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The Provisionality of Sixteenth-Century Designs

The Provisionality of Sixteenth-Century Designs

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

5:30 PM–6:30 PM
The Clark
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Shira Brisman, University of Pennsylvania, Kress Fellow in the Literature of Art (Spring 2018)
The Provisionality of Sixteenth-Century Designs
Originally presented on May 1, 2018

In 1551 the German engraver, waxworker, and goldsmith, Matthias Zündt, published a booklet of thirty-one etchings of tableware, entitled Insigne Ac Planè Novum Opis Cratero Graphicum. These designs for goblets, pitchers, and candlesticks are aimed at other members of the metalworking trade. They offer up the inventions for implementation in other media, such as silver or gold. Yet in these representations it is precisely where the fixed metal meets the refillable content—poured liquid or burning wax—that the image does more than put forth a model: it makes evident the capacity of certain resources to be used or even used up. In this talk, the compilation of Zündt’s etchings will serve as a starting point for evaluating how goldsmith-engravers (metalworkers who also made prints) confronted the notion of the expenditure of their raw materials—gold, silver, paper, ink, and even artistic creativity itself.

An Update from Shira Brisman
Over the course of the sixteenth century, numerous designs for metalwork vessels poured into the print market. The proliferation of images of containers would serve as the center of my book project, or so I thought when I pulled into Williamstown on a cracklingly cold day in the winter of 2018. I wanted to write about these prints as resources—as proposals shared between craftsmen who believed that the vitality of their trade relied on the open exchange of artistic ideas. I had the notion that I’d connect these works on paper with the material resources required to construct the objects they conceived—wax, wood, silver, gold, and precious stones. The book was to be about the relationship between images and objects, two and three dimensions, conservation and waste. But things change when you move to the mountains. My writing began to be reshaped by the new landscape. Not only the visual reorientation of the Berkshire terrain, but also the new field of scholars who surrounded me made me think about what was at the core of the works to which I was drawn—desire and debt. Many discussions helped me to see this: I spoke with Agnes Lugo-Ortiz about the violence of slavery, with Matthew Jackson about how low art feeds high, with Emmelyn Butterfield-Rosen, Lauren Cannady, and my research assistant, Jalen Chang, about imagination and implementation, and with Nina Dubin about the relationship of prints to financial risk. It seemed to me, as the time came to pull away from Williamstown, that I had gotten the frame of my project wrong. The most interesting questions were buried inside, and my conversations with my colleagues at the Clark helped me to untuck them and spread them out. The book that’s resulting is now called The Goldsmith’s Debt. It describes the relationship of property to intellectual property in the era of secularization. I’m grateful for the hard questions that were put to me in Williamstown and for the kinds of exchange that come with living together in a shared space—a spontaneity that does not leave the friendships it has founded.

Shira Brisman

Assistant Professor

History of Art
University of Pennsylvania

Next Up in the Archives

May 5: Martha Buskirk, “The Convenient Fiction of Authorship (On the Intertwined Fortunes of Art and Copyright)”
May 12: Andrew K. Scherer, “Baak: The Qualities and Craft of Ancient Maya Bone”
May 19: Stephanie Porras, “Maerten de Vos and the Renaissance in-between”



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