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  • Artisan/Practitioners and the Rise of the New Sciences, 1400–1600 by Pamela O. Long
  • Jim Bennett (bio)
Artisan/Practitioners and the Rise of the New Sciences, 1400–1600. By Pamela O. Long. Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 2011. Pp. xii+196. $22.95.

This book derives from a series of lectures given by the author at Oregon State University in 2010 and the tone, as well as the didactic ambition, of a lecturer survives in places. Yet much of the value of the book stems from this context. It is at once a challenging and ambitious account of the rise of the new sciences in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries and an introduction for a non-specialist reader to the thesis that ascribes a pivotal role to artisanal practice. Pamela Long does not avoid addressing the contentious nature of this thesis and an early chapter is an extremely valuable account of the historiographical [End Page 254] issues involved, themselves approached in terms of their own historical narrative traced through the practices of historians of science and technology. Historiography, however important for the practitioners of history, is often arid and off-putting for newcomers lacking a reading experience to give it location and significance. Here, carried on by its own narrative, it is a brilliant demonstration of the importance and longevity of the discourse, sustained by the human stories of the protagonists.

A central question is the changing relevance of practical skill and technique to empirically informed accounts of the natural world, and any such discussion must adopt a scrupulous care over such terms as “art” and “nature,” where modern meanings and assumptions will distort any understanding of early-modern relationships, not least by anticipating accepted meanings in advance of their formation. The author is particularly surefooted in this area, guiding the reader, for example, through the transition seen in the two treatises of Francesco di Giorgio toward natural knowledge, and securing our appreciation of a widespread change through an examination of this historical instance. Long is never content to accept easy and familiar assumptions about the past.

The Vitruvian tradition in text as well as in architectural practice is presented as a fertile meeting ground for discussion and exchange. Just as Vitruvius himself stressed that both ratiocinatio and fabrica were required of the architect, the understanding of his text demanded knowledge of both Latin and building, though not necessarily in the same person. Long highlights the complementary contributions of Brunelleschi, as an exceptionally original architect/engineer, and the humanist scholar Alberti, who had a deep interest in the practical arts as well as a familiarity with the Vitruvian text. The Vitruvian example also encouraged some artisans to write treatises themselves, Ghiberti being an influential example. Again, Francesco di Giorgio learned Latin and produced the first vernacular translation of Vitruvius.

This Vitruvian tradition is presented as a catalyst for exchange between learning and skill, but only one instance of what Long calls “trading zones,” where such communication could take place. Here she is explicitly adopting a concept framed by Peter Galison in discussing twentieth-century particle physics, now shown to be illuminating for a much earlier period. While the author acknowledges that there are many such zones, she chooses to concentrate on three: arsenals, mining and the processing of ores, and the city of Rome in the late sixteenth century with its ambitious engineering projects.

A concluding chapter draws the account together and makes it relevant to the reform of early-modern natural philosophy, its methodology as well as its content. The book is a very valuable addition to this area of debate: while it can be used as an introductory text, it is historiographically sophisticated, [End Page 255] fully engaged with current scholarship, and impressively supported by footnotes and references. This means that anyone—novice or specialist—can use it as a starting point for pursuing any number of the lines of thought it has so cogently introduced.

Jim Bennett

Jim Bennett is visiting keeper at the Science Museum, London, and past director of the Oxford Museum of the History of Science.



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pp. 254-256
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