Monday, September 26, 2016

Art and Science

Jacopo Ligozzi,1518,  fanciful glass vessels,
ink and watercolor on paper.
Antonio Neri's writing on glassmaking and alchemy was distinguished from that of many contemporary authors in that his work was all deeply rooted in hands-on experience. He worked in the early 17th century, when art and science were different sides of the same endeavour to understand the world. His contemporaries were often content to repeat century's old teachings about the four Aristotelian elements; that chemical interactions could be explained through an analysis of the balance between hot and cold, dry and wet. But more and more, these notions were being discarded and replaced. It is common to cite the invention of instruments, and other technical developments; these factors certainly did contribute to advancement. But many different forces worked toward the emergence of early modern science, and one in particular is so obvious that it is easily overlooked: artists.

Working with hot glass was a profession in which attention to nature was essential: artists did not have the luxury of fanciful explanations of physical processes. They were obliged by their work to learn the ways glass mixed, moved and behaved in the furnace, not as they imagined it should, but as it actually did. The only way to achieve the complex forms and vessels for which master glassblowers were renowned was through long experience. Failure to understand the glass and predict its properties accurately resulted in failure of the piece.

Neri was immersed in this environment and the same principles applied to his own work in formulating the glass. Ancient theories had little value if they did not accurately predict nature. Like the glass artists, the way forward for Neri was careful attention and hands-on experience. He learned the value of starting with highly purified ingredients for his glass melts. He learned that too much glass salt resulted in a putrid 'gall' that would need to be skimmed off the molten surface. Substituting salts made from fern plants, for the Kali based ones from the Levant, produced a more lustrous glass, yet it stiffened more quickly for the glassblowers.

A glass artist's work also serves as a kind of narrative. For those familiar with the techniques, a finished piece of glass work can be 'read' like a story: The handles were put on last, before that, perhaps a thin bead of color was applied to the lip of the vessel. And the work started as a blown bubble of glass, shaped and opened with special tools. Each step is an insight into the artist's technique, but also into the way nature itself operates. Each motion was a well practiced negotiation between the artist and the properties of the material.

On one hand, an artist's job was to produce objects contemplated for their physical beauty and cultural significance. On the other hand, the act of producing these objects created an environment where accurate reasoning flourished. By collecting artists and employing them together, the Medici rulers of Tuscany were creating a cauldron effect where experiences collected, stewed and nature's secrets unraveled.

* This post first appeared here on 23 October 2013.

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