In his Nova Reperta (c. 1590-1693), a visual repertory of the modern age’s inventions, Jan van der Straet used the same pictorial strategies to present innovations in alchemy, medicine and painterly techniques: artisans and their apprentices engage in collaborative work in enclosed laboratory spaces, handling, mixing, boiling and transforming natural substances into chemical solutions, medicinal drugs, and colorful pigments. In the Body of the Artisan, Pamela Smith powerfully argues that the Northern Renaissance and the early modern scientific revolution both stemmed from the manual labor of such artisans, weaving into one narrative the achievements of such painters as Jan van Eyck, Robert Campin, and Albrecht Dürer, the craftsmen Bernard Palissy and Wenzel Jamnitzer, alchemists Cornelis Drebbel and Johann Rudolf Glauber, and physicians Paracelsus and Franciscus dele Boë Sylvius.
Artists, physicians, and artisans shared the goal of imitating, emulating, and manipulating nature. Accordingly, Smith’s narrative starts with the birth of painterly naturalism in fifteenth-century Netherlands, recounting how Flemish artists proclaimed their ability to observe and carefully mirror nature and nature’s processes in their altarpieces, portraits, and books of hours. Landscapes, plants, animals and people were portrayed with increasing attention to detail, and naturalism also became a trend in the production of devotional and magical imagery. Smith recounts that a lifelike image of Christ on the cross did not simply represent Jesus more truthfully; for practitioners of magic it could also help summon angels and spirits more forcefully than a less exquisitely executed picture. Northern Renaissance artists were increasingly aware of their newly-gained authority over visual observation, and reflected on their own achievements in their works of art. Mirrors within paintings, studies of St. Luke portraying the Virgin, and the genre of the self-portrait reveal how painters thought about their own profession.
The Body of the Artisan claims that artists and artisans imitatednatura naturans, nurturing and productive nature in action. When creating lifelike images of nature, artisans followed nature’s own creative processes. The sixteenth-century ceramicist Bernard Palissy’s lifecasts of frogs, snakes and lizards were produced in a kiln by baking a mixture of clay and glazes in a mold – a mode of production analogous to how nature generated these animals through putrefaction in decaying soil. Art and nature created life and competed with each other in the same process of heating up a mixture of soil, salts and ashes. In creating such lifecasts, the artisan’s bodily engagement with matter was exhausting and laborious, but resulted in a better understanding of nature’s own workings and secrets. Smith calls the knowledge accumulated in this way artisanal epistemology – a form of tacit knowledge (to use Michael Polányi’s term) of nature’s creative power acquired through bodily exertions, which cannot easily be reduced to theoretical statements. For Smith, this knowledge lay behind and established connections between the artistic success of the Northern Renaissance and the new philosophy of the scientific revolution, which relied on both observing and transforming nature. Moreover, in an explicitly Weberian twist, this worldly engagement with nature was also a novel method for artisans to commune with God and to seek redemption.
In addition to establishing the importance of artisanal knowledge, The Body of the Artisan is also a social history of the arts and the sciences. Smith forcefully argues that fifteenth- and sixteenth-century artisans carved out a new social identity and distinguished themselves from university-trained philosophers or the humanist culture of scholarship. The most vocal advocate of this new identity might well have been Paracelsus, who in the course of his itinerant career left no traditionally-minded scholar unscathed as he influenced a host of early modern surgeons and alchemists. According to Smith, even Dürer, an artist generally singled out for his humanist leanings, could be reinterpreted as an integral member of the artisanal culture of his native Nuremberg.
By the seventeenth century, the social status of the artisanal engagement with nature underwent a transformation. University-trained physicians, curious gentlemen, and philosophers joined artisans in proclaiming the primacy of new philosophy, ocular observation, and an experimental approach to natural knowledge, and they competed as interpreters of nature. Painters and natural philosophers both agreed that knowledge could only be acquired through the senses, which were still prone to error and deception. While espousing artisanal knowledge, these new philosophers thus reasserted their superiority over artisans: nature revealed its secrets only to a modest, dispassionate and rational soul, embodied in neo-stoic, gentlemanly philosophers. Only such minds could control and overcome the potential failure of the senses. The artisans, whose senses were deemed to have been deceived by their bodily passions and commercial interests, were again excluded from dealing with natural knowledge.
Smith’s argument is sweeping, bold, and convincing, encompassing three hundred years in just as many pages. Her cast of characters includes the most famous northern painters and sculptors of the period, as well as lesser-known alchemists, medical practitioners, and even some extraordinary shoemakers, such as Hans Sachs and Jakob Böhme. These artisans were the product of the collective workshops of early modern crafts guilds, but they also transcended those origins by proclaiming their individual authorship and authority over nature. For Smith, these practitioners drove the scientific revolution, so she is less interested in extending her argument to reconsider the role of traditional heroes, such as Copernicus, Galileo, or Kepler.
Since the publication of The Body of the Artisan, Smith has supplemented the book’s general argument with numerous case studies of alchemy and goldsmithing; additionally, historians of science Harold Cook and Lissa Roberts, for example, have discussed extensively how the growth of commerce fostered growing acceptance of experimental, material knowledge in the seventeenth century, and how artisanal epistemologies could interact with more theoretical study of nature. In sum, The Body of the Artisan is on its way of becoming a classic of early modern studies, powerfully showing how the history of science and art history should be studied together as part of a new disciplinary field.
Dept of History
Hunter College, CUNY