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New Book by Professor Reveals Link Between Artisans and Science

Since the time of Aristotle, the making of knowledge and the making of objects have generally been considered separate enterprises. Yet during the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, the two became linked through a new philosophy we know today as science. In The Body of the Artisan: Art and Experience in the Scientific Revolution, Pamela H. Smith demonstrates how much early modern science owed to an unlikely source – artists and artisans.

From goldsmiths to locksmiths and carpenters to painters, artists and artisans were much sought after by the new scientists for their intimate, hands-on knowledge of natural materials and how to manipulate them. Drawing on a fascinating array of new evidence from northern Europe, from the artisans' objects to their writings, Smith shows how artisans saw all knowledge as rooted in matter and nature.

“I’ve always been astonished by the knowledge about nature and the expertise in the behavior of natural materials possessed by early modern artisans, and, at the same time, by how little historians of science and historians of art have studied these remarkable skills,” says Smith. “This lack of attention to the material and technical aspects of works of art is a legacy of the prejudice among those in the scholarly world towards the work and products of the hand, a legacy that still has ramifications today. My aim in this book was to make clear the ways in which making and knowing go together.”

Scientists relied heavily on artisanal practices as they developed the scientific method. No longer equating mere thinking with the production of knowledge, they realized that scientific insight only came through direct, physical engagement with nature--you had to touch and taste, percolate and precipitate. Similarly, in the visual arts, the aesthetic of naturalism was based on the grounding of images in close observation and imitation of real objects. With nearly 200 images, The Body of the Artisan provides astonishingly vivid examples of this Renaissance synergy among art, craft, and science, and recovers a forgotten episode of the Scientific Revolution--an episode that forever altered the way we see the natural world.

Smith is the Edwin F. and Margaret Hahn Professor in the Social Sciences, associate professor of history and often serves as chair of the Science, Technology and Society Program at Pomona College. Her other works include The Business of Alchemy: Science and Culture in the Holy Roman Empire and Merchants and Marvels: Commerce, Science, and Art in Early Modern Europe (co-edited with Paula Findlen).

The Body of the Artisan: Art and Experience in the Scientific Revolution was published in June by The University of Chicago Press.

Pomona College is one of the nation’s premier liberal arts institutions, offering a comprehensive program in the arts, humanities, social sciences and natural sciences. Its hallmarks include small classes, close relationships between students and faculty, and a range of opportunities for student research.