Skill, kunst (“art”), and practical knowledge. These essential components formed the core of “making” objects and “knowing” about their material and utilitarian properties in 16th-century European workshops. In these spaces of bustling and collective creativity, artisans manually captured the likeness of living organisms using metals to make life molds and casts (processes that utilize a living model to make a form out of a respective medium, like metal, wax, or ceramic) of lizards, worms, frogs, and plants. Here I wonder, who was served by this vernacular knowledge and has it somehow been preserved through writing?

Building from her research and years of hands-on experiences, science historian Pamela H. Smith’s latest title From Lived Experience to the Written Word: Reconstructing Practical Knowledge in the Early Modern World (University of Chicago Press, 2022) confirms intersections between materials, craft, technique, and developing scientific expertise in early modern European workshops. At the heart of this publication lie concerns like: How is kunst “embodied knowledge” as referred to by the author — organized into writing and what was its reception?

The book takes the French manuscript Ms. Fr. 640 (c. 1579) as its central case study that is now housed in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France. Written by an anonymous individual, Ms. Fr. 640 comprises 170 folios of recipes, diagrams, and instructions on working with materials like metals, wax, dyes, imitation gem making, insect preservation, and more. Other texts discussed in From Lived Experience include early modern Kunstbücher or “Books of Art” (manuscripts) about medicine, herbs, plants, nature, and navigation. 

Smith suggests in Part I, “Vernacular Theorizing in Craft,” that artisans, who were sometimes also authors, “thought through lizards” because they used these creatures to perfect their life-casting processes while gaining knowledge. Beautiful metal and stone decorated objects that combine their surfaces with life molds include Bernard Palissy’s architectural fragments with lizards, a terracotta and lead platter with cast snakes and frogs, and unique works by other artists like Wenzel Jamnitzer, Adam Kraft, and Caspar Ulich. 

Professor Marjolijn Bol leading a demonstration for a laboratory class of a panel with gesso ground consistent with historical techniques (© Making and Knowing Project)

I found solutions to my query in part 3 of the book titled “Reading and Collecting,” which investigates the power of kunst as these manuals of technical and artistic expertise were codified and collected. Smith elaborates that artisanal methods were not necessarily recorded for utility or education and may have been even distrusted by the craftspersons. Rather, it is complex to pinpoint the exact purpose of these little “Books of Art” that were consumed by a variety of readers. Nevertheless, these manuals have survived through time, documenting experiences of artisans and the nature of their processual spaces.

To further critically examine how ways of “physical” doing have constituted a history of knowledge, Smith committed her time to metal workshops where she reconstructed such procedures. She founded The Making and Knowing Project at Columbia University in 2014, which offers a translated edition of Ms. Fr. 640 with several collaborators who recreated material and casting processes from the manuscript. This intensive and collective work is detailed in part 4 of the book titled “Making and Knowing.” From Lived Experience draws from the project’s research, revealing that these manuscripts and recipe books that instruct about working with materials are nothing short of intimate insights into the inventive zones of early modern craftspersons and artisans.

So, if you ever soften some wax to create your special scented candles or take a shot at melting metals to make ornaments and vessels, consider recording the entire creation experience. Ways of making lead toward knowing and may end up serving intelligibly, for posterity.

Life-cast rose, tin-lead alloy, approx. 7 3/4 inches, created by Giulia Chiostrini and Jef Palframan (2015), following processes described in Ms. Fr. 640, fols. 155r and 155v (© Making and Knowing Project)
Cicada, detail of writing box, KK 1155, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna (photo by Pamela H. Smith and Tonny Beentjes)
Hans Holbein the Younger (1497/98–1543), “School Master’s Signboard” (adult side), mixed media on fir panel, approx. 2 inches x 25 3/4 inches
Schönsperger the Younger, Ein new Modelbuch [ . . . ] Gemert und gepessert mitt new andern Mödeln (printed 1524), frontispiece, woodcut, approx. 7 1/4 inches x 5 1/2 inches
Prospecting for ore, with a divining rod, a forked hazel branch, from Georgius Agricola, De re metallica: libri XII; quibus officia, instrumenta, machinae, ac omnia denique ad metallicam spectantia [ . . . ] describuntur et per effigies [ . . . ] ob oculos ponuntur (Basil: Froben, 1561), book II, page 28
Molding a lizard for life-casting. Ms. Fr. 640, fol. 124v, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris

From Lived Experience to the Written Word: Reconstructing Practical Knowledge in the Early Modern World by Pamela H. Smith (2022) is published by the University of Chicago Press and is available through the publisher and online retailers.

Nageen Shaikh is an art historian, and art and book critic. Her research develops questions of production over ideation in South Asian and early modern art, transnational art, contemporary artists’ studios,...