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  • The Body of the Artisan: Art and Experience in the Scientific Revolution
  • Eileen Reeves
Pamela H. Smith . The Body of the Artisan: Art and Experience in the Scientific Revolution. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2004. 323 pp. + 28 color pls. index. illus. bibl. $35. ISBN: 0–226–76399–4.

Pamela H. Smith's engaging study deals with neglected bodies, both those of artisans of the early modern period and that more durable corpus of the writings, paintings, and sculptures they have left to us. Arguing that the simultaneous rise of naturalism in the visual arts and of the new science was neither an instance of parallel and unrelated developments, nor a simple matter of individual philosophers' piecemeal appropriation of the raw material offered by various artists, nor even a question of values and objectives shared by both communities, Smith posits instead a steady stream of information from artisans to scholars, and she insists upon the craftsman's awareness of his labor as a kind of embodied knowledge. The study moves from the novel self-consciousness of fifteenth-century Flemish painters to the articulation of sensibilities variously shared in sixteenth-century southern Germany by artists and that vigorous healer of body and soul, Paracelsus, and finally to the very complex relations between Paracelsian apothecaries, medical practitioners, and artists in mid-seventeenth-century Amsterdam and Leiden. Despite occasional excursions beyond northern Europe, Smith suggests that there may be certain geographical limits to her hypothesis, both because the relative inapplicability of the Greco-Roman past first predisposed Germanic artisans to an anti-classicizing naturalism and to a greater reliance on the authority of the senses and because Reformist tendencies often served as a backdrop, if not as an indispensable element, to the efforts of craftsmen, scholars, and their go-betweens.

Though the argument often enrolls a kind of hostility to the written word — for craftsmen insisted that crucial components of their labor could not simply be promulgated by textual means, and they had contempt for the scholarly reliance on rhetorical styles and languages unavailable to them — much of Smith's hypothesis rests upon writings by artisans and is complemented by nascent movements in literature. Smith provides an excellent selection of texts by Dürer, the Huguenot [End Page 680] potter Bernard Palissy, and the medical practitioners Paracelsus, Ambroise Paré, and Andreas Vesalius which variously emphasize the primacy of direct observation and cumulative practical experience over canonical works, textual transmission of information, and theoretical knowledge. Despite the embattled tone of some of these works, the literary world had begun its turn toward the specialized language of the artisan, seeing in the everyday speech of the craftsman a vivid supplement to the arid and abstract world of letters. Thus in 1549 Joachim Du Bellay, for instance, told his readers that "I also want to remind you to frequent from time to time not just the scholars, but also all sorts of workers and mechanics, such as sailors, casters, painters, engravers and others, to learn their findings, the names of their materials, their tools, the terms employed in their arts and crafts, in order to derive from them these beautiful comparisons and descriptions of everything," and in 1570 Benedetto Varchi pushed his elite speaker to investigate and to adopt the proverbial sayings encountered "not just in the shops of barbers and shoemakers, but even at the cobbler's and the iron monger's" (Déffence et illustration de la langue francoyse, [1970]; Ercolano, [1804]). This is not to say, of course, that such linguistic forays necessarily implied any routine appropriation of the artisan's embodied knowledge, but it strongly suggests that men of letters and craftsmen alike were motivated, albeit to different degrees, by a sense of a desiccated classical tradition.

Smith's presentation of the artisan's emphasis on and articulation of his work as a series of informed practices yielding more truths about the natural world than did the speculations of philosophers also corresponds closely to James Amelang's excellent research on the emergent genre of the artisanal autobiography in early modern Europe; while Amelang notes that most such writers did not detail their work habits, and even conceived...


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pp. 680-682
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Archived 2009
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