In 1627–1628 Charles I of England bought an enormous art collection from Vincenzo Gonzaga of Mantua. The Gonzaga dynasty had hosted Andrea Mantegna and Giulio Romano at their court, collected antique statues, and bought new works by Raphael, Titian, Caravaggio, and Correggio. The Gonzagas’ brilliant but imprudent expenditures had landed them in financial trouble. Charles’s purchases transported the Italian Renaissance to England, in a blaze of color and drama that still explodes across the walls of palaces.
One shipload of paintings, however, arrived “as black as ink.” The court physician to the early Stuarts, Theodore Turquet de Mayerne, collected information from painters across Europe about their materials and techniques. When he learned that the paintings in question had been shipped with some barrels of sublimed mercury and a large quantity of fermenting currants, all seemed clear: vapor from the currants had reacted with the mercury to darken the paintings. (His theory may not have been correct.) He followed with interest as Jerome Lanier, whose cousin had arranged the purchase, succeeded in cleaning the oil paintings, but not those done with “distemper” (water-soluble paint). Eventually de Mayerne found that stale brown bread could clean them—a technique still used by restorers.1
De Mayerne recorded instructions for making cleaning solutions and their results in two manuscripts now kept in the British Library: not formal treatises but collections of recipes, most of which he had harvested from his conversations with artists. He discussed a great many related topics, from preparing paint, panels, and pigments to repairing panels that had broken along the grain and paint surfaces that had suffered craquelure, or networks of fine cracks. When he described a technique, he noted failures as well as successes. And he made clear, as much by the presentation of his material as by its content, that practical methods like the ones he had collected needed to be tested and improved, again and again. Debates went on throughout his text. In one passage, recommendations for a form of tracing paper included paper rubbed with linseed oil or pork fat, the amniotic membrane of a cow’s embryo, or the pericardium of an ox. An interlinear note rejected the last of these as “completely useless.” Trial and error continued even after the text had been compiled.
Turquet de Mayerne’s notebooks have mostly been studied by art historians. Pamela Smith, a professor of the history of science at Columbia, teaches us to see them in a much wider setting: as one piece of evidence among many, often material rather than verbal, of the millennia-long history of artisanal work and discovery. Over the centuries, skilled men and women have made a world of things—the things that we eat and wear, use to shelter ourselves and to kill other people, as well as those with which we decorate our walls. Edmund Wilson wrote that he had “had a good many more uplifting thoughts, creative and expansive visions—while soaking in comfortable baths or drying myself after bracing showers—in well-equipped American bathrooms than I have ever had in any cathedral.” He was right about the American bathroom—though there was no need to denigrate the brilliant artisans who raised the cathedrals. Transformative discoveries about how to make things began thousands of years ago. They include the work of the stonemasons who built those cathedrals in the twelfth century and after, that of the builders who devised the first domestic chimneys in the same period, and the creative flights of American plumbers.
In From Lived Experience to the Written Word, Smith has set out to write the history of this form of knowledge—one that, as she points out, traditional histories of science and ideas have usually omitted. The knowledge that goes into building a brick wall that is truly vertical or hanging a door that doesn’t stick, printing a book that doesn’t smudge or casting a bell that won’t split, is hard to trace to its origins. Historians of science specialize in theories and methods that they can tie to people and dates: for example, astronomy based on the heliocentric theory and human anatomy based on human dissection. Both of these, as it happens, were the subjects of long, technical books—by Copernicus and Vesalius, respectively—that appeared in 1543.
The knowledge that underpins our world of things, by contrast, has been discovered over centuries, through trial and error, two steps forward and one step back. It has been produced and improved by collaboration: the work of talented, largely anonymous groups, generation after generation, rather than identifiable individuals. And it is less verbal than embodied. Most of the experiments involved in forming a craft and the practices used to teach and further develop it go unrecorded, as do those who carried them out. French bakers often start their careers nowadays with formal training. But they master their craft at work, learning from those with experience and skills, hands in the dough and senses focused on what happens to it in the oven.
Teaching astronomy or anatomy happens in a lecture hall or anatomy theater—a place where some people pronounce and others take notes (or zone out). Teaching in the world of things goes on in places where people work. Teaching in the university is usually abstract and verbal. Teaching in the world of things is often physical: the teacher urges pupils to apply all of their senses and employs gestures as well as words to make clear how one wields a tool or decides if something has finished cooking.
As a history professor I have told stories and argued about interpretations before hundreds of students in lecture halls and seminar rooms. Long ago, as a theater technician, I taught apprentices—face-to-face and with our hands on tools and materials—how to swing a hammer or glue the cloth for scenery to a wooden frame. When teaching history I present an ever-changing body of material that I have read and thought and argued about with colleagues over the decades. When teaching theater crafts I transmitted physical skills that I had learned from others in shops and about which I had not read a word. No notes preserve those lessons. How can we hope to discover how a medieval blacksmith learned to forge tools or a Renaissance tailor learned to cut brocade?
Embodied knowledge is—or was, in an age before prefabrication had taken command—incredibly varied. A single project—making a casket for jewels, for example—could involve choosing, preparing, joining, and polishing pieces of wood; forging hinges and a hasp; making or installing a lock; and fitting a rich lining for the precious contents. Each task required a command of materials and textures, tools and their uses—expertise that had to be acquired by touch and hearing, smell and sight. This sort of learning is gained by handling objects. It means training one’s hands to do many basic things precisely, quickly, and automatically—leaving the mind free to concentrate on the most complex parts of the task.
Albrecht Dürer wrote of his docta manus—his learned hand. Every real craftsman has learned hands. But artisans and artists must also master materials—the complex and sometimes confounding works of nature, never exactly the same from one copse or quarry to another, or from one time of year to the next. Anyone who wants to find out how a blacksmith made railings, a marble worker cut decorative shapes for floors and façades, or a painter created an altarpiece must try to establish what those craftsmen would have taken in over years, starting as apprentices who swept the floors of their shops and slowly learned how to judge, from color and texture, sound and smell, that a piece of stone or wood or a medium, binder, and pigments had reached the point of transformation into something rich and strange.
Renaissance scholars who wrote with respect about painters mocked shoemakers as simple-minded manual workers. But shoemakers—as Ulinka Rublack has noted in a wonderful study2—had to make patterns and lasts; to pick, treat, and color leathers of very different kinds; and to decorate them with neatly patterned decorative holes. That perhaps explains why the Florentine Leon Battista Alberti, who wrote original and influential treatises on painting and architecture, interrogated shoemakers and tailors as well as craftsmen and architects, in the hope that they could inform him about rare and unknown discoveries in their fields.
“No documents, no history”: How can the historian overcome these basic obstacles and reach this foreign world? First of all, by returning to the period that traditional historians identified as the origin of modernity: the European Renaissance. Smith is no triumphalist. She makes clear that the world-changing inventions once seen as typical of this period—the compass, firearms, printing with movable type—were adaptations of Chinese prototypes, further altered by intermediaries. But as another prominent historian of technology, Pamela O. Long, argued a generation ago, in this period Europeans witnessed something new in the world of letters. Artisans and patrons, artists and scholars set out to capture in writing the endlessly elusive crafts. To some extent, this enterprise involved a new sense of the central part that embodied knowledge has in human life—of the new prestige of art and craft.
By the early sixteenth century, as Smith shows, two very different thinkers—the Erasmian novelist François Rabelais and the erudite scholar Juan Luis Vives—envisioned a form of education that brought elite boys into artisans’ shops rather than schoolrooms, so that they could gain practical knowledge. It would also serve the needs of a new public: a growing and prosperous society of wealthy merchants and civil servants, clerics and mercenary captains, who wanted to consume the right things—the curated works of craft and art, as we say nowadays—that would enhance their social standing. They loved the how-to books that Italians, and then others, were beginning to write. So did ambitious people lower down on the greasy pole, anxious to master salable skills.
Writers found that they could tell readers how to become a scribe or an accountant as well as a good king or a virtuous courtier. Printers across Europe seized on their books and sold them. By the middle of the sixteenth century, an entrepreneur who wanted to mine for precious metals could read detailed accounts of how to construct and operate the necessary machinery and precise manuals on how to interrogate the stars about the most auspicious day and time to start digging—not to mention thorough discussion of what he should collect and how, once he struck pay dirt.
Painters and sculptors, architects and engineers, cooks and surgeons all wrote. Some scoured the classics—and used their imaginations—to argue that their ancient counterparts had enjoyed high status. Others, like Leonardo, insisted boldly and correctly that their techniques were new. Some wrote brief, plain texts that look as if they could be how-to manuals. Others composed elaborate Latin treatises that seem better designed to show patrons and travelers what to look for in a building or a dinner than to teach practitioners how to produce them. Most of this literature, Smith argues, was not really practical in intention. Still, over time, something new took shape: a vast cultural exchange system in which the noble and wealthy who paid for works of craft, art, and skill learned something of the language and the practices of those they employed. Sometimes interest in the new practices blazed high. Cellini described how he had let Duke Cosimo I de’ Medici help him clean small statues with a hammer and chisel. Some Renaissance grandees took as much pleasure in turning fine hardwood on a lathe as any suburban father in a basement workshop today.
Cellini told his readers clearly that they could never emulate him by reading. The sculptor’s skill could be gained only with chisel in hand in the studio. Yet books, Smith argues, when properly chosen and studied, can reveal some of the secrets of embodied knowledge. As Smith and other historians—including Wendy Wall, Elaine Leong, and Melissa Reynolds—have shown, one particular kind of book, the recipe collection, offers considerably more. Those who compiled them did not try to systematize their knowledge to make it look, in a period sense, like an art: a neatly organized discipline with hierarchically ordered objects and methods. Instead, they continued a tradition that had become popular in the later Middle Ages, recording their experiences—their recipes, along with the advice of colleagues and their own successes and failures in applying it—in rambling, repetitive collections. These offered detailed, unpretentious instructions on everything from how to transmute metals to how to bake a pie. Such works are impressive in their insistence that they rest on direct experience: that their contents have been tried in the kitchen, the workshop, or the laboratory, as is clear from the phrase probatum est, “it has been tried.”
These collections describe an immense range of procedures for cutting and shaping, heating and cooling: procedures that rested on embodied knowledge. Over many years, Smith has learned how to study these practices as well as the texts. She has adopted forms of research that until recently were pursued mostly by archaeologists, art restorers, and other specialists who principally study objects and reconstruct period tools and forms of work. Archaeologists, for example, have practiced knapping—shaping particular kinds of stone into tools, weapons, or building materials—for decades. Their first efforts go back to the early nineteenth century. By the postwar period it was an established practice: surviving video makes it possible to watch the charismatic prehistorian and science-fiction writer François Bordes knapping flints in the 1960s.
Historians of early modern Europe, by contrast, have only recently begun to try to penetrate these mysteries for their own period. Some historians, of course, do come to their work with relevant skills. Amanda Wunder, a pioneering student of the exuberant Spanish dress of the seventeenth century, was expert at dressmaking as well as the history of early modern Europe before she began investigating the history of costume and learning from specialists about historic fabric and dress. Fabio Barry, an architectural historian, has recently published a masterly study called Painting in Stone: Architecture and the Poetics of Marble from Antiquity to the Enlightenment,3 in which he discusses the endlessly ingenious ways architects and masons cut and pieced together colored stones. He brings his command of past ways of building—and a brief apprenticeship as a fresco painter—to the job.
Smith began as an expert on the early literature of technology. She has written at length about Georgius Agricola, the first major writer on mining, and Dürer, who produced pioneering works on perspective. In her book The Body of the Artisan (2004), she examined in detail the ways in which Dürer and many other artists depicted the work of craft. Since 2003–2004, she has dived even more deeply into the worlds of early modern makers, looking directly at the learned hand and the materials it reshaped.
Craft requires training. Smith worked with conservators and curators at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and studied with expert practitioners of blacksmithing, silversmithing, and bronze casting—all skills rooted in the early modern world. Collaboration with these experts—and specialists on the language and context of these collections—made it possible to recreate many of the processes that the recipes describe in arresting, sometimes breathtaking detail. She identified a sixteenth-century recipe collection in French for special study and organized a collaborative research program focusing on it. The text was taken apart, its recipes were analyzed one by one, and then the pigments were mixed, the flowers were cast in metal, and the tarts were baked.
In recent years, scholars in a number of fields have set out to create material objects from instructional texts. Historians of alchemy—Lawrence Principe, William Newman, my Princeton colleague Jennifer Rampling, and others—revolutionized the study of Renaissance natural philosophy by replicating the procedures prescribed in alchemical texts. They have shown that these were neither fraudulent nor fantastic but coherent presentations of a complex and sophisticated form of metallic crystalline chemistry. An ancient discipline, collaborative and experimental, alchemy was long dismissed as charlatanry. It has become the subject of a highly up-to-date form of analysis, itself also collaborative and experimental.
Over the last decade, Smith and a wonderfully mixed cast of characters whom she has recruited—historians of science, artists, and craftspeople; senior professors, postdocs, graduate and undergraduate students—have worked in a similar way on the French recipe collection. They have placed it in its historical setting (Toulouse in the late period of the French wars of religion), translated it into English, and replicated the procedures it details. Digital technology materialized, so to speak, on cue, as the perfect medium to record their work. Smith and the members of her team, which is known as the Making and Knowing Project, have provided a text and translation of the manuscript—itself a monumentally difficult undertaking. Their rich mix of texts and videos makes it possible to stand behind them: to watch them experiment with temperatures, times, and materials; and then to follow, as hushed before the laptop screen as if one were present at the creation, while they perform and explain feats of workmanship—for example, while they craft dazzlingly delicate metal casts of flowers and lizards.4
This alone would be a striking accomplishment. But Smith does still more, using the older technologies of writing and print to complement the new. In From Lived Experience to the Written Word, she sets out to trace both the long history of this form of knowledge and its sudden appearance, in the early modern period, in the world of letters. She emphasizes the diversity of these texts at every point. From the fifteenth-century sailor Michael of Rhodes onward, some of the authors were themselves makers rather than writers. Others were trained scholars like Alberti and Agricola. Some sought status and employment for themselves and the prestige of writing for their callings. Others sought to instruct the great and the good on how to employ artisans to the best effect. Some, like Paracelsus, hoped to reform society as well as science; some, like Simon Stevin, hoped to reform the education and practice of their colleagues (in his case, engineers). Still others, like the authors of the French recipe book, defy any effort to formulate a simple account of their goals or practices. When Smith examines the multiple ways in which readers used this new literature of making, marginal note by marginal note, the whole enterprise seems to burst into fragments.
Yet Smith seeks a way to the center of the labyrinth. Starting from the metalworkers whom she knows so well and moving into other areas, she teases out evidence that practical knowledge was more than an aggregate of particular techniques and instructions. Artisans came to understand their work as a key to natural processes more generally: not a modern discipline, systematic and skeptical in its approach and aiming at conceptual clarity and clear results, but something older, richer, and more complicated. Craftsmen connected the elements with the heavens, their work with their health, the metals that grew in the earth with the temperaments that governed their bodies. Their enterprises had a religious side: hence their frequent use of prayers for everything from invoking divine help at the beginning of a test to timing a process in the middle of an experiment. Their conceptual schemes mixed experience with learned categories such as the powers of the stars and the four humors—a point that Smith could have pursued even more deeply.
Still, their clearest proof of concept was usually not verbal but material: the things they made, given form by skilled hands and endowed with meaning by the larger systems of correspondence that they embodied. Only a collaborative inquiry—one that toggles back and forth between textual and material evidence, using each to illuminate the other—can make the vision of the makers visible again.
Smith’s subtitle situates her story not in early modern Europe but in the early modern world—an awkward but necessary shorthand, derived from the periodization of European history. In the fifteenth century and after, regions and cultures were linked together in new ways by trade, proselytization, travel, and warfare. Smith tells a story of ingredients and practices in constant motion across Eurasia, from China to the Atlantic coast, and across social and intellectual boundaries as well—one in which the experiments of artisans who combined sulfur and mercury to create vermilion preceded and inspired the development of an alchemical theory of matter that reduced its basic ingredients to salt, sulfur, and mercury.
Smith exaggerates Greek and Roman disrespect for makers, rather as Francis Bacon did four hundred years ago. Though she makes good use of art historical scholarship on materials and practices, and of the help and instruction for which she thanks art historians, more could be done to integrate it into her larger argument. To what extent did artists—especially the most prestigious ones—belong to the same world as her makers? Smith’s book is a tribute to the democratic intellect, in a form with which most moderns have become unfamiliar. Some of the star artists and architects of her period shared her deep respect for the anonymous work of craft. Albrecht Dürer, for example, wrote eloquently of his admiration for the Aztec craftspeople, otherwise unknown to him, whose work in gold and silver and “wonderful objects of human use” he saw in Brussels in 1520.
Patrons and patronage were also vital in the creation of the early modern craftsmen’s world. The dazzlingly skillful, exuberantly experimental makers whose world and work Smith lays out in engaging detail did not sing solely for themselves and the Muses. They needed buyers and patrons who could appreciate what they had to offer and pay the high prices needed both for rare and expensive materials and for the working time of renowned and sought-after masters.
In early modern Europe brilliant aristocrats, bold entrepreneurs, and bearded professors had at least one thing in common: they admired, and did their best to acquire, the finest work they or their agents could find. To invest well, they studied the arts and crafts systematically. In 1485 Lorenzo de’ Medici had his secretary read him the first modern treatise on architecture, by Alberti, section by section as it emerged from the press. While away from Florence taking the waters, they finished all the text they had. A message went off immediately to Florence: an urgent request for more of this detailed and demanding book, as soon as it became available. Lorenzo’s interest and expertise were real: as F.W. Kent showed some time ago, guild members and artists turned to him for advice as well as patronage.
Hans Fugger, a very effective Augsburg businessman, spared no trouble or expense to obtain “shoes with no cuts, shoes with ribbons for tying, black as well as white shoes—all, if possible, made using the smoothest leather available in Antwerp.” He advised Duke Wilhelm V of Bavaria on where to get the most beautifully perforated footwear (Rome)—useful advice for that great clotheshorse and collector, whose cabinet of curiosities included shoes and slippers from Muscovy, high women’s slippers from Spain, and “a large…man’s shoe worn by Anthoni Frangipan,” a Roman patrician.5
Pietro Bembo, cardinal and connoisseur, designed his own bed-curtains, drawing them and specifying the seams he wanted. Not surprisingly, he knew how to assess the ancient coins he collected. Molded coins were modern fakes; stamped ones could be genuine, though many were not.6 Perhaps he learned this from his father, Bernardo, also a collector. A portrait, probably of Bernardo, by Hans Memling shows the sitter holding a Roman coin. Is he testing it by feel? Did he teach his son how to separate numismatic wheat from chaff? The great houses of these men and women were stuffed with fine work of every kind. Often they had actively supervised the artisans who worked for them.
European lords and ladies were far from alone in their passionate acquisitiveness or in their discriminating tastes. The lords of the Ming and Qing Dynasties and the warlords of Japan during the Sengoku were even more precise in their tastes and incisive in the language they used to describe the objects they collected. Some works of Asian craft—fine rugs, for example, and illuminated Persian manuscripts—enchanted patrons across Eurasia. Did a global culture of patronage, as well as one of making, take shape in these centuries? If so, which was the chicken, which the egg?
One question remains. Smith and her colleagues came to this material, in the first instance, from the history of science. They have recreated a wide range of forgotten ways of knowing nature. The historians of alchemy have done that as well, but they have done more: they have situated alchemy within a larger set of intellectual traditions and shown that many of the good and the great of early modern science—Hooke and Boyle, Leibniz and Newton—practiced alchemy in ways that reveal new aspects of their other, better-known projects. Regiomontanus, Galileo, and Descartes all took a serious interest in the makers’ ways of knowing. The question now is both how to continue exploring that world and how to work out what it tells us about those who used to dominate our histories of science, and whose discoveries have not lost their importance. Some of the best parts of Smith’s book are those in which she crosses these borders.
See Ulrike Kern, “Theodore de Mayerne, the King’s Black Paintings and Seventeenth-Century Methods of Restoring and Conserving Paintings,” The Burlington Magazine, Vol. 157, No. 1,351 (October 2015). ↩
Ulinka Rublack, “Matter in the Material Renaissance,” Past and Present, No. 219 (May 2013). ↩
Yale University Press, 2020. ↩
Ulinka Rublack, “Matter in the Material Renaissance.” ↩
See Susan Nalezyty, Pietro Bembo and the Intellectual Pleasures of a Renaissance Writer and Art Collector (Yale University Press, 2017). ↩