Le Arti del Fuoco: The Art History of Mining and Metallurgy in Sixteenth-Century Italy
Dubinsky, Caroline Joy
Gill, Meredith J
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This dissertation is the first study of early modern mining and metallurgy from an art-historical perspective. Metallurgy, the science of metals, concerns the physical and chemical properties of metallic elements and techniques of manipulation of these materials. Focusing on Italy, I explore ways in which practitioners, authors, and artists used the available pictorial languages of both traditional art objects and scientific and technical illustrations to record and communicate techniques and technologies of mining and metallurgy. I discuss the historical and technological contexts for these practices through the sixteenth century and the Aristotelian worldview that humanism and other systems of thought challenged. Three case studies demonstrate how discussions and debates about the natural world were enacted through visual media related to mining and metallurgy: the illustrations of Vannoccio Biringuccio’s De la Pirotechnia (Venice, 1540); Domenico Beccafumi’s alchemical-metallurgical woodcut series; and art objects with the theme of Vulcan at his forge commissioned by elite patrons. I argue that the significant attention given to mining and metallurgical pursuits by artists, craftsmen, patrons, and philosophers in the early modern period led to a kind of apotheosis of these fields and to a parallel rise in the status and recognition of practitioners and artists in their association with and representation by images of Vulcan at his forge. A defining feature of the early modern period is artists’ growing self-recognition of their value to society as sources of craft knowledge. Their skills as makers, engaging practices from a variety of mechanical arts and science, offered men of learning new methodologies with which to approach natural philosophical inquiries. Artists and artisans demonstrated their virtù through their ingenuity and their mastery of materials, appealing to elite patronage through their virtuosic works. Men of learning could similarly increase their own virtù by engaging with craft practices. Focusing on the fields of mining and metallurgy, this dissertation aims to bring early modern artists and practitioners closer together by arguing that both groups pursued their mutual goal of elevated status in similar ways and that their works share a visual language by which they further their cause.