shapin, Simon Schaffer, Peter Galison, and Lorraine Daston, among others. In so doing, Smith seeks a much broader view of what traditionally has been meant by the Scientific Revolution, expanding its geographical focal points, list of practitioners, and collection of practices. She shifts her attentions away from an Anglocentric narrative, culminating in Francis Bacon, the Royal Society, and Isaac Newton, to one grounded firmly in the local habits and workshops of Flanders, Nuremberg, and (very briefly) Florence, as well as in the commercial networks of Amsterdam and institutions of Leiden. The sculptors, metalworkers, painters, alchemists, and apothecaries of whom she speaks begin to illuminate the diversity of early modern peoples and views that eventually came together in what we recognize as science, bearing all of the experiential and at least some of the intellectual weight implied in that term. Worth noting, however, is the fact that following the careful introductory explanation of her flexible view of the Scientific Revolution, Smith readily jettisons the term, perhaps considering its historiographic and teleological weight to be an albatross, less than useful for her approach.

In addition to providing case studies illustrating the contributions of artisanal activity to the emergence of the new experimental philosophy, Smith’s account also offers an alternative narrative about the emergence and effect of naturalism (particularly north of the Alps) in the early modern period. Rather than giving the religious teachings of the devotio moderna, for example, primary explanatory force, Smith argues that the rise of naturalism relates to artisanal claims of special access to the authority of nature, as craftsmen self-consciously developed their own value in society. (That some artisans also defined themselves as experts of other material things, namely antiquities, is clear in the careers of Andrea Mantegna [ca. 1431–1506] and Hans Burgkmair [1473–1531]. They offer a glimpse at another persistent source of authority, even alongside Smith’s lucid narrative, which puts nature at the center.) The perceived early modern authority of nature, on which Smith’s argument rests, demands further inquiry, some of which is satisfied by the recent work of Lorraine Daston (“The Nature of Nature in Early Modern Europe,” Configurations 6 (1998): 149–72; and ed., with Fernando Vidal, The Moral Authority of Nature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004). What were the limits and sources of this cultural authority? Did the nature of the authority of nature change in the different local contexts Smith discusses across a period of nearly two-and-a-half centuries? In addition, if artisans, alchemists, and other practitioners consciously invoked the authority of nature to buttress their status and methods, is there a subtext of the unnatural, supernatural, or preternatural that wields similar power? Certainly as artisans and alchemists alike became known as experts on natural processes, there must have been accompanying anxieties about mismanaged, uncontrollable generations and transformations that could unleash monsters. What kind of moral authority, then, did nature bring to bear, and how was this used to bolster or hinder the artisan’s displays of virtuosic invention, as he searched for value in society?

In these regards, Smith’s careful use of the word “artisan” becomes doubly clear, not only chosen to emphasize the workshop practices and bodily engagement of a range of handworkers with matter, but also selected in opposition to the emerging notion of the “artist,” a figure valued and collected as much for his technical prowess as his inventive, and sometimes dangerous, designs originating from his head. Of course, the reality is that figures such as Dürer and Jamnitzer can be considered both artisans and artists, but in using the term artisan, Smith consciously brackets the potentially more subversive side of the equation.

Finally, Smith’s study is invaluable in rethinking the direction of influence still entrenched in many narratives about the dissemination of knowledge. Though she chooses to highlight the upward flow of knowledge “from the bottom up,” hers is a story that suggests a complex, reciprocal flow of contributions between workshop-trained artisans and the so-called intellectuals of the early modern period, who for so long have held a monopoly in scholarship on the production and definition of knowledge. Here we have examples of art and the mechanical arts emerging as their own form of knowledge, and artisans actively pursuing it in their writings and processes. In this regard, The Body of the Artisan nicely complements the work of Pamela O. Long, who also has written about the artisanal influence on early modern science, namely through the production of mechanical and technical treatises (“Power, Patronage, and the Authorship of Ars: From Mechanical Know-How to Mechanical Knowledge in the Last Scribal Age,” Isis 88 (1997): 1–41; and Openness, Secrecy, Authorship: Technical Arts and the Culture of Knowledge from Antiquity to the Renaissance. [Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001]). Smith convincingly demonstrates that not only natural philosophers and humanists set the terms and structure of knowledge, but that artisans, too, shaped the discourse by creating their own sphere of expertise as knowers of nature.

Historians of science, cultural historians, and art historians alike can look forward to further investigations enabled by Smith’s book. Certainly it will resonate well with new scholarship on materials and workshop practices, such as pigment mixing, metal casting, and wax sculpting, areas gaining more attention in the fields of art history and conservation. Smith herself claims the task of elaborating her thesis in a future work focusing on those artisans lower on the social scale (288, n. 52). Though in her own introductory and concluding remarks she states her aim of veering from a narrative that rests on the individual genius artist or scientist, her account necessarily has its own heroes. Some are the usual suspects, such as van Eyck, Dürer, Paracelsus, and Glauber. Nonetheless, Smith’s inclusion of visual and textual artisanal works to sketch out a collective vernacular epistemology is entirely provocative, permitting familiar figures to appear afresh and creating a model for unfamiliar ones to become participants in history.

Ashley D. West
Assistant Professor, Art History Department, Tyler School of Art, Temple University