As the Bridge Building nears completion, the discussion of the role of hard sciences in a liberal arts curriculum has reemerged. The turnout for Professor Marjolijn Bol’s Monday lecture would suggest a great deal of overlap between these two seemingly diametric fields. Although Bol’s work involves a great deal of science, she points out that she is not a scientist. .
“I’m of course not a scientist but an art historian,” she explained. “The approach that I have to the topic is one of history. I am particularly interested in studying the various ways in which the history of making is related to the history of knowing: that is, what you can learn from studying the history of materials and techniques.”
Her Monday lecture, titled From Colored Crystals to Glowing Glazes: Oil Paint and the History of Gemstone Imitation, explored the use of glaze to mimic gemstones. Early painters applied glaze to their paintings to give two-dimensional jewels the shimmer and luster of the real thing. By recreating ancient recipes, Bol has been able to make stones that closely resemble gems like the emerald.
These recipes and their final results give us a glimpse into a new historical narrative. Bol explained, “This history of making art objects has had a formative role within art history; we have learned from all of these experiments for making certain artifacts how the world worked. It’s not a question of the difference between art and science, but rather a way of studying the history of material exploration and experimentation.”
On Monday, Bol walked the audience through her process of creating a kind of tinted window from a piece of parchment. The process was used long ago when glass windows were too expensive for most families. These parchment windows kept houses insulated from harsh winds and temperatures. By recreating this recipe, Bol both created an historical artifact and gained insight into what might have been an overlooked aspect of pre-modern life.
Bol’s visit to Vassar was sponsored by the Art and Chemistry Departments and made possible by the Carolyn Grant Endowment. Assistant Professor of Art History Yvonne Elet, applied for the grant, which funds experiential learning, to bring Bol to campus. “Prof. Bol and I met last fall when I was on leave and we were both Fellows at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin, working on projects about the meanings of materials in the history of art and science,” she explained.
Elet continued, “When I heard that she had been invited to Columbia University this fall to participate in the Making and Knowing Project, in Columbia’s Center for Science and Society, I jumped on the opportunity to invite her to Vassar to lead some labs for art history students.”
Elet then reached out to two professors she knew would be interested in this interdisciplinary work. “I got in touch with colleagues in the chemistry department—Professors Tanski, Donhauser, and Keimowitz—who were enthusiastic about a course intersection with the Integrated Chem Lab,” she explained.
Bol’s work brings a technical, scientific approach to the study of art—blending the two disciplines. We usually talk about the well-roundedness of students when we refer to this blend. But it also yields important, unique results in both fields. Elet explained, “This synergy of art and science also reflects patterns of shared knowledge between the disciplines; especially in early modern Europe, artist’s materials and techniques occupied not only the artists themselves, but also chemists, natural philosophers, physicians, apothecaries, and mathematicians. And their shared knowledge was crucial to the development of art, science and technology–a field of very active research now.”
Seren Chen ’17, a student in Elet’s class, The Rise of the Artist, from Giotto to Leonardo da Vinci, attended Monday’s lecture and one of Tuesday’s workshops. “Overall, it was very interesting,” she said. “Art in the lab is cool in general but seeing work from two disciplines just come together…and then doing it [yourself] the next day in a lab is really great.”
Chen recreated an artisanal recipe from a fourth century CE manuscript to imitate emeralds. The process benefited both art and chemistry students. According to Elet, “For the chemistry students, this is an unusual opportunity to consider the early history of their own discipline, and to apply their lab skills to historical research. For art history students, it is a rare chance to engage physically in the practices of early modern artists.”
Although Bol’s work may seem very specific, she says it is actually more broadly focused. “Usually my research is quite wide-ranging. n trying to understand a particular aspect of the history of art, I often find myself going far into material culture or the history of science. For example, sometimes I try to understand certain optical phenomena and the history of how these were understood through materials, both from the artisanal perspective as well as in texts on optical theory.”
She continued, “This type of research can get quite technical. I always try to come up with concrete examples to try to make it visible, perhaps a little bit similar to the way you would use a model of something abstract in science to help visualize your research.” This hands-on work is what has attracted students to Bol’s lecture and workshops; it is a large part of the appeal in the multi-disciplinary work Vassar has in its near future. And judging by Monday’s turnout, which consisted of art students, chemistry students and many community members, that appeal is large.