III: Making Things
7 Making things
Making Things: Techniques and Books in Early Modern Europe
Pamela H. Smith
Words and things
Since at least the seventeenth century, when Descartes proclaimed that being able to make a machine was tantamount to true knowledge of the machine, understanding the process by which objects are made has come to be another approach both to things and to knowledge. Indeed, historians and museum curators are often confronted with objects, and they are increasingly of the opinion that no longer is it enough to understand how an object participated in commercial networks or the role it played in patronage relationships; an appreciation of the meaning, function, and operation of a historical object can also be gained by a knowledge of how it is made. As many cases of early modern industrial espionage have demonstrated, however, knowledge of making processes can often be difficult to obtain because it often cannot be conveyed effectively in written description but rather must be learned on site by careful and conscious observation. Even then, the observer cannot necessarily replicate the knowledge gained, with the result that the history of industrial espionage is more a history of trying to steal away experienced craftspeople and their embodied knowledge than of written accounts detailing pilfered techniques. All these problems are felt with particular intensity by the historian when dealing with objects made in the past. Sometimes, the maker’s knowledge is written down, but technical writings seldom convey sufficient information to actually engage in making an object. How, then, might the historian come to gain knowledge of making processes?1
Early modern views of words and things
The contrast between words and things and writing and doing seemed particularly acute to some early modern thinkers. As Theophrastus von Hohenheim, called Paracelsus (1493—1541), put it with characteristic vehemence:
For who could be taught the knowledge of experience from paper?, since paper has the property to produce lazy and sleepy people, who are haughty and learn to persuade themselves and to fly without wings. ... Therefore the most fundamental thing is to hasten to experience."
Paracelsus made ‘experience’ central to his reform of medicine and learning in the early sixteenth century. As this passage illustrates, he viewed paper, writing, and texts as standing in opposition to hands-on experience. By experience, Paracelsus meant the bodily labor of the craftsperson in engaging with the materials of nature and in drawing out of them their ‘active ingredients,’ which give pharmaceutical preparations their potency and efficacy, for example, or which cause ores to yield up their metals. Paracelsus viewed experience as essentially of the body:
The art of medicine cannot be inherited, nor can it be copied from books; it must be digested many times and many times spat out; one must always rechew it and knead it thoroughly, and one must be wide awake while learning it.3
Paracelsus believed that true knowledge could be apprehended only with the whole body: the mode of those who worked with their bodies to redeem and refine matter, namely artisans and handworkers. By imitating the processes of nature, they brought forth tangible works that proved the certainty of their knowledge.
In Paracelsus’s view, potters, weavers, carpenters, miners, and masons all created from matter products that made visible the revelation to human beings of God’s mercy: ‘In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground’ (Genesis 3:19). When Adam and Eve ate from the tree of knowledge, thereby launching the great trajectory of human history, their progeny had to labor through handwork to gain the means of living that they would have had in Paradise without toil and sickness. It was the labor of agriculture and the crafts, and, above all, the work of the healer that Paracelsus believed made possible the escape from physical debility and untimely death that began the great saga of redemption for human beings. Paracelsus believed that the Creation was God’s first Revelation, even before the Word, and that God continued to reveal himself through the generative, creative, and healing powers of nature. Following the light of Nature (analogous to Luther’s light of Grace) rather than the written and textually codified logic of the pagan Aristotle, craftspeople could harness these powers, thereby revealing God in the world - ‘making visible,’ as Paracelsus phrased it, ‘the invisible.
Paracelsus repeated many times that the means to true healing and knowledge and to reform of human life on earth lay through the work of the hands and the crafts. This meant learning with all the senses, by means of conversing with, listening to, and gaining knowledge orally from others, through travel and wandering, but, above all, through ‘experience’ in the great Book of Nature:
I think it praiseworthy and no shame to have thus far journeyed cheaply. For this I would prove through nature: He who would explore her, must tread her books with his feet. Scripture is explored through its letters; but nature from land to land. One land, one page. Such is the Codex Naturae; thus must her leaves be turned?
Paracelsus himself worked among craftspeople, particularly among miners, learning their lore and collecting their proverbs and their medicinal recipes as well as writing, lecturing, and preaching in the vernacular. ‘Künden [Können],’ he maintained, ‘ist mer dan wissen’ (‘Doing is more than knowing’), by which he meant that the how-to knowledge (Können, or Kundschaft) of the craftsperson, gained through constant practice, observation, and experience, amounted to a higher order of philosophical knowledge. The craftsperson, he claimed, would know when he has attained Können because he will be able to produce well-formed and useful things over and over again.6
In his philosophy of laborers, Paracelsus was trying to capture on paper the essence of handwork and skill. His endeavor was not easy — we still do not entirely know what to make of handwork, for much of it involves tacit knowledge, which is hard to codify in writing because it requires acute observation and attention to the circumstances of the ephemeral moment. As Paracelsus wrote, the craftsperson must be wide awake, must learn to pay attention with all the senses, to ‘overhear’ matter, just as the metal caster seizes the moment at which bronze is ready to pour, and the mason reads the signs of the vein at which the slab in the quarry can be broken away. Such is the hard-earned bodily knowledge of all artists and artisans.
More recently, anthropologists, historians and sociologists of science, and others have scrutinized bodily knowledge. Echoing phenomenology and pragmatism, anthropologist Tim Ingold writes that skill is a constant and active perceptual engagement with the world and that learning to attend is the essence of skill. Indeed, as he claims, skill grows out of human interaction with the natural environment, and out of this attentive and collective experience comes all the remarkable products of human culture — stone tools, cuneiform recordkeeping, iron smelting, glass-working, indigenous and commercial medicines, and nuclear weapons.' Recently, educational psychologists have wondered how we might teach skill and how we can transmit the practice of‘attending,’ this mode of active, perceptual engagement with the world. In The Craftsman, sociologist Richard Sennett has written a sensitive plea for valuing craft, seeing in it a model for shaping our dealings with others in a democratic society. He argues that the skills of the craftsperson — the focus, the intuitive leaps, and the improvisation - in a word, experience — can be taught through encouraging the innately human capabilities of concentrating on and working through situations of resistance and ambiguity, just as craftspeople do in manipulating physical materials?
Recipes and how-to books
Given the antithesis posed by Paracelsus between experience and books, and the paradox that Paracelsus incarnated when he composed his polemic about experience in writing, what are we to make of the boom in the writing down of techniques, indeed, the writing of whole books, by European craft practitioners beginning around 1400? What were these writings meant to convey about embodied experience? Technical writings are seldom able to provide sufficient information to actually engage in making an object. Why, then, were such techniques written down? What indeed, is the relationship between making and writing?
The first problem is what to call these books about lived experience. They have much in common with collections of recipes gathered together in a book - lists of ingredients and a narrative of techniques for handling those ingredients in order to produce something tangible. The term ‘recipe’ indicates the action-oriented nature of these books, for it simply transposes onto the whole process the first word of the instructions: ‘Take... (these ingredients).’ Historians have called them how-to manuals, didactic texts, books of secrets, and technical writing. But books themselves can also function as tools, such as the Theorice novella from the 1400s, used to calculate planetary position, which was really a computing device in book form (Figure 7.1). Such a ‘book’ makes clear that we should not hold fast to a binary dichotomy between books and things. Indeed, in the past generation, book historians have rediscovered the book as material thing.9
But the question still remains: why around 1400 did artisans take up pen and paper with such gusto? Well-known names spring to mind - Lorenzo Ghiberti (1378—1455), Leonardo da Vinci (1452—1519), and Albrecht Diirer (1471-1528) -
Figure 7.1 Theorice novella, c. 1400. This paper instrument, contained in a book, was used to calculate planetary position.
Source: Leipzig University Library, Ms. 1479, fol. 3r. Courtesy of Leipzig University Library.
Making tilings 177 but many more less-prominent craftspeople also began to write accounts of their trades: gunpowder makers, gunners, fortification experts, navigators, and, even more surprising, a galley oarsman in the service of the Venetian navy. Why did these individuals, who previously had been happy to live out their lives without recording their experiences and knowledge, simply creating and producing in relative obscurity, suddenly begin to write? This sudden increase in the writing down of experience took place in the context of increasingly powerful territorial rulers and their need of artisans for war technologies and the theater of state; it also took place in an increasingly urbanized culture, with concentrations of artisans who experimented with different media and engaged in an intense exchange of skills and ideas with their fellow craftspeople and other social groups.
The wave of technical writing that followed on this beginning rippled out still further with the invention of printing in the 1460s, as recipe collections and technical treatises were some of the earliest works off the presses and among the best sellers, growing larger and larger with each reprinting as material was added, and the pseudonymous names of the authors were changed. Early works in the vernacular appear in astounding numbers: Distillir-Biicher in the 1490s, the Kunstbikhlein in the 1500s, assaying and metalworking treatises (known as Probir-Biichleiri) in the 1530s, and the pseudonymous Alessio Piemontese’s Book of Secrets, which burst onto the scene in 1555, first in Italian, then quickly in many other European languages, going through 90 editions by the seventeenth century.10 This boom in technical writing continued through the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, which saw the publication of many more books on the making of all kinds of things, from beehive construction to saltpeter making, and from embroidery to cannon casting.11
Why did practitioners move so suddenly from lived experience to the written word, from the orality and tacit knowledge of artisans to the written word of books? Not surprisingly, there is no single reason for writing a how-to book. Collections of recipes and techniques are quite varied: they run the gamut from straightforward instructions to advertisements for a practitioner’s abilities, to wonder-working promises, among many other forms. The appearance of these technical guides has been associated with the growth of urban culture and the cities’ increased population of a ‘middling sort,’ who in their social mobility were more isolated from familial sources of technical knowledge and more desirous of new information that might be useful in their emulation of their social betters.12 If we examine these books, however, we find a variety of reasons why they appear to have been written, and they have many different - often singular — origins: for example, the preparation of copy for printing, the keeping of workshop texts and working notes, artisans’ exchanges (sometimes simply aspirational) with patrons, a desire to inform and attract investors (especially in mining), and the attempt of administrators to wrest control of production processes.13 One vernacular writer, the Venetian galley oarsman Michael of Rhodes (the subject of a recent three-volume study), 14 seems to have been responding to a particularly intense competition for positions of command in the Venetian fleet, believing that a book gave him the edge in this competition.15 Still other technical writers were trying to establish an identity -for example, as architects - or ally their trade with the liberal, rather than mechanical, arts. Simon Werrett has recently shown how gunners sought to raise their status by writing how-to books about fireworks not for their fellow gunners but for a noble audience.16 Engineers sought both to create an identity for themselves as practitioners of a liberal art who possessed a type of knowledge that could be the basis of decision making and, more generally, to reform pedagogy.17 The writings of some practitioners are particularly visible to us because they are more numerous, such as those of metalworkers, or because they are more ambitiously self-conscious, such as goldsmiths like Benvenuto Cellini (1500—1571) or painters such as Giorgio Vasari (1511—1574). Technical writings sometimes sought to teach how to do something, but often they just proclaimed that ‘doing’ is a legitimate activity, of high status, which can be expressed in written form. Some functioned simultaneously as ‘how-to-do’ and ‘how-to-be’ books, 18 and many of them seem to be compilations put together by entrepreneurial printers. Many European how-to books of the late seventeenth and the eighteenth centuries seem designed to be employed mostly by connoisseurs taking the measure of the burgeoning world of material goods.19 In other words, one must examine such technical writings on a case-by-case basis to understand their genesis.
These varied origins and functions help to explain why the information in them often does not seem very useful as a ‘how-to guide,’ compiled as it often is from other texts and arrayed with little conceivable order, sometimes including bare-bones recipes, magic tricks, and undigested, out-of-date, and inaccurate information that could not possibly be useful to actual production. So many of the ways in which we think of knowledge as powerful - innovative, oriented to formulating general rules, precise, accurate, and useful — seem frequently to be absent from technical writing. But even those technical writings which seem to be more akin to instruction books suffer from the problem of conveying information in writing: although a few of these books deliberately conceal processes, they more often simply suffer from the fact that technical writing can be descriptive only; it points to bodily activity, but cannot accomplish that activity, teach it completely, or often even describe it fully. Embodied ‘gestural,’ ‘artisanal,’ or ‘craft’ knowledge, as it has been termed, is often unwritten and tacit. In the early modern period, artisans learned their craft not by following written instructions or even sometimes by language at all, but rather by working alongside experienced practitioners and observing and imitating. Their experiential knowledge was acquired through observation and imitation rather than through texts; written descriptions could never sufficiently take into account the always-changing conditions of the workshop or the sometimes-unpredictable qualities of the materials. A book is not an optimal means for conveying technique.
What, then, is the relationship between making objects and writing books, between craft production, experience, and writing? In order to explore this subject in more detail, I shall focus on one such book, an anonymous manuscript from the late sixteenth century that includes all kinds of making processes. It can help us to begin to answer this question, but it also points to some of the challenges of using such texts as historical sources. The text, Ms. Fr. 640, is held by the Bibliothèque nationale de France (BnF) and was written in French at the very end of the sixteenth century.20 It contains recipes for pigments, varnishes, magic tricks, the grafting and growing of plants, and medicines, and many other subjects; in some respect, it resembles the Secrets of Alessio Piemontese. Much of the manuscript is devoted to metalworking and, especially, to sand-casting medals and plaster casting from life. Ms. Fr. 640 diverges from this and other collections of recipes and books of secrets, however, in its detailed descriptions, its constant reference to the writer’s own experiences, its seeming lack of formulaic recipes (although much research remains to be done on the possible sources for the manuscript’s recipes), its extensive observations of animal behavior, its illustrations, and its apparent function as a set of working notes. In the molding and casting sections, the author records his experiments and even reminds himself to ‘try this!’ A sense of the scale of experimentation of this manuscript can be grasped by a comparison to Piemontese’s Secrets: where Piemontese contains seven recipes for sand casting, Ms. Fr. 640 has about 40 recipes. It seems likely that Ms. Fr. 640 is the first or second draft of a collection of recipes and techniques the writer—compiler—practitioner planned to publish.
What problems do we encounter in this odd combination, namely, a book on techniques'? The first thing that stands out is that it cannot be read in a linear way because the writer loops around and around various techniques and includes recipes for similar processes widely spaced throughout the text; thus, it is not organized to be used as a work of reference — it is in fact wholly impractical for such a purpose. Second, of great importance for the historian, it is difficult to assess whether the manuscript deals with authentic practices because the materials used and the techniques contained in it are no longer entirely comprehensible to either a modern reader or a modern maker. This raises an important point: in thinking about things made in the past or in dealing with texts that tell us how to make things, we have to find a way to assess whether they are in any way related to practice, let alone whether they are actually the results or records of practice.
The most obvious means of assessment is to compare such accounts to other records of practice. Cennino Cennini, in his book of painting practices, briefly mentions casting from life, but it is only more than a century later that Hugh Platt (1552—1608), a brewer’s son and irrepressible collector of recipes, records in somewhat more detail processes for casting plants and animals in The Jewell-House of Art and Nature Conteining Divers Rare and Profitable
Inventions, Together With Sundry New Experimentes in the Art of Husbandry, Distillation, and Molding (1594), roughly contemporaneous with the manuscript writer. Book IV of The Jewell-House, ‘The Art of molding, or casting of any live bird, or little beast, hearbe, or flower, or of any patterne of mettall, wax, &c. into gold, silver, plaister, &c,’ contains detailed instructions for casting a branch of rosemary as a lost-pattern cast and two-piece molds ‘if you woulde save your patternes’ that are very similar to, but generally not as detailed as, those of Ms. Fr. 640.21 Johann Kunckel (1630—1703) and an anonymous author (possibly Kunckel himself) who reprinted Kunckel’s recipes also incorporate instructions for casting from life.22 Kunckel’s recipes continued to be printed into the eighteenth century in increasingly attenuated forms. Both these authors provide similar instructions for life casting, if with nowhere near the same detail as Ms. Fr. 640.
Another means by which we might assess the practical authenticity of a text about making things is to engage in ‘remaking,’ that is, to reconstruct or replicate the procedures described in the text. I contend that such reconstruction can be used as a source by historians to gain insight not only into the material world of techniques and materials but also even into the way in which an artisan explained to him- or herself the behavior of natural materials — the maker’s ‘philosophy’ or ‘vernacular science’ (Paracelsus’s ‘philosophy of laborers’). As we shall see, it can also help us to reconstruct some unsuspected aims of technical writing.
In proposing remaking or reconstruction as a technique, I am not breaking new ground: object-based inquiry and the techniques of reconstruction are familiar to museum scholars, curators, conservators, and archeologists, especially those dealing with prehistoric artifacts, but historians are still unfamiliar with the idea of reconstruction of technique, reenactment, and bodily knowledge.23 Some have ridiculed reconstruction as ‘subjective’ and inauthentic, and there is no doubt that we can never have true empathy with figures in the past - we cannot feel what they felt nor can we ever get inside someone else’s mind. But there is a difference about handwork that I think justifies reconstruction and that is the production of the material object — we might say the intervening and representing — which gives us a firmer handhold on the past than would be the case for non-externalized mental processes. But, more fundamentally, I think we have to accept that experience is a different form of knowledge from discursive or propositional knowledge that can be written down and codified; thus, it demands different methods of investigation and analysis. Indeed, anthropologist Timothy Ingold has questioned the subject—object divide posited in the difference between maker and made thing and has suggested that objects can be viewed more as interventions in the flows of the cosmos. Seen in this light, reconstruction allows us to act as both participant in and observer of that flow, resulting in a type of knowledge that simply cannot be obtained in other ways.24
The focus on ‘things’ has also opened up new modes of inquiry in history. For example, historian Leora Ausländer has eloquently made the point that
people do different things with words and with things and that... difference has to do with embodiment and its corollaries of complex sensory perception and mortality. ... A narrative of origins can be sewn into a quilt or woven into a basket. Joys and sorrows can be expressed in how clothing is made, worn, preserved, or destroyed. Sometimes words and things come together; things are written about in diaries, inventories, letters, or songs, but the ‘truth’ of the object is not more to be found in the words than in the thing itself.. ,25
Perhaps, at the simplest level, historians have praised reenactment for its pedagogical efficacy: it is an extremely efficient way to gain knowledge about techniques; reading an account of a technique is quite inefficient in comparison. From my own experience, for example, when taking a course on historical techniques of oil and tempera painting, and following the practice by early modern artists of tracing over the lines of an experienced artist, I suddenly realized how powerful such imitation could be: what we would call ‘rote’ copying actually turned out to be a shortcut to seeing the function, and being able to replicate the swelling and diminishing of lines, as well as to coming to understand the most effective techniques of shading and perspective. This kind of tracing and copying is anathema today in art instruction, bound up as current instruction generally is with the idea of individual creativity.
Reconstruction also has another benefit for historians of the early modern period (and perhaps of all periods), for we scholars, steeped in text-based sources and trained from an early age in reading, writing, and propositional knowledge, actually may fail to understand the greater part of human experience in the preindustrial world, when most learning and knowledge was experiential and acquired by observation.
A few examples of what historians have learned by means of the reconstruction of experiential knowledge will demonstrate its potential. Historians of science have a long tradition of reconstructing crucial scientific experiments. One recent example is Otto Sibum’s reconstruction of James Joule’s 1840s experiments to determine the mechanical equivalent of heat, which were crucial to the development of thermodynamics. By recreating Joule’s machines and processes, Sibum came to understand the high level of skill and expertise Joule had learned as the son of a Manchester brewer, and why other scientists were still having trouble replicating Joule’s experiments as late as 1875. Sibum concludes that Joule left out the bodily work and the workers in his account of these experiments partly in order to represent himself as a disembodied observer of nature, reading off precision measurements from an instrument, thus acting in accord with the emerging standards of ‘science’ and ‘scientific’ practice, as opposed to the bodily, sensory, and site-specific knowledge of the brewery.26
Historian of science Peter Heering recently reconstructed an eighteenthcentury solar microscope and found that historians could understand the significance of solar microscopes in the Enlightenment only by seeing them in action. Such instruments fell out of favor in the nineteenth century when they were reported as producing fuzzy images unfit for scientific activity. Heering’s reconstructions show that these instruments actually produced strikingly clear magnifications. He concludes that solar microscopes were thus excluded from scientific research because they were associated with nonprofessional social gatherings of amateurs, which did not mesh with new ideas about the professionalized and exclusivist nature of science.27
In the Newton Project, historians of chemistry William Newman and Lawrence Principe have reconstructed alchemical practices such as the ‘the tree of Diana,’ a treelike silver structure described as being grown in a laboratory vessel. Similarly, they have produced a ‘silica garden’ and a ‘star regulus,’ both phrases in alchemical texts that historians have previously taken to be allegorical or metaphorical, but which these historians have proven to have actual material correlates that can be reproduced in the laboratory.28
From a different discipline, literary scholar Peter Stallybrass and book historian Roger Chartier worked with book curators and conservators to puzzle out what Shakespeare meant when he referred to ‘erasable tables’ in Hamlet and in various sonnets. Most scholars have understood Shakespeare’s use of this phrase to refer to printed books or metaphorically to ideas written in the mind, but, through reconstructing inks and gessoes, the group found that Shakespeare meant actual erasable tablets — paper painted with a gesso ground and bound into very small codices or notebooks. This very material referent adds another layer of complexity to Hamlet’s utterances about memory and forgetting and completely transforms Shakespeare’s meanings in some of his
„ 29 sonnets.
One of the most important results of reconstruction has been the insight into the original appearance of works of art. In many works, colors have faded or otherwise degraded so much that we no longer know how an artwork originally appeared. This is especially true for sculpture, which has also been the victim of modernist aesthetics that have taken the essence of sculpture to be form, rather than color. Roberta Panzanelli notes that the ‘history of art has tended to dismiss polychrome sculpture as quirky and not quite true to the essence of sculpture.’30 But color, which has been used on statuary since the most ancient times, always formed an essential part of the sensory and affective experience of the work of art. Without having a realistic idea of the appearance of an object, we cannot hope to understand the artistic aim of the maker or the sensory and affective experience of a work of art in the past. Indeed, reconstructions of polychrome wood statuary and oil paintings have revealed that one important component of the artistic aim in the Middle Ages was to achieve a variety of surface textures that reflected light in different ways — for example, the sparkling glazes playing off each other and contrasting with the areas of burnished and matte leaf gilding.31 None of this can be fully appreciated solely from texts or, due to their various states of disrepair or nineteenth-century cleaning campaigns, from the surviving objects.32 In addition, reconstructions of polychromy on statuary, as was undertaken in a recent exhibition at the Getty Museum, can tell historians much about period conceptions of the body and of gender and about notions of vitality and life.33 Without a realistic idea of the appearance of an object, we can understand neither the intentions of the maker nor the viewer’s experience.
Finally, reconstruction can show us how collaborative practice operated. The garden historian Mark Laird has been instrumental in the reconstruction of Painshill Park, an eighteenth-century garden southwest of London in Surrey, which included some of the first plantings of North American species. His experience has brought into focus two important points: first, the aesthetic aims of the garden to which we have no access now (without verbal or visual descriptions of these early gardens); and second, the recognition that the gardens were really a result of a collaborative process among designer, gardeners, plants, and the environment. If one worked only from written plans and designs for the garden, this fact would never emerge.34 This insight is more significant than it sounds because, like other sources from the crafts, it gives evidence that distributed cognition and collaborative working methods are the norm, in contrast to conventional models of cultural production. As historians, we are used to thinking in terms of sources authored by mostly identifiable individuals; thus, it is more difficult for us to ‘think outside the author’ and to understand an alternative model for the creation of cultural products.
Casting from life
There are many further examples of reconstruction that might be offered, but I will conclude with my own attempt at reconstructing experiential knowledge, or, as Paracelsus admonished, I shall ‘hasten to experience.’ Over the past five years, I have been working with Tonny Beentjes, a practicing silversmith and conservator based in Amsterdam, to reconstruct the techniques of casting from life by trying the recipes and instructions in Ms. Fr. 640, the extraordinarily detailed sixteenth-century manuscript written by a French practitioner of metalworking. We began this project with the aim of understanding the life-casting techniques of the contemporaneous master goldsmith of Nuremberg, Wenzel Jamnitzer (1510—1585), famed for his remarkable life casting (Figure 7.2) as well as for his instrument making and his 1567 model book and philosophical presentation of rendering solid forms, Perspectiva Corporum Regularium, das ist ein fleyssige Fuenveysung/ivie die Fiinff-Regulirten Carper....
Casting from life seems to have been a widespread and fairly well-known artisanal technique from 1400. The earliest reference to life casting in the
Figure 7.2 Wenzel Jamnitzer, writing box, 1560—1570. Cast silver, 2.36 x 8.93 x 4.02 in. (6.0 x 22.7 x 10.2 cm).
Source: Wenzel Jamnitzer, writing box, 1560—1570, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, cast silver, 6.0 x 22.7 x 10.2 cm, inv. no. 1155/64. Courtesy of the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna. Photo: Tonny Beentjes and Pamela H. Smith.
Renaissance appears in the fourteenth-century painter Cennino Cennini’s Libro dell’Arte, which includes entries on casting faces, whole bodies, ‘a bird, a beast, and any sort of animal, fish, and other such things.’35 Lorenzo Ghiberti cast plants from life on the doors of the Florence Baptistery, and Donatello (1386/87—1466) used wax-impregnated fabrics to model the draperies on some of his sculpture.36 Life casts were produced in great numbers in northern Italy in the sixteenth century; many are believed to have been produced in sixteenth-century Padua, previously attributed to Andrea Briosco, called Riccio (1470—1532), or to Severo da Ravenna (/7. c. 1496—1543).37 Life casting was carried out on a perhaps even grander scale in northern Europe, particularly in Nuremberg. Nature casts of textiles were made in the Vischer workshop in Nuremberg, where life casting was a well-known technique by the first half of the sixteenth century, reaching a high point in the work of Wenzel Jamnitzer.38
Casting from life is accomplished by pouring a plaster mold around fresh plants or recently killed animals, then burning out or removing the plant or animal (the pattern) by heating in a kiln, and, finally, casting hot liquid metal into the void left by the animal or plant. The French manuscript contains instructions for making nature casts of flowers, plants, lizards, snakes, crabs and crayfish, shells, turtles, frogs and toads, bats, several species of birds, eagle talons, rats, moths and butterflies, beetles, flies, spiders, and even spider webs.39 While instructions for casting from life were collected, printed, and reprinted into the eighteenth century, Ms. Fr. 640 contains the most detailed description yet known.
From the number of printed sources and life-cast objects in sixteenthcentury collections, it is clear that this was a widely known and much-desired technique for at least three centuries. Life casts filled the collections of the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. The inventories of the Habsburg and Bavarian Wittelsbach Kunstkainmern were full of hundreds of life casts in silver, tin, lead, plaster, and other media, and the eagerness with which they were sought can be detected in the anxious letters between Wenzeljamnitzer and Archduke Ferdinand of Austria (1529—1595) between 1556 and 1562 about a commission to build a fountain with life-cast animals around the base.40 Another example of this interest can be found in a letter from an official of the court of Grand Duke Francesco I de’ Medici (1541—1587) to Duke Wilhelm V of Bavaria (1548—1626) that details a ‘Pergkhwerckhstuckh,’ or Handstein, that the grand duke was sending to Wilhelm. It included life-cast lead patterns for plants that were to be attached to the work, and a postscript to the letter states that the live frogs, snakes, plants, and other animals that the duke desired could not be obtained due to the cold weather.41 According to this evidence, life casts were sometimes regarded as more valuable than objects modeled by the hand.
Life casts in these collections possessed multiple levels of meaning: they could prove rare and odd natural phenomena, such as the crippled and seven-fingered hands of peasants and the misshapen lemons cast in plaster in the Bavarian Wittelsbach Kunstkammer.42 They could stand in for the real objects that soon withered and died, and they could display the talent of the artist in producing fine molds and in understanding the casting properties of metals. Metalworkers demonstrated their ability to imitate nature and thereby lay claim to an unmediated knowledge of nature and an ability to harness the processes of nature.43 More important, life casting connected nature and art, demonstrating the human ability to imitate the transformative powers of nature. In the seventeenth century, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz came to view life casting as demonstrating the formation of fossils in the earth, 44 just one example of the manner in which making objects eventually came to be descriptive of natural processes and synonymous with knowing in a scientific sense.
There is much in Ms. Fr. 640 of great interest and much yet to be discovered, including the possible identity of its author and the location of its composition, but for the purposes of this article, I will focus only on what we have learned in attempting to replicate life-casting recipes contained in the manuscript.
Since sixteenth-century castings of most of the flora and fauna used in the manuscript are still extant in European and American museums, the first stage of our investigation involved examining life-cast objects in those institutions. This examination showed that the techniques described in the manuscript matched precisely with the traces of making on the objects. These techniques included the use of two-piece molds. Until the recent work of Edgar Lein and confirmation in this manuscript, it was not clear to scholars that casting from life was done in two-piece molds. Life casts were believed to have been accomplished by encasing the animal or plant entirely in plaster, which was then heated in a furnace to burn out the animal, with metal then being poured into this one-piece mold. Our reconstructions showed that two-piece casting allowed the opening of the molds before casting the metal in order to take out the animal’s or plant’s ashes. Even some insects, such as stag and rhinoceros beetles, which no one would have suspected of being molded in a two-piece mold, show molding lines and are formed very well in two-piece molds (Figures 7.3 and 7.4).
The similarly obscure technique of positioning the animal or plant to be cast - which is described in the manuscript and confirmed by traces on museum objects — has been clarified by our reconstruction. The technique of casting the metal into the thinnest portion of the animal (the tail of the lizard, for example, or the stem of a buttercup) is counterintuitive to the modern metal caster, who holds that a massy weight of metal must charge the channels of the mold all at once in order to fill all the narrowest parts of the mold. The manuscript instead instructs the metalworker to position the gate for the metal in the most delicate area of the plant or animal and then heat the metal and the mold much hotter than a modern metalworker would normally do. Our reconstruction of this procedure, in which we tested the casting of silver into insect molds, demonstrated the efficacy of this combination of
Figure 7.3 Rhinoceros beetle (detail of Figure 7.2).
Source: Wenzel Jamnitzer, writing box (detail), 1560—1570, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, cast silver, 6.0 x 22.7 x 10.2 cm, inv. no. 1155/64. Courtesy of the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna. Photo: Tonny Beentjes and Pamela H. Smith.
Figure 7.4 Reconstruction of Rhinoceros beetle, cast in silver by Tonny Beentjes and Pamela H. Smith.
techniques in reproducing the most delicate features of an animal or plant (Figures 7.5—7.7).45
These examples show that our reconstruction has revealed important components of the techniques employed in early modern European life casting. But the reconstruction has also allowed a greater understanding of the function and significance of the objects. For example, the technique of casting the metal from the smallest part of the mold afforded extremely fine detail and the almost complete lack of an obvious point of entry for the metal
Figure 7.5 Sketch illustrating the posing and casting infrastructure for a lizard in BnF Ms. Fr. 640, fol. 122v. Note the arrangement of gate, sprues, and vents.
Source: BnF Ms. Fr. 640, fol. 122v. Reproduction from Bibliothèque nationale de France.
Figure 7.6 Reconstruction of system of gate, sprues, and vents for casting a lizard from life, using arrangement sketched in BnF Ms. Fr. 640 (see Figure 7.5). Reconstruction by Tonny Beentjes and Pamela H. Smith.
Source: Reproduction and photo: Tonny Beentjes and Pamela H. Smith.
Figure 7.7 Detail on underside of neck of cast silver lizard, using the mold reconstructed from the system illustrated in Figure 7.6. Casting by Tonny Beentjes and Pamela H. Smith.
Source: Reproduction and photo: Tonny Beentjes and Pamela H. Smith.
(Figures 7.8 and 7.9). This was, of course, essential for Kunstkammer objects, prized in early modern Europe for their liveliness in imitating nature. A wide gate for the metal constructed into the underside of the animal, as a modern metalsmith would do, would leave an unsightly area of afterwork where the sprue had been clipped, filed, and polished. Such obvious traces of facture would have been jarring to the collector and his guests who handled these objects, turning them over and around in their hands to admire them. This underscores just how much the relationship of the early modern person with the things of a collection differed from that of the modern viewer, who would never notice afterwork on the underside of a life cast because
Figure 7.8 Wenzel Jamnitzer (attributed), life-cast lizard (detail of hind foot), c. 1540—1550. Silver, 2.76 x 1.61 in. (7.0 x 4.1 cm).
Source: Wenzel Jamnitzer (attributed), life-cast lizard (detail of hind foot), c. 1540—1550, Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nuremberg, silver, 7.0 x 4.1 cm., inv. HG 11135. Courtesy of Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nuremberg. Photo: Tonny Beentjes and Pamela H. Smith.
Figure 7.9 Wenzel Jamnitzer (attributed), life-cast lizard (detail of tail), c. 1540—1550. Silver, 2.76 x 1.61 in. (7.0 x 4.1 cm). Oval area on tail shows location of the main sprue (clipped off and filed), through which the metal was poured into the mold.
Source: Wenzel Jamnitzer (attributed), life-cast lizard (detail of tail), c. 1540—1550, Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nuremberg, silver, 7.0 x 4.1 cm., inv. HG 11135. Courtesy of Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nuremberg. Photo: Tonny Beentjes and Pamela H. Smith.
the object would be displayed sitting statically on a shelf behind glass. Reconstruction of technique thus afforded us insight into the interaction and experience with objects in early modern Europe.
Reconstruction also gave us a new kind of attention to objects and a new way to see things we would not otherwise have noticed on an object. This
Figure 7.10 Reconstruction of process by which pins were employed to hold dead lizard to clay base, using arrangement described in BnF Ms. Fr. 640. Reconstruction by Tonny Beentjes and Pamela H. Smith.
Source: Reproduction and photo: Tonny Beentjes and Pamela H. Smith.
is the result of the different kinds of reading in which one must engage depending on whether one is simply reading for information or reading for the purpose of carrying out a technique. This became especially clear to us in trying to follow the description for posing an animal on a clay base. The animal must be held in position as the plaster is poured into the mold; otherwise, it will float up as the liquid plaster fills the mold. The author of Ms. Fr. 640 describes the process of passing pins through the animal’s feet to the clay beneath and either threading wire through these holes or leaving the pins in place (Figure 7.10). The pins are then removed when the plaster for the second half of the two-piece mold is poured. These pins leave a very small void in the plaster, which then fills with metal and which must be clipped off after casting. During our reconstruction in January 2008, we had just finished this delicate procedure on the basis of the manuscript descriptions when we were scheduled to fly to Vienna to examine one of the most impressive sixteenth-century examples of life casting as it came out of one exhibition and was going the next day into another: a writing box attributed to Wenzel Jamnitzer (Figure 7.2). As we looked attentively at the box, we realized with mounting excitement that we could see the traces of this procedure on the frogs and lizards on the box (Figure 7.11). They revealed tiny protrusions of metal on their feet — the traces of pins that had once held the animal to the clay base. We would never have noticed or recognized these small protrusions for what they were unless we had been laboring over this very technique the day before.
Working with the manuscript also made clear the polyvalent quality of materials. For example, many early modern recipes, including those in
Figure 7.11 Detail of Figure 7.2, showing lizard with traces of pins in its feet.
Source: Wenzel Jamnitzer, writing box, 1560—1570, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, cast silver, 6.0 x 22.7 x 10.2 cm, inv. no. 1155/64. Courtesy of the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna. Photo: Tonny Beentjes and Pamela H. Smith.
Ms. Fr. 640, specify iron oxide as an ingredient in mold material in order to ‘make it strong.’46 By this, our metalworker might have meant giving the mold ‘strength’ by its blood-red color, a ‘belief’ that modern editors of some recipe books have ridiculed, thereby dismissing the technique as well. But when we tested the addition of iron oxide in January 2011, we found that using it not only gave the mold a rich blood-red color but also did indeed make it tremendously hard.47 We thus cannot dismiss the technique, but we should not ridicule the belief either, for as I have argued in other work, red was one of the nodes of a relational web of interlinked homologies among red, blood, gold, and lizards that underlay metalworking practices and techniques, a kind of ‘vernacular science’ of matter and transformation.48 This web was not a theory that could be formulated as a set of propositions, but rather it was a lived and practiced theory. The writer of Ms. Fr. 640 seems to have been working within this framework, viewing red and iron oxide as ‘strong as blood,’ because elsewhere, he specifies adding a lizard to molten metal in order to color it gold. In a similar way, he used the pater noster prayer as a time-measuring tool - a perfectly normal practice in his day — and at the same time as a prophylactic when mixing ingredients for a burn salve.49 It should not surprise us that such practices could be simultaneously efficacious and part of a more systematic understanding of nature. Artisanal practices could be mundane and oriented to the production of goods and at the same time give access to the greater powers of nature and the cosmos. Again and again in this manuscript, we see just what embodied knowledge meant in the metalsmith’s workshop: using urine and excrement, warning that the practitioner’s bad breath could prevent the adhesion of metal gilding, using the humidity of damp cellars as a tool in many processes, employing the constant slow heat produced by thermophilic bacteria in rotting horse manure for metalworking procedures (and incubating silkworms), and admonishing readers to undertake certain kinds of work only when the weather was still and dry. All these examples point to the bodily entanglement of the practitioner with his lifeworld, but this entanglement with matter and environment obviously did not prevent him from either working with great efficacy or at the same time understanding his materials as what we might call epistemic things — things that embodied concepts and knowledge systems.50
Working through resistances
Reconstruction also taught us about the nature of acquiring experiential knowledge — that it is a process of working through resistances of matter. Disasters such as our mold walls collapsing, which caused liquid plaster to spill in all directions, taught us to make the walls thicker next time. Our molds failed during burnout of the organic material within them, and we poured lead and tin too hot and silver too cold - among myriad other learning opportunities. We came to appreciate the process of experimentation, doing things over and over using different materials that is vividly evinced by the author’s unceasing trials in the manuscript. Indeed, the author apparently could not stop experimenting and recording, as the entire margins of many pages are taken up with notes on the techniques, including more trials of different materials with accounts of successes and failures. Eventually, we learned that working through resistances was part of the process of knowledge getting. We marveled at the length of time it took to acquire experiential knowledge. Any experimentation with molds that must dry for days or weeks is necessarily the work of months and years. We came to truly understand Bernard Palissy’s descriptions in his 1580 Admirable Discourses on the nature of waters and fountains, ...on metals, salts and salines, on rocks, earths, fire and enamels of his almost unceasing bodily tribulations in experimenting with ceramics. We especially appreciated his dialog in which Theory attempts to pry out of Practice the secret of his glaze making. Practice tells Theory that he (Theory) is not ‘wide awake, quick, sympathetic and hard working’ enough to understand his secrets. Theory retorts that if Practice teaches him in writing the fruit of his experience, he will not need these prerequisites. To this Practice replies:
Even if I used a thousand reams of paper to write down all the accidents that have happened to me in learning this art, you must be assured that, however good a brain you may have, you will still make a thousand mistakes, which cannot be learned from writings, and even if you had them in writing, you would not believe them until practice has given you a thousand afflictions.51
In our impatience to let the metal cool so we could open the mold and see the fate of our casts, we understood the metalworker Vannoccio Biringuccio’s comments in Book 6 of his 1540 Pirotechnia on the art of casting:
I say that the greatest labors of both mind and body are required for its operations in the beginning, middle, and end. It is indeed true that these labors are endured with pleasure because they are associated with a certain expectation of novelty, produced by the greatness of art and awaited with desire. ... As a result, as if ensnared, he [the metal caster] is often unable to leave the place of work.52
He goes on that the mind is held in suspense and fear regarding the outcome; the spirit is disturbed and continually anxious. ‘For this reason they are called fanatics and are despised as fools. But, with all this, it is a profitable and skillful art and in large part delightful.’ To avoid becoming frustrated and left ‘discouraged, worn out, and often ruined,’ the caster must do ‘everything with exactness.’53 Without our own experience of these contradictory emotions in casting, we might have read Biringuccio as writing rhetorically, when he actually sought to convey the bodily and mental absorption of the caster.
In these vicissitudes of experimentation, we came to realize that metal casting is not primarily about the metal, but about experimentation on mold materials. The composition of the ‘sand’ (as the author of Ms. Fr. 640 calls the mold mixture), both for sand casting and for plaster, is key to the entire process of producing a life cast, for the mold material must be fine enough to take the imprint of the animal’s delicate surface texture; light enough not to flatten the animal; durable enough to withstand the burnout, the heating of the mold before casting, and the pouring of the red-hot metal; and friable enough to crumble easily when breaking the mold to reveal the finished cast object. It goes without saying that the investment materials for sculpture of any sort are of supreme importance in creating the work. The essential qualities of the investment medium are easy removal of the mold from the metal-cast object, a sharp impression, and an absence of flaws that would necessitate afterwork. Such qualities could be discovered only by repeated experiment with natural materials, and the literature of the sixteenth century, including Ms. Fr. 640, testifies to this constant experimentation by metalworkers with clays, sands, and other materials.54 Nevertheless, only our own trials and tribulations made us able to understand what these metalworkers meant by their repeated claim that nature and art, and labor and ingenuity, came together in the knowledge of mold materials, for these could either be sought from nature or made by art, and thus, constant observation, experiment, and experience were crucial.33
We were helped in our struggles by the fact that, unusually, Ms. Fr. 640 contains sketches to describe the design of gates, channels, and vents for the molds. It would have been nearly impossible to follow a written description of such a design, for it would have necessitated long-winded accounts of many small details. The principle that a picture is worth a thousand words is of course a commonplace, but this was brought home to us with great immediacy as we compared our experience of struggling to follow the text and the sketches. Indeed, our experience of the sketches may also provide a clue to the purpose of Ms. Fr. 640. We can compare it to the pictures of the fitting out and construction of ships included by the Venetian Michael of Rhodes in his 1430s book, for which the audience was likely patrician youths whose merchant families sent them to sea at their own expense to learn about commerce. Michael taught them to recognize different ships and the loads they carried by means of his colorful drawings and his oral instruction.56 It appears, indeed, that almost all how-to manuscripts on shipbuilding written at this time by practitioners were not intended to furnish instructions for other craftsmen, but instead were employed by practical men explaining the tools and expertise of their trade to the social group above them, administrators or patrons, who needed both the illustrations and the book to understand the spoken presentation and to take it seriously as ‘knowledge.’57 Pictures are especially effective in organizing technical knowledge into an abbreviated form because the processes described are extremely tedious and confusing to follow in writing, especially for the uninitiated. Images supplemented with verbal elaboration are undoubtedly even better than pictures alone at transmitting complicated procedures. Michael’s pictures thus tell us about one of the aims of a how-to book — for use with patrons and officials as a basis for oral presentation to non-experts. It may be that Ms. Fr. 640 involved such a relationship - perhaps instruction of a high-status student or dialog with a humanist collector of sculptures and techniques.
Our reconstruction also gave me insight into my tacit expectations of what a text should be and what it should do and just how widely my expectations diverged from those of the author of Ms. Fr. 640. One cannot read the manuscript in a linear manner. The ‘reading’ of Ms. Fr. 640 necessitates doing and reenacting in order to understand it as a record of practice and to follow it. We came to see how ‘reading’ the manuscript was not a simple matter of drawing out passages that dealt with mold materials or metal alloys. Rather, every recipe for molding plaster was embedded in instructions for all kinds of other techniques, sometimes specific to the animal or object being molded, and one had to return again and again to pore over whole sections of the manuscript. Reading and using the manuscript came to seem not a familiar linear textual experience so much as a kind of holistic experimentation in casting materials, even a meditation on trial and error itself. Indeed, reading the manuscript could not be separated from trying the methods recorded in it. From the evidence of the manuscript - in which a fair copy has been set down, but then more trials have been made and the maker has filled the margins with additions, further observations, and notes to himself to ‘try this’ - it would appear that the composition of the manuscript itself could not be divorced from the lived experience of actually performing the actions (Figure 7.12). This is, I believe, an important piece of information for understanding the compilation character and nonlinearity of much technical writing of the early modern era.
Figure 7.12 Text page from BnF Ms. Fr. 640, fol. 138v, showing marginal additions and rethinkings.
Source: Bibliothèque nationale de France, Ms. Fr. 640, fol. 138v. Reproduction from Bibliothèque nationale de France.
In The Craftsman, Richard Sennett has suggested that recipes are not about producing something or teaching a sequence of actions, but rather they are an altogether different sort of education: they are about educating the attention, transmitting attitudes to work and to matter, conveying the lessons of experience — thus, the ‘try this’ or ‘tried’ in recipes — and fostering improvisation and intuitive action. Recipe collections, then, can form a meditation on the material; they develop a habit of regarding matter and its manipulation. By their very repetition, often listing different variations of ingredients or different methods of doing something, they can encourage and model the processes of trial-and-error testing. Such trial-and-error procedures teach that matter is something to work through, something in which to explore resistances, in which to seek out the characteristics of a material in different situations. The metalworking sections of Ms. Fr. 640 are overwhelmingly about exploring resistances of different materials, and the looping back again and again over similar procedures reproduces the process of repeated trials.
Repeated experimentation with materials results in a knowledge of the behavior of matter that allows for an ability to intuit, improvise, and innovate in materials (for example, in searching out suitable sands and clays for mold material) and techniques. Indeed, improvisation based on long experiment is the stock-in-trade of the artisan/maker: in the smoke and heat of the workshop, with dangerous and molten materials all around him, the metal caster must make the split-second determination at which exact moment the metal is ready to pour. As a modern Japanese silversmith trained in traditional methods put it:
Remember, our work is not done by measuring and talking. The hammering, the forging, all the processes are performed by intuition. It’s the split-second intuitive decision to remove the iron from the fire, when and how to bring up the flame, to immerse the blade in the water now -it is these acts of intuition that produce.58
As Biringuccio put it in his 1540 book on metalworking, the practitioner must
understand well what you wish to do in this operation, and...adapt the force to overcome the resistance that is offered according to the qualities of the materials. ... But...the light of judgment cannot come without practice, which is the preceptress of the arts.39
And, as the assay master of a 1604 manuscript, the ‘Goldsmith’s Storehouse,’ phrased it:
a p|erfec]t Assay Master, [is one] whose perfection [is] grounded upon Artificial! Exercise, for these thinges doe rather consiste in doing them in referringe, for they are not easelye reduced to matter of Argument... the trade asketh a good Judgment, gotten rather by years & experience, then by speculation & dispute.60
The goal of a practitioner’s repeated trial and error was ‘skill,’ that is, a capacity of ‘judgment’ that made him able to improvise in response to the
Making things 197 contingencies of the workshop and the materials. Biringuccio noted that a caster must use the judgment born of experience in designing vents and gates. He provided his reader with as much as he could, ending with ‘I neither know nor am able to say any more about this.’61 To learn more, the reader would have to ‘flee to experience.’ In Personal Knowledge, Michael Polanyi draws a distinction between subsidiary awareness and focal awareness, giving the example of the pianist who shifts her attention from a subsidiary awareness of the movement of her hands in relation to the notes and music to a focus on the individual movements of her fingers. Such a shift in attention often leads to a disastrous performance and stage fright. This kind of focal awareness on the particulars of a skill, whether the hammering of a carpenter, the skilled handling of a tennis racket, or the abilities of the average car driver, moves in the course of repeated practice from a focus on particular components of the skill to an increasing unconscious of the particular actions, and finally results in attainment of the ability to hold in subsidiary awareness the particulars while performing a series of integrated movements and procedures to bring about a whole skilled performance or result. Polanyi says:
[i]n the exercise of skill and the practice of connoisseurship, the art of knowing is seen to involve an intentional change of being: the pouring of ourselves into the subsidiary awareness of particulars, which in the performance of skills are instrumental to a skilful achievement, and which in the exercise of connoisseurship function as the elements of the observed comprehensive whole.62
How can writing convey this embodied amalgam of action, sensory apperception, and cognition? I would argue that some technical writings, including Ms. Fr. 640, and many recipe collections, attempt just that: that is, to convey essential components of skill and its acquisition. First and foremost is the constant trial and error, the trying again and again, the necessity to practice, practice, and practice - the essential need to proceed by experimentation. Second, these texts necessitated imitation and reenactment of the techniques in order to be comprehensible, thus pointing to the indispensability of learning a skill by ‘doing’ and imitation. Third, they sought to make clear the necessity of educating the attention: the need to be alert to the signs of matter and for close observation and the state of being attuned with body and senses to the material, while simultaneously transcending these particulars to attain the higher-order awareness that allows the skilled practitioner to respond to the contingencies of the workshop.
Ms. Fr. 640 seems to be an attempt to capture in writing — perhaps to teach by modeling - the tacit, bodily knowledge of the manipulation of matter by the human hand — in other words, to capture that elusive human ability, skill. Skill is the essence of craft knowledge, and I would argue that it represents a higher-order form of knowledge, perhaps analogous to generalization in propositional knowledge. In addition to everything else they are, then,
‘how-to’ texts can also form an attempt to ‘think about thinking,’ to think about embodied cognition, and how it is to be acquired as well as about the foundations of knowledge.
A craftsperson like Lorenzo Ghiberti, at the beginning of the great boom in artisanal writing, experimented in a great diversity of media, including writing. For Ghiberti, paper and writing upon it could be just another medium, one that required a different kind of attention and discipline, but simply one more arena of experimentation. For Leonardo and some other fifteenth- and sixteenth-century artisans, writing became another site of experimentation and a tool of craft. In the final analysis, Ms. Fr. 640 forms such a site of experimentation in a double sense: as a compilation of‘technical writing,’ Ms. Fr. 640 is an account of the practice of a workshop, where materials were tested, experiments undertaken, skills learned, and things made. But as that oxymoronic kind of thing, a book of practice, it forms an experiment in rendering a written account of handwork and skill, which at the same time makes real the impossibility of using words alone to do the job.
- 1 I have published a slightly different version of this chapter as ‘In the Workshop of History: Making, Writing, and Meaning,’ West 86th: A Journal of Decorative Arts, Design History, and Material Culture 19 (2012): 4—31.
- 2 Theophrastus von Hohenheim (called Paracelsus), On the Miners’ Sickness and Other Miners’ Diseases, in Four Treatises of Theophrastus von Hohenheim called Paracelsus, ed. Henry E. Sigerist, trans. George Rosen (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1941), 91.
- 3 Paracelsus, Die große Wundarznei (1536), in Sämtliche Werke: Medizinische, naturwissenschaftliche und philosophische Schriften, ed. Karl Sudhoff, vol. 10 (Munich: Oldenbourg, 1928), 225.
- 4 Paracelsus, Astronomia Magna: oder diegantze Philosophia sagax der großen und kleinen Welt/des von Gott hocherleuchten/erfahrnen/und bewerten teutschen Philosoph! und Medici (finished 1537-1538; first published 1571), in Sämtliche Werke, ed. Sudhoff, vol. 12 (1929), 59.
- 5 Paracelsus, ‘Fourth Defense,’ (1538), part of The Seven Defensiones, in Four Treatises, ed. Sigerist, trans. C. Lilian Temkin, 29.
- 6 Paracelsus, Die große Wundarznei, 210.
- 7 Tim Ingold, The Perception of the Environment: Essays in Livelihood, Dwelling and Skill (London: Routledge, 2000).
- 8 Richard Sennett, The Craftsman (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2008).
- 9 For an introduction to recent book history, see David Finkelstein and Alistair McCleery, The Book History Reader, 2nd ed. (London: Routledge, 2006).
- 10 William Eamon, Science and the Secrets of Nature: Books of Secrets in Medieval and Early Modern Culture (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994), 130. Alessio Piemontese may have been Girolamo Ruscelli (1500—1566), whose ‘secrets’ came out of what seems to have been an attempt at the reform of knowledge in Naples. According to Girolamo Ruscelli, Secreti nuovi di maravigliosa virtu (Venice: Gli heredi Marchiò Sessa, 1567), a group of Neapolitan gentlemen founded an ‘Accademia Segreta,’ which aimed ‘to make the most diligent inquiries and, as it were, a true anatomy of the things and operations of nature itself’ The center of this academy was the Filosofia or laboratory. The group of scholars and gentlemen of Naples employed 11 specialized artisans to set up and carry out the experiments that produced medicines, dyes, metals, and other useful products. See William Eamon and Françoise Paheau, ‘The Accademia Segreta of Girolamo Ruscelli,’ Isis 75 (1984): 327—342, quotation 339.
The literature on these books includes: John K. Ferguson, Bibliographical Notes on Histories of Inventions and Books of Secrets, 2 vols. (London: Holland Press, 1959 [originally 1898]); Eamon, Science and the Secrets of Nature; Pamela O. Long, Openness, Secrecy, Authorship: Technical Arts and the Culture of Knowledge from Antiquity to the Renaissance (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001); Natasha Glaisyer and Sara Pennell, eds., Didactic Literature in England 1500-1800: Expertise Constructed (Aidershot: Ashgate, 2003); Alison Kavey, Books of Secrets; Natural Philosophy in England, 1550—1600 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2007); Elizabeth Spiller, Seventeenth-Century English Recipe Books: Cooking, Physic, and Chirurgery in the Worlds of Elizabeth Talbot Grey and Aletheia Talbot Howard (Aidershot: Ashgate, 2008); Pascal Dubourg Glatigny and Hélène Vérin, Réduire en art: la technologie de la Renaissance aux Lumières (Paris: Editions de la Maison des sciences de l’homme, 2008); and Elaine Leong and Alisha Rankin, eds., Secrets and Knowledge in Medicine and Science, 1500—1800 (Aidershot: Ashgate, 2011). For an excellent introduction, see Jo Wheeler (with the assistance of Katy Temple), Renaissance Secrets, Recipes and Formulas (London: V&A, 2009). On women’s technical writing, see Elizabeth Tebaux, ‘Women and Technical Writing, 1475—1700: Technology, Literacy and Development of a Genre,’ in Women, Science and Medicine, 1500-1700: Mothers and Sisters of the Royal Society, ed. Lynette Hunter and Sarah Hutton (Thrupp: Sutton, 1997), 29—62.
A thorough study of these practical guides would have to include conduct manuals, exemplified by Baldassare Castiglione’s The Courtier (Venice: Aldus Manutius, 1528) and imitated in numerous vernacular texts, as well as the Hausvaterliteratur, which seems to have been partly aimed at managers of estates. Rudolf Bell, How to Do It: Guides to Good Living for Renaissance Italians (Chicago, IL: Chicago University Press, 1999), examines guides for married couples published in the sixteenth century. A complete study of this genre would need to be quite expansive. Jacob Eyferth, ‘Craft Knowledge at the Interface of Written and Oral Cultures,’ East Asian Science, Technology and Society 4 (2010): 185—205, deals with craft knowledge in China, but his inventory of written forms of craft knowledge is extremely useful.
Michael of Rhodes, The Book of Michael of Rhodes: A Fifteenth-Century Maritime Manuscript, ed. Pamela O. Long, David McGee, and Alan M. Stahl, transcription by Franco Rossi, trans. Alan M. Stahl, 3 vols. (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2009). Alan M. Stahl, ‘Michael of Rhodes: Mariner in Service to Venice,’ in ibid., 3: 87-91.
Simon Werrett, Fireworks: Pyrotechnic Arts and Science in European History (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2009).
Hélène Vérin, La gloire des ingénieurs: l’intelligence technique du XVIe au X Fille siècle (Paris: Albin Michel, 1993).
Bradin Cormack and Caria Mazzio, Book Use, Book Theory, 1500-1700 (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Library, 2005), 84.
I gained this insight from Craig Chinas’ discussion of Chinese how-to books: ‘Luxury Knowledge: The Xiushilu (‘Records of Lacquering’) of 1625,’ Techniques and Culture 29 (1997): 27-40.
For more information on this manuscript, see Pamela H. Smith and Tonny Beent-jes, ‘Nature and Art, Making and Knowing: Reconstructing Sixteenth-Century Life Casting Techniques,’ Renaissance Quarterly 63 (2010): 128—179.
These instructions can be found, respectively, in Hugh Platt, The Jewell-House of Art and Nature (London: P. Short, 1594), 49-53, 53—54, 56—57, 58, 59,
- 64—65, 66, 67. In addition, Gualtherus H. Rivius (Walther Ryff), Der furnem-bsten notwendigsten der gantzen Architectur angehörigen Mathematischen und Mechanischen künst eygentlicher bericht und vast klare verstendliche Unterrichtung zu rechtem verstandt der lehr Vitruvij (Nuremberg: Petreius, 1547), fol. 41r (pt. 1), claims to have treated casting from life in another treatise, which, if ever published, is no longer extant.
- 22 See Edgar Lein, Ars Aeraria: Die Kunst des Bronzegießens und die Bedeutung von Bronze in derflorentinischen Renaissance (Mainz: P. von Zabern, 2004), 42—45: idem, ‘“Wie man allerhand Insecta, als Spinnen, Fliegen, Käfer, Eydexen, Frösche und auch ander zart Laubwerck scharff abgiessen solle, als wann sie natürlich also gewachsen wären”: Die Natur als Modell in Johann Kunckels Beschreibungen des Naturabgusses von Tieren und Pflanzen,’ in Das Modell in der bildenden Kunst des Mittelalters und der Neuzeit: Festschrift für Herbert Beck, ed. Peter Boi and Heike Richter (Petersberg: M. Imhof, 2006), 103—119; and idem, ‘Über den Naturabguss von Pflanzen und Tieren,’ in Coldglanz und Silberstrahl, ed. Karin Tebbe, vol. 2 (Nuremberg: Germanisches Nationalmuseum, 2007).
- 23 For a very illuminating exchange among historians about this topic, see Leora Ausländer, Amy Bentley, Leor Halevi, H. Otto Sibum, and Christopher Witmore, ‘AHR Conversation: Historians and the Study of Material Culture,’ American Historical Review 114 (2009): 1355—1404. See also the special issue of Rethinking History 11.3 (2007), especially Vanessa Agnew, ‘History’s Affective Turn: Historical Reenactment and Its Work in the Present,’ 299—312. For a robust defense of reconstruction as necessary to writing the history of cooking, taste, and food, see Ken Albala, ‘Cooking as Research Methodology: Experiments in Renaissance Cuisine,’ in Renaissance Food from Rabelais to Shakespeare: Culinary Readings and Culinary Histories, ed. Joan Fitzpatrick (Aidershot: Ashgate, 2010), 73—88. See also the recently published Peter Heering and Roland Wittje, eds., Learning by Doing: Experiments and Instruments in History of Science Teaching (Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2011); and Klaus Staubermann, ed., Reconstructions: Recreating Science and Technology of the Past (Edinburgh: National Museums Scotland, 2011). See also the remarkable account of colonial woodworking in North America by Robert Tarule, The Artisan of Ipswich: Craftsmanship and Community in Colonial New England (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004).
- 24 Tim Ingold, ‘Showing Making: Materials, Movements, Lines’ (paper presented at ‘Showing Making,’ Amsterdam, June 18, 2009). See also his ‘Materials Against Materiality,’ Archaeological Dialogues 14.1 (2007): 1—16. For accounts by anthropologists who acted as participant observers in various crafts, see Michael W. Coy, ed., Apprenticeship: From Theory to Method and Back Again (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1989), and Trevor H. J. Marchand, ed., Making Knowledge: Explorations of the Indissoluble Relation Between Mind, Body and Environment (Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010).
- 25 Ausländer et al., ‘AHR Conversation’: 1356—1357.
- 26 Heinz Otto Sibum, ‘Reworking the Mechanical Value of Heat: Instruments of Precision and Gestures of Accuracy in Early Victorian England,’ Studies in History and Philosophy of Science 26 (1995): 101—103.
- 27 Peter Heering, ‘The Enlightened Microscope: Re-Enactment and Analysis of Projections with Eighteenth-Century Solar Microscopes,’ British Journal for the History of Science 41 (2008): 345—367.
- 28 See the work of William Newman, ‘Multimedia Lab: Newton’s “Chymistry” of Metal Solubilities,’ accessed June 2, 2011, http://webappl.dlib.indiana.edu/ newton/reference/chemLab.do.
- 29 Peter Stallybrass, Roger Chartier, J. Franklin Mowery, and Heather Wolfe, ‘Hamlet’s Tables and the Technologies of Writing in Renaissance England,’ Shakespeare Quarterly 55.4 (2004): 379—419.
Roberta Panzanelli, ed., with Eike D. Schmidt and Kenneth Lapatin, The Color of Life: Polychromy in Sculpture from Antiquity to the Present (Los Angeles, CA: Getty, 2008), 2.
Jill Dunkerton, Giotto to Dürer: Early Renaissance Painting in the National Callery (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1991), 174—175.
Arie Wallert, ‘Makers, Materials and Manufacture,’ in Netherlandish Art in the Rijksmuseum 1400—1600, ed. Henk van Os, Jan Piet Filedt Kok, Ger Luijten, and Frits Scholten (Amsterdam: Waanders, 2000), 268, points to the widespread nineteenth-century practice of stripping off paint from polychromed statuary. Panzanelli et al., Color of Life.
Mark Laird, The Flowering of the Landscape Carden: English Pleasure Grounds, 1720— 1800 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999).
Cennino D’Andrea Cennini, II libra dellArte (The Craftsman’s Handbook), trans. Daniel V. Thompson, Jr. (New York: Dover, 1960), 129 (ch. 167). On casting from life, see Ernst Kris, ‘Der Stil “Rustique”: Die Verwendung des Naturabgusses bei Wenzel Jamnitzer und Bernard Palissy,’ Jahrbuch der Kunsthistorischen Sammlungen in Wien, n.s., 1 (1928): 137—208; idem, Le style rustique (Paris: Macula, 2005); Norberto Gramaccini, ‘Das genaue Abbild der Natur—Riccios Tiere und die Theorie des Naturabgusses seit Cennini,’ in Natur und Antike in der Renaissance (Frankfurt: Liebieghaus Museum Alter Plastik, 1985), 198—225; and, more recently, idem, ‘Ideeler Besitz: Paduaner Gipsabgüsse des Quattrocento,’ in Reproduktion: Techniken und Ideen von der Antike bis Heute, Eine Einführung, ed. Jörg Probst (Berlin: Dietrich Reimer Verlag, 2011): 58—83; Andrea Klier, Fixierte Natur: Naturabguss und Effigies im 16. Jahrhundert (Berlin: Reimer, 2004); Georges Didi-Huberman, L’Empreinte (Paris: Centre Georges Pompidou, 1997); Ingrid Stockler, ‘Die Entwicklung des Naturabgusses von Padua bis Nürnberg: Eine nähere Betrachtung des silbernen Schreibzeugkästchens des Wenzel Jamnitzer’ (Lie. phil. diss., University of Zurich, 1990); and Edgar Lein’s works cited above. On Ghiberti, see Gramaccini, ‘Das genaue Abbild,’ 207-210; on Donatello, see Richard Stone, ‘A New Interpretation of the Casting of Donatello’s Judith and Holofernes,’ in Small Bronzes in the Renaissance, ed. Debra Pincus, Studies in the History of Art Series 62 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2001), 55—67. Richard Stone, ‘Antico and the Development of Bronze Casting in Italy at the End of the Quattrocento,’ Metropolitan Museum Journal 16 (1982): 111, notes ‘that stylistic wastebasket called the School of Padua.’
Dorothea Diemer, ‘Handwerksgeheimnisse der Vischer-Werkstatt: Eine neue Quelle zur Entstehuung des Sebaldusgrabes in Nürnberg,’ Münchner Jahrbuch der bildenden Kunst, third series, 47 (1996): 24—54.
BnF Ms. Fr. 640, fol. 169r, includes casting fish from life in a list of topics at the end of the manuscript, but there are no instructions for it. There are apparently no extant examples of bats or rats cast from life.
See David von Schönherr, ‘Wenzel Jamnitzers Arbeiten für Erzherzog Ferdinand,’ in Mitteilungen des Instituts für Oesterreichische Geschichtsforschung, ed. Ritter von Sickel, H. Ritter von Zeissberg, and E. Mühlbacher (; facs. repr., Amsterdam: Swets & Zeitlinger, 1971), 289—305. Lein, ‘Johann Kunckels Beschreibungen,’ 112—114, enumerates the objects recorded in the Bavarian Wit-telsbach and Habsburg collections. See also Katrin Achilles-Syndram, ed., Die Kunstsammlung des Paulus Praun: die Inventare von 1616 und 1719 (Nuremberg, Germany: Stadtrat, 1994), for the inventory of the Nuremberg Praun collection. A letter from the Bishop of Arras to Leone Leoni written between 1550 and 1556 mentions a Roman goldsmith who produced a fine medal and taught his men to cast plants: Eugene Pion, Leone Leoni sculpteur de Charles-quint et Pompeo Leoni sculpteur de Philippe II (Paris: Pion, Nourrit, 1887), 86. My thanks to Regina Seelig-Teuwen for this reference.
Dorothea Diemer, ‘Bronzeplastik um 1600 in München: Neue Quellen und Forschungen,’ Jahrbuch des Zentralinstituts für Kunstgeschichte 2 (1986): 159—160 (document 8). See also Lein, ‘Johann Kunckels Beschreibungen,’ 112.
Johann Baptist Fickler, Das Inventar der Münchner herzoglichen Kunstkammer von 1598, part of Bayerische Akademie der Wissenschaften, Philosophisch-Historische Klasse Abhandlungen, ed. Peter Diemer, new series, 125 (Munich: Verlag der Bayerische Akademie der Wissenschaften, 2004), 130, contains inventory entries cataloguing these rarities.
Smith, The Body of the Artisan (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2004). Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, Protogaea, ed. and trans. Claudine Cohen and Andre Wakefield (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2008), 49 (entry 18).
We poured with the molds at temperatures of 500°C and the silver higher than 1150°C, near 1200°C.
Ms. Fr. 640, fols. 107v, 150r, 161v.
Similarly, modern metalworkers told us that instead of the pulverized roof tiles called for in the manuscript, we could use any kind of‘chamotte’ or ‘grog’ used by modern mold makers to produce molds that stand up to the heat (refractory qualities), but in our July 2Ö09 and January 2011 experiments, we found that pulverized tiles (the making of which is an extremely time-consuming activity) produced far stronger molds than the use of generic grog. This is in line with Ken Albala’s claim that you will not be able to predict an outcome according to modern methods or ideas, but rather you just have to try the recipe and see what happens; in Albala, ‘Cooking as Research Methodology.’ Conservators have also found this to be the case. See for example, Fachhochschule (Köln), Fachbereich Restaurierung und Konservierung von Kunst- und Kulturgut, ‘Die Farben des Mittelalters,’ Restaurieren heißt verstehen: Zerstörungsfreie Untersuchung und Restaurierung in der Studienrichtung Restaurierung und Konservierung von Schriftgut, Graphik und Buchmalerei (Cologne: Fachhochschule Köln, 2001).
See Pamela H. Smith, ‘Vermilion, Mercury, Blood, and Lizards: Matter and Meaning in Metalworking,’ in Materials and Expertise in Early Modern Europe: Between Market and Laboratory, ed. Ursula Klein and Emma Spary (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2010): 29—49; idem, ‘What is a Secret? Secrets and Craft Knowledge,’ in Secrets and Knowledge in Medicine and Science, 1500-1800, ed. Elaine Leong and Alisha Rankin (Surrey: Ashgate, 2011): 47—66; and idem, ‘Knowledge in Motion: Following Itineraries of Matter in the Early Modern World,’ in Cultures in Motion, ed. Daniel Rogers, Bhavani Raman, and Helmut Reimitz (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2014), 109—33.
Ms. Fr. 640, fol. 103r.
On epistemic things, see, for example, Hans-Jörg Rheinberger, Toward a History of Epistemic Things: Synthesizing Proteins in the Test Tube (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1997).
Bernard Palissy, The Admirable Discourses (1580), trans. Aurele la Rocque (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1957), 188—203.
Vannoccio Biringuccio, The Pirotechnia (1540), trans. Cyril Stanley Smith and Martha Teach Gnudi (New York: Basic, 1943), 213.
The following writers discuss, in greater or lesser detail, recipes for heat-resistant molding sands and plaster: Pomponius Gauricus, De sculptura (1504), ed. Andre Chastel and Robert Klein (Geneva: Droz, 1969), 224—230 (in the book titled Chemike); Biringuccio, Pirotechnia, 324—328 (bk. 8, ‘The small art of casting’); Rivius, Architectur, fols. 40v—42v, drawing heavily from Gauricus; Giorgio Vasari, Le Vite depiu eccellenti architetti, pittori e scultori (Florence: L. Torrentino, 1550), esp. 148—167, and Benvenuto Cellini, I Trattati dell’ Oreficeria e della scultura (1568) — see
Benvenuto Cellini, Traktate über die Goldschmiedekunst und die Bildhauerei (I Trattati dell’ Oreficeria e della scultura di Benvenuto Cellini), ed. Erhard Brepohl, trans. Ruth Fröhlich and Max Fröhlich (Cologne: Böhlau, 2005), 103—105 (bk. 1, ch. 13), 167 (bk. 2, ch. 1).
- 55 As Gauricus, De sculptura, 227, notes, ‘which powder is the best has already been incessantly investigated by many.’ Biringuccio says about clays, ‘aside from actual trial, I believe that there is little that can help you, since the clay in itself has no color or visible sign that I know of to show how satisfactory it is. ... But all I can say about it is to show you by their effects how the good ones should be in their nature; and so by trial you will choose among those that come into your hands’ (Biringuccio, Pirotechnia, 218 [bk. 6, ch. 1]).
- 56 David McGee, ‘The Shipbuilding Text of Michael of Rhodes,’ in The Book of Michael of Rhodes, 3: 238-241. Many sixteenth-century mining texts could well possess the same function.
- 57 I develop this point in Pamela H. Smith, ‘Why Write a Book? From Lived Experience to the Written Word in Early Modern Europe,’ Bulletin of the German Historical Institute 47 (2010): 25—50, http://www.ghi-dc.org/files/publications/ bulletin/bu047/bu47_025.pdf.
- 58 Suzanne B. Butters, The Triumph of Vulcan: Sculptor’s Tools, Porphyry, and the Prince in Ducal Florence, 2 vols. (Florence: Olschki, 1996), 1: 286—287, quoting from Edward Lucie-Smith, The Story of Craft: The Craftsman’s Role in Society (Oxford: Phaidon, 1981), 85.
- 59 Biringuccio, Pirotechnia, 280. This point is emphasized by Peta Motture, Bells & Mortars and Related Utensils, Catalogue of Italian Bronzes in the Victoria & Albert Museum (London: V&A, 2001), 23: ‘It is clear from the variations in the recipes... that they merely provided a guideline, and that the knowledge and experience of the founder formed a key part of the process. This can also be deduced from different descriptions of how to prepare the metal for pouring and how to tell when it is ready. Gauricus, for instance, who did not have first-hand knowledge of the processes, recounts how the foundrymen themselves stressed the need to understand the nature of the metals, how they flow in the mould and when they become liquid or boil.’
- 60 H. G., ‘Goldsmith’s Storehouse,’ c. 1604, Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington, DC, ms. V.a. 179, fols. 5v—6v.
- 61 Biringuccio, Pirotechnia, 249. Many early modern attempts to teach skills in writing end abruptly in such a statement.
- 62 Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy (1962; repr. London: Routledge, 1998), 64.
8 Capricious demands