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The Art of Science

By Marjorie Harth

REVIEW: The Body of the Artisan: Art and Experience in the Scientific Revolution

By Pamela H. Smith, the Edwin F. and Margaret Hahn Professor in the Social Sciences and associate professor of history, Pomona College

The University of Chicago Press, 2004, 367 pages, 180 illustrations (28 in color), $35.00

Pamela Smith introduces her new book, The Body of the Artisan: Art and Experience in the Scientific Revolution, by recounting an early fascination with the highly detailed drawings and watercolors of 16th-century Nuremberg artist Albrecht Dürer, renderings—of grasses, beetles, and the like—of such astonishing verisimilitude that to 20th-century eyes they appear almost surreal.

It was the particularity and, especially, the illusionism of these works that first captured Smith’s attention and that ultimately led her to pose some of the key questions her book addresses: What do these works of art tell us about how artists understood nature and their relationship to it? Why did naturalism in art and the “new philosophy” of science arise simultaneously in the 16th and 17th centuries? What was the relationship of the two? An accomplished historian of science and teacher who has previously published on the subject of alchemy, Smith’s interests and methodology now extend well beyond close observation of Dürer’s paintings. Nonetheless, one of the many pleasures her book offers is the intense focus it brings to works of art. A scholarly and exhaustively researched treatise, its theoretical arguments clearly articulated, its conclusions thoroughly defended, The Body of the Artisan is also a brilliant reminder of the value of direct, personal engagement with the unique work of art and of the limitless wealth of information and insight to be gained from the process.

Smith argues that in early modern Europe, the work of the artisan—the craftsperson who directly engaged nature, both through close observation and through the physical manipulation of matter required to make objects—influenced the development of the “new philosophy” of empirical science, providing a model for its practitioners. During the period in question (late 15th to late 17th century), the construction of knowledge came to be seen as active, based not in abstract theory but in interaction with nature. Artisans employed naturalism, Smith writes, “in order to make claims about their status as active knowers, about their knowledge of nature, and about their mode of working.” The artisan’s articulation of this epistemology, accomplished primarily through the objects he produced, in turn influenced scholars’ attitude toward nature, which came to be seen as the authoritative source of knowledge.

The traditional view of the Scientific Revolution credits Sir Francis Bacon (1561-1626) with transforming philosophy from a contemplative discipline into the active, experimental model of “natural philosophy” we now know as the scientific method. Countering this, Smith argues that the notion of active engagement as essential to knowledge can be found, before Bacon’s time, in the flourishing of naturalism in the art of 15th- to 16th-century Northern Europe and in the approach to nature and workshop practices of those involved in its production. (It should be noted that the significance Smith accords to Northern Europe has implications as well for the history of art, which has traditionally maintained that naturalistic representation developed most importantly in Italy, where scientific perspective was formulated in the 15th century.)

Furthermore, Smith locates the source of the new philosophy of science not in the articulations of an individual “genius,” but rather in the collective setting of the artisan’s workshop where masters and apprentices dealt physically with the often cumbersome, unpredictable, supremely messy materials and processes of art-making, and where evidence of mastery lay in the objects that resulted, not in verbally articulated theory. Like the alchemist who sought to transform matter, the artisan engaged bodily with nature and his materials as a means both to gain knowledge and to produce “effective” objects and processes. The “artisanal epistemology” that Smith proposes, drawing upon scholarship, theory, and (aptly) her own observations and hands-on experience in studios and conservation laboratories, ultimately constitutes a new narrative about the construction of knowledge and human creativity. In her emphasis upon individuals commonly considered “marginal,” upon sense-based, bodily activity traditionally deemed of a lower order, and upon the collective nature of the workshop, Smith proposes a new and significantly expanded understanding of the Scientific Revolution and of the watershed historical period that changed forever the way we see and understand the world.

One of the underlying themes of Smith’s book is the hierarchy, based in Aristotle, that values theory and the work of the mind more highly than physical, hand-craft. Smith points out that historians of both art and science have traditionally worked from the premise that knowledge moves downward—from the theoretical scholar, whose knowledge is based on abstract systems and articulated verbally, to the practitioner, whose craft knowledge is thought to consist of technical rules and practices largely devoid of intellectual content and expressed by means of tangible objects. Smith suggests that as the methodology of science was being formulated in the 15th and 16th centuries, knowledge might well, in fact, have traveled the other way, moving from the artisan’s unmediated engagement with nature and “nonverbal literacy” up to the humanist’s scholarly theorizing. Smith’s approach, which reflects a significant shift in understanding the Scientific Revolution, is equally valuable to the history of art, questioning the received notion that ranks abstract, verbally articulated thinking above (and imagines it wholly distinct from) hands-on practice. And Smith’s book confronts the mind/hand dichotomy on more than one level, not only documenting these hierarchies and their manifestations over time but also demonstrating through her scholarly approach a belief in the value of “common” knowledge gained through broad-based, social (and often bodily) experience. The aptness of Smith’s methodology to her subject demonstrates a degree of consistency that only enhances her arguments.

In developing her thesis, Smith focuses on three geographic and chronological “centers.” In 14th- to 15th-century Flanders, she writes, the flourishing of naturalistic painting exemplified by such masters as Roger Campin, Jan van Eyck and Rogier van der Weyden reflected a new self-consciousness on the part of artists whose close observation and imitation of the natural world led them to claim, by means of their paintings, special access to the authoritative knowledge of nature. This development is then traced in the work of 16th-century German artists such as Albrecht Dürer and Martin Schongauer, who drew the attention of scholars, humanists, and, importantly, the religious and medical reformer Paracelsus (1493-1541) who was instrumental in articulating the artisanal way of knowing the world. Finally, the focus shifts away from artists to two fascinating figures of the 17th-century Dutch Republic. Johann Rudolf Glauber (1604-70) was an apothecary, entrepreneur and seller of such “natural commodities” as healing salts. Part scholar, part artisan, he took on the identity of “experimental philosopher,” thus joining the new empiricism with commerce. Franciscus dele Boë, known as Sylvius (1614-72), was a professor of medicine in Leiden and a patron of the arts, who, Smith writes, epitomizes the way in which the new, experimental philosopher began to distance himself from the artisan. Smith’s thorough examination of Sylvius’s collection and its installation in the house he designed for it extends traditional art historical analysis to include the oft-neglected significance of taste and what an individual’s collection and its presentation can reveal. The trajectory Smith traces—of the interrelationship of artisanship and “natural science”—concludes with a parting of the ways in the late 17th century when the influence of natural philosophers such as Descartes, Hobbes and Leibnitz, along with that of Calvinism and Neo-Stoicism, led to increasing ambivalence about, and, ultimately, distrust of knowledge gained from senses. It is not entirely surprising
to learn that the reassertion of Aristotle’s hierarchy coincided with the institutionalization of the new philosophy in university curricula.

In sections devoted to each of these historical “moments” and in supporting chapters on topics such as the role of the body and physical labor in the artisan’s way of knowing the world, and the relationship of artisanship to alchemy, Smith examines an extensive range of issues and objects, creating so rich a tapestry of information and insight that a succinct summary is all but impossible. Remarkably, given its conceptual and scholarly complexity, The Body of the Artisan is not only accessible but highly readable. Smith’s style is lucid, and her arguments build, in much the way that the Flemish naturalists whose work she studies created their exquisitely detailed panels, layer by painstaking layer. Like a well-constructed lecture course, the text proceeds logically, panning seamlessly from close focus on individual artists, objects and historical minutiae to an overarching view that makes clear where each fits in the larger narrative. Smith deals deftly with the often troublesome definition of terms—artist, artisan, craft, theory, science—that, as often as not, have different meanings today than during the period in question; “artisan,” for example, which is actually closer in meaning to our “artist,” is used deliberately in order to reinforce the emphasis on hand-work that is central to her thesis. Finally, but by no means least important, the richly illustrated volume is exceptionally handsome in design—a physical as well as intellectual pleasure.

Smith’s research for The Body of the Artisan was conducted with the assistance of a Pomona College Steele Leave and grants from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation and the Getty Research Institute. Reading her report of an enormously productive recent sabbatical, funded by an Andrew Mellon New Directions fellowship, that included an internship at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, I was led to wonder whether her investigation of artisanal and alchemical processes had resulted in the discovery of a means of increasing the number of hours in her day. Certainly, Smith’s scholarship represents a remarkable transformation of the raw material of history and culture into a scholarly work of exceptional breadth, clarity and persuasiveness that is also, as befits its subject, a stunningly produced object.
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