Monday, May 22, 2017

A Deeper Accomplishment

From Antonio Neri, "Treasure of the World"
MS Ferguson 67, f. 22r.
For the past four centuries, Antonio Neri has been best known as the author of L'Arte Vetraria, the first printed book solely devoted to the art of glass formulation. It is a work committed to the subject of refining raw materials and combining them into a range of glasses, over a rainbow of colors. 'First into print' is a notable distinction, but one that Neri surpasses with ease by a deeper accomplishment. His book provides a rare glimpse of skilled practical knowledge. This was an era when prized techniques were frequently lost to subsequent generations; lost because artisans so often spared the pen. Their precious knowledge went purposely unrecorded, passing in strict confidence from master to apprentice working side by side. Neri preserved the old techniques like no other document has.

That 'first into print' is what we remember him for highlights an age-old problem that dogs historians. It is a simplification that puts a convenient handle on Neri, but at the same time, it de-emphasizes the fact that he was not working alone. It plays into a narrative that history, in general, happens in a parade of discrete jumps due to the brilliant discoveries of individuals working in isolation. This is reinforced by the mythology surrounding Neri – that he was a mysterious lone alchemist, wandering around Europe, evading those who would steal the secret of the philosopher’s stone. A similar narrative is applied to one historical figure after another, a form that is so appealing that it fills many history books of our schoolchildren and dictates the story lines of popular media productions (of a certain ilk) about the history of science and technology.

This is not to deny the limelight to anyone. Neri is a comparatively minor contributor and in my humble opinion definitely deserves recognition and even celebration. The danger is that by reducing history to a list of lone individuals making breakthrough discoveries, we distort the truth of how things are done and more to the point; we miss out on the far richer adventure of what really happens.

Never mind that Neri's book chronicles the work of hundreds or thousands of glassmakers that came before him or that he probably would have been far more grateful to be remembered for his work in alchemy and medicine. What sticks is 'first into print.' The reality is that he had the substantial resources of the Renaissance Medici court at his disposal. There is strong evidence based on his own manuscripts and drawings that he worked among a group of at least a dozen colleagues of both sexes, exchanging ideas, experimenting and urging each other on; a mode that no scientist would deny is far closer to the way discovery and innovation really happen.

This cultural defect in our perception of history is by no means a recent development. Even in Neri's own time, the early seventeenth century, the 'lone man' paradigm was well established. He and his contemporaries thought along similar lines about alchemists Arnold Villanova, Ramon Llull and Paracelsus. likewise for physicians that his father idolized like Galen and Dioscorides.

For the first time in history, we each have a tremendous chunk of the past at our fingertips in the form of the internet. It is a golden opportunity, not to be fed history, but to discover it for yourself and perhaps for the rest of us. There is no shortage of connections yet to be made and libraries around the world are availing their treasures freely to anyone with an interest. For a great adventure and an exercise in critical thinking, pick a discovery attributed to your favorite figure in history and ask the question "on whose shoulders was she standing?"

*This post first appeared here on 21 March 2014.

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