Q & A with Paola Bertucci about Award-winning Book

[Editor’s note: Paola Bertucci’s Artisanal Enlightenment: Science and the Mechanical Arts in Old Regime France has been making waves ever since its publication in 2017. Most recently it was selected as the winner of the 2018–2019 Louis Gottschalk Prize, sponsored by American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies. We invited Paola to share some thoughts about her book and its impact among historians, and she not only obliged but turned the Q&A into a real two-way conversation by adding to the questions.]

Paola Bertucci

Paola Bertucci with her award-winning book, Artisanal Enlightenment:
Science and the Mechanical Arts in Old Regime France.

Please give your “elevator spiel” for this book…

On the elevator to the second floor: There is no Enlightenment without science and technology and this is what my book is about.

On the elevator to the fifteenth floor: Take the world-wide-web of the Enlightenment, Diderot’s and d’Alembert’s Encyclopédie. Notice its emphasis on artisans and the mechanical arts. Ask why was writing about science and the mechanical arts so important? Then take the most iconic actors of the Enlightenment—the philosophes, academicians, aristocrats—away from the front-stage, rewind the clock back a hundred years, and put the spotlight on artisans as authors. See what changes.

So, what changes?

First, you find a new historical actor, the selfidentified artiste, who is not an artist in the common sense of the word, but a learned, ingenious, and sociable artisan. Artistes could be practitioners of any mechanical art—for example, clockmakers, surgeons, goldsmiths, engravers—but they saw themselves as superior to other practitioners because of their learning and ingenuity.

Second, you realize that what was at stake in the act of writing about the mechanical arts was the very important issue of what counted as useful knowledge, who produced it, and who should serve the state in order to regulate its production. At a time of colonial expansion and commercial competition, the artiste claimed to be the figure who could help the state achieve its goals, in contrast to scientists or philosophers, who, the artistes said, only knew theory, or to all other practitioners who could only perform manual work.

Third, you see that through writing and through the artifacts they produced, artistes introduced an idea of progress that no longer centered on what humans were or how they behaved, but on what they could do. It was their work— the mechanical arts—that would bring about progress. This was the world of the “moderns,” who no longer believed in a past Golden Age. As Voltaire put it, technological advances, increased luxury, and colonial expansion made the life of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden appear as a state of barbarity. Artistes produced the material landscape within which some of the foundational works of the Enlightenment emerged.

My book retrieves the artistes’s voice, but does not turn them into heroes: while they fought for recognition in a world that discriminated against all artisans, they discriminated in their turn against all those other practitioners who did not have access to learning and/or patronage. So the Enlightenment you find in my book has more to do with practices of inclusion and exclusion than with philosophical ideas.

Why artisans? What was the main sources of inspiration for embarking on this book project?

The defining moment happened quite by chance. My husband’s uncle, who is a cabinet-maker, was talking about how he turned an armoire into a china cabinet. I realized that, because I am not a cabinet-maker myself, I could only notice the intelligence and ingenuity involved in the process because he was using words. This gave me insights into why artisans took time from making—a profitable activity—in order to write about making, an activity that was not immediately lucrative. They used words in order to communicate the embodied intelligence involved in their work. Who were they writing for? I started wondering about the political role that writing might have played at a time when states were looking at scientific academies as repositories of expertise. Then, of course, there was the vast, recent literature on artisanal knowledge, the classics on the relationship between the arts and the sciences, and above all, my own studies in the Museum of the History of Science at Oxford and work at the Galileo Museum in Florence

Why do you place such importance on the museums?

Because it was at the museums that I learned to ask historical questions centered around artifacts and their makers. I’ve always been fascinated by the puzzling complexity and idiosyncratic beauty of the various artifacts that you find in history of science museums. I am interested in how artifacts and artisanal practices generate new ways of thinking about social and human interactions. In my book I show, for example, that clockmakers imagined the Société des Arts as an ideal social microcosm modeled on their own workshop practices. Or, to give another example, the inventor Jacques Vaucanson believed that improvement was more easily pursued by creating intelligent machines than by instilling intelligence in manual workers through education. The Gottschalk Prize speaks to the fact that your book has attracted the attention of more than just historians of science.

What do you think is the reason for its broad appeal?

You should ask the committee! I am so happy with this prize because I did write the book with the hope of bringing perspectives from the history of science to eighteenth-century studies. In fact, I think there are very few areas in eighteenth-century studies where our discipline doesn’t have something to offer. And I don’t mean just in terms of content, but also more substantially, as an approach to knowledge making.

On the theme of audience, who in the HSS community did you pitch your book to?

Almost everyone really. Although the book deals with a specific moment in space and time, there are many themes of more general interest: the politics behind encyclopedic projects; the relationship between technology and the state; and the material history of the notion of progress and useful knowledge. Even more generally, however, this is a story about how a social group that was fighting for inclusion adopted exclusionist policies against its own peers.

What makes it even more compelling is that knowledge, learning, and the ability to write were used as tools to carry out this exclusion. I was interested in artisans because I wanted to write history from below; I found elitist artisans who mobilized remarkable intellectual energy to discriminate against other artisans who did not have access to learning.

What was the most surprising or unexpected thing you found out while researching this subject?

I had noticed the term artiste in treatises on clockmaking long before I started working on the book. Then, Oliver Courcelle contacted me with the idea of co-authoring an article on the Société des Arts, a little known association that gathered artisans and savants in early eighteenth-century Paris. The Société had attracted the attention of historians in the past, but had not been discussed much because of the scarcity of archival sources. Oliver, together with the late Roger Hahn, had found a private archive with lots of new materials about the Société. While working on the article, I noticed that all the artisans in the Société were referring to themselves as artistes, while deprecating other practitioners whom they referred to as “artisans,” just like the clockmakers in the treatises I had identified. It became clear to me that there was a book to be written about these artistes.

What I could not have anticipated was that I would find a direct connection between the Société des Arts and the making of the Encyclopédie, the establishment of the Paris Academy of Surgery in 1731; the encyclopedic projects within the Academy of Sciences; and above all, the behind-the-scenes fight about useful knowledge and its role within the state. The more I got to know the world of the artistes, the more I realized that they constituted a dissonant note in the literature about early modern artisans and savants. While recent works have blended distinctions between artisans and savants, hands and minds, theory and practice, my historical actors were deeply engaged in boundary work: they were eager to create these dichotomies in order to define their unique expertise. They distinguished not just between theory and practice, artisans and savants, but also among artisans themselves. The category of artisans, without further specification, does not account for this deeply elitist attitude within the artisanal world.

What part did you have the most fun with in writing this book?

Following the artistes through the streets of Paris, in their workshops, through the pages of their treatises, in the Paris Mint… basically everywhere I could find sources. After my son was born I could no longer travel to the archives, and so I employed research assistants who took thousands of photos of archival materials. It was super fun to open their files in New Haven. I loved immersing myself in the secretive alchemy of making coins and cannons, reading artistes’ bold statements about their sensorial intelligence, and studying the amazing visual materials and artifacts they produced.

What did you find most challenging or frustrating?

Not finding women artisans in my sources was certainly frustrating. But the biggest hurdle came at the worst possible time. I had been in conversation with an editor about publication, and received warm encouragement all along, but just when I submitted a formal proposal, with a good chunk of the actual manuscript, I was told that the press could not publish the book within the timeline we had previously discussed. To make matters worse, this news arrived just shortly before my tenure dossier was due. It was a catastrophic, frightening moment. Then, wonderful colleagues (thank you!) pointed out that there were many other possibilities, and shortly afterward I had presses competing for the manuscript. I offer this episode to those out there who may be despairing because of a rejection. Don’t lose hope!

What other concrete advice—dos and don’ts—would you offer to a young graduate student or scholar wanting to undertake a project in eighteenth century history of science?

Read broadly. Think creatively about sources. Discuss your work with people outside your field. And, please, do come and talk to me if we cross paths; I’m always up for a conversation on anything early modern!