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Experimental reconstruction of the bronze life-cast lizard of the Renaissance

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The technique of recreating objects or processes to gain deeper understanding has been used widely in the disciplines of archaeology and anthropology. Complex multi-staged processes with a verifiable material outcome offer the greatest scope for this method of analysis. As such, the anonymous sixteenth-century French artisanal and technical manuscript (MnF MS. Fr.640 for short) currently being explored by Pamela Smith with The Making and Knowing Project offers numerous opportunities for such an investigation. One particular chapter discusses life casting in exquisite detail, involving the sacrificial loss of the subject consumed by the fire and replaced by the bronze. These cremated animals included snake, salamander, toad and crab. Such macabre yet beautiful objects offered the Renaissance scholar a meditation on natural history and the cycle of life and death through technical virtuosity.

This paper focuses on one particular passage from the chapter dedicated to the life-casting of a lizard in MnF MS. Fr.640. The solid bronze lizard experimentally recreated here from this text, was dissected and subject to x-ray analysis for comparison with similar museum artefacts. However, by embodied experience of the recreation one may go beyond the material and gain unique insights that may not be reached otherwise. Consider that the anonymous author of the text lived in a time when material transformations were observed and governed by the senses. The author’s internal thoughts, hesitations and warnings given in notes, diagrams and marginalia are made visceral when experienced directly through the senses. We may then understand more of the unspoken tacit knowledge underpinning the text.

This talk is part of the Cabinet of Natural History series.

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