Plate 19 from Nova Reperta
by Johannes Stradanus

Overview

 

By means of the mechanical arts—including drawing and engraving—artisans produced objects and effects that induced wonder and admiration. The expertise possessed by the artist or artisans was founded on a knowledge of nature and the behavior of natural materials. In ancient and medieval times, theoretical knowledge about the natural world and practical knowledge about material construction were relegated to separate, unrelated spheres. This separation was undermined in the Renaissance and early modern centuries. Around 1500, an increasing closeness, even interchangeability, of constructed and natural objects came to be in evidence, and, eventually, fabrication came to be seen as a way of knowing the natural world.

For instance, Albrecht Dürer's (1471-1528) diary of his trip to the Netherlands revealed a collapsing of the two categories of nature and artifice. Dürer remarked on natural phenomena—such as landscapes—and artifactual objects—such as paintings—without seemingly considering them different in kind. The great Kunstkammern (cabinets of art) and natural history collections that developed in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries also mingled such objects. Paula Findlen has described the ways these collections functioned as sites of knowledge about the world, and, in them, new modes of viewing nature were developed. These cabinets and collections framed a discussion about the relationship between natural and artifactual knowledge, the superiority of ocular demonstration over logical demonstration, and the place of sensory experience in the quest for certain knowledge.

In the early modern period, the process of artistic creation by means of fabrication, or "facture," became highly valued by a whole range of people from artists and printmakers to patrons and merchants. Indeed, the fabrications of the artisan gained a special status and value as a way of knowing the natural world. For instance, the writings and craftwork of the potter Bernard Palissy (ca. 1510-1590) provide particularly striking examples of the collapse of the distinction between art and nature. Palissy fabricated large ceramic platters that contained moldings of snakes, lizards, and other natural creatures. He constructed the Admirable Discourses (1580) as dialogues between Theory and Practice. Theory engages in a fruitless quest to draw up principles while Practice is a font of productive knowledge due to his experience of the natural world. In Pallisy's view, experiential knowledge and practice have gained superiority over theoretical orientations.

The view that knowledge of nature possessed special authority—and that experience led to such knowledge—became widespread. A particularly probing and eloquent articulation is found in the last chapter of Michel de Montaigne's (1533-1592) Essays, "Of Experience." Direct individual experience of nature was also the centerpiece of the philosophical reforms of Francis Bacon (1561-1626). From the 1590s through the 1620s, Bacon sought to re-found natural philosophy on a system of general laws by means of a reform of logic and a re-orientation of science from theory to practice. In Novum Organum, he sought to provide an epistemological method that incorporated many of the craft practices by which natural knowledge was gained, and in The New Atlantis, he set out a utopian vision of a productive and harmonious society that was based on the investigation of the natural world. In both these works, the influence of new technologies, agricultural innovations, and craft practices is evident.