Article by Susana Coentro – VICARTE
In his Discours Admirables (1580), the French potter Bernard Palissy (c. 1510 – c. 1589) presents us with a debate between two characters – Practique (Practice) and Théorique (Theory) – in which the latter tries to convince the first one to teach him the arts of pottery and glazing. Whereas Théorique considers a man must share his gifts and his knowledge with the world, Practique defends that no man would simply give away the secrets of an art that cost him many years to learn and perfect.
When studying historic glazes, we are confronted with this secrecy that surrounds every craft – after all, it is key to the artwork’s uniqueness and its market value. However, complete secrecy is impossible to maintain, as it is our nature to document human knowledge. We find historic glass recipes that go back for thousands of years. We have compilations of recipes written by curious observers or copied from craftsmen’s notes. Occasionally, complete treatises were written by men with know-how on the subject, such as Piccolpasso’s “The three books of the potter’s art” (ca. 1557). These written sources are invaluable to understand the context of the creation process, the terminology at a specific time, the raw materials used, and, sometimes, the motivations of the writer. But, as Palissy’s Practique explains further in the dialogue, regardless of how much he could write on his experiments with glazes, Théorique would still have to do these experiments himself in order to learn the art. Practique was right: learning a craft demands experimentation, trial and error, perfecting the results – things that no amount of reading can teach us.
Because the “secrets of the craft” have always been preciously guarded, many are now completely lost. As researchers working at VICARTE (NOVA School of Science and Technology, Portugal), we want to unveil them and try to recover the technological know-how that gave us remarkable glass and ceramic works of art throughout history. In our mission to recover this lost knowledge, we count on a multidisciplinary team of scientists, artists, art conservators and historians – all collaborating within a new discipline known as Technical Art History. We learn from studying historic written sources, such as treatises and recipe books, as well as from analysing the art objects and trying to replicate their techniques, in which we encounter both Practique’s and Théorique’s points of view. Within the CRAFT HUB Project, we at VICARTE will share this experience of continuous discovery with artists and craftspeople through workshops that will play an important role in the valorisation of glass and ceramics heritage and, hopefully, will inspire artists to reinvent historic techniques and to preserve them for future generations.