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Pamela Smith’s Discoveries from a Sixteenth-Century Artisanal Manuscript

Today’s post comes from Chloe Richards, Vassar College class of 2022 and Art Center student docent.

On Tuesday, February 25, Pamela H. Smith gave a lecture titled “Art & Science, Making and Knowing in a Sixteenth-Century Artisan’s Workshop.” This lecture explored an anonymous manuscript of “recipes” for over nine hundred technical and artistic methods of making a variety of artisanal crafts in order to prove that making is a form of knowing. Professor Smith is the Seth Low Professor of History at Columbia University and founding Director of both the Center for Science and Society at Columbia University and of The Making and Knowing Project, also at Columbia. She is teaching the 2020 Belle Ribicoff Seminar at Vassar on this topic of Making and Knowing. The Making and Knowing Project is an investigation into a sixteenth-century “how-to” guide on art processes. The Project aimed to explore this document both conceptually and theoretically in order to create a digital version of the text. Smith noted how her research has been an interdisciplinary investigation between the arts, science, and the humanities.

The manuscript itself focuses primarily on life casting, creating replicas of living creatures, but touches on almost all imaginable art processes. The text is a collection of notes on and firsthand accounts of the experimentation process. Smith compared the manuscript to Da Vinci’s notebooks in the way both describe the artistic process and the experimentation happening in their respective workshops. Although it is unknown who wrote the manuscript, it was owned by a French nobleman, Philippe de Béthune, around 1666. De Béthune was known for being an art collector and the manuscript has his personal binding. Smith questioned whether this meant that de Béthune commissioned the notebook or not. 

Making and Knowing Project, Pamela H. Smith, Naomi Rosenkranz, Tianna Helena Uchacz, Tillmann Taape, Clément Godbarge, Sophie Pitman, Jenny Boulboullé, Joel Klein, Donna Bilak, Marc Smith, and Terry Catapano, eds., Secrets of Craft and Nature in Renaissance France. A Digital Critical Edition and English Translation of BnF Ms. Fr. 640 (New York: Making and Knowing Project, 2020).

Smith continued the lecture by laying out the finished product of the Making and Knowing Project. The entire manuscript has been digitized now and can be read in dual panes of original scans and typed text. The writings have been translated from the original French dialect into modern French as well as English. There are student and scholarly essays available to supplement the original writings. As part of the project, Smith and her graduate students reconstructed the art-making processes described in the manuscript by putting the written instructions into action. Classes have been created out of these experiments by Columbia Graduate students that will be piloted by Vassar students during the 2020 Belle Ribicoff Seminar.

Many interesting insights arose from these preliminary investigations at Columbia that students in the Vassar seminar will get to experience for themselves. Smith spoke about the importance of appreciating the artisanal knowledge and experimental spirit this manuscript embodies. For example, “try this” notes can be found in the text’s margins and there is an interest in investigating the transformation of materials and understanding the native properties of different mediums. Smith also stressed the value of reconstructing the artistic processes outlined in the manuscript: doing so helped students understand the material dimensions discussed in the text, and allowed students to understand much more than they could through reading the recipe alone. As Smith made clear, the entire Making and Knowing Project is about the “embodied experience”—about learning through failure, collaborating, and interacting with the text and others. In the end, Smith boiled down the essence of her work with the Making and Knowing Project to be about asking new questions.  

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