Academic year 2007-08


Ingenious Objects

Wednesday 11 June, 13.00 - 15.00, Research Forum South Room

Texts: Michael Cole, “Salt, Composition, and the Goldsmith’s Intelligence,” in Cellini and the Principles of Sculpture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 15-42; George Basalla, “Transformed Utilitarian Objects,” Winterthur Portfolio 17 (1982): 183–201

Present: Matthew Hunter, Francesco Lucchini, Katie Scott, Liz Reissner, Caroline Arscott, Joanna Woodall.)


After the previous week’s synopsis had been read, the conveners explained that the readings had been chosen pragmatically. Cole’s chapter on Cellini’s saltcellar was selected in preference to his Art Bulletin piece on blood, for example, because the former explicitly thematized intelligence, while the Basalla was just fun to read and a useful complement to other things. KS observed that she was pleased that both pieces dealt with artifacts of the table; eating utensil and so on. Discussion began around the intricacies of Cole’s argument—how enamel, glass-making and other activities fit into his narrative; what the relative status and relation of these techniques was in the period and so on. This opened into a broader conversation about what Cole had included and excluded in his analysis. The piece is a stunning work of erudition. But, asked MH, does it amount in the end to a very fancy specimen of iconography? Where exactly, FL asked, is the presence of (say) Smith’s artisanal epistemology or maker’s knowledge that would seem to be so important? Here, KS called our attention to Cellini’s description of the salt-cellar, which emphasizes its size in relation to the body (palms, bracchia, etc.) Aside from a few gestures to how the object may have served as a conversation piece, Cole says very little about if/how the saltcellar would have been used. If, as he implies, it never would have actually been employed as a vessel for salt, does this undermine the very clever analysis he spins out concerning the metaphorics of salt, the cellar as a self-portrait, and thus using the object as “picking Cellini’s brains”? What about the allusion he makes to the cellar being rolled down the table? Was this an accommodation of its heft? And, MH asked, if we allow that it would actually have contained salt at some point, how might we think about the physiological consequences it enacted upon users as they fondled its sultry goddess and ingested the thirst-inducing and sensory-stimulating contents it vehiculated? Following from these concerns, a second major strand of our discussion related to the object’s “rationality.” Is Cellini’s object, as Cole so intently argues, ultimately a specimen of incredible humanist erudition wherein each component makes meaning through witty allusion to learned tropes? Or is it a more fraught encounter between recalcitrant materials (especially enamel as KS pointed out, where the element of chance was frequently to the fore); changing demands of patronage; and traditions/limits of making in the workshop? Along similar lines, CA observed how despite Cole’s thematics of intermingling (earth and water, etc.) and expressed sensuality of the object, there was little emphasis give to generation. Salt, in Cole’s account, was manufactured and not born. This opened into a discussion of the object as a boat and, therefore, presumably subject to the whims of Nature—not only guided by Providence (as Cole claims), but also open to Fortuna and chance. These ideas guided the third major trajectory of discussion. Can an account of an artwork as a trap along Gell’s lines really make allowance for luck? Does the work as magical enchantment have to be understood in terms of a discourse of mastery and leaving nothing to chance? KS raised the question of Cellini’s text, Principles of Sculpture, as a decoy that purported to explain what was at work in the objects but was really a collection of red herrings that leads interpretation away from the heart of the matter while also making the objects seem all the more miraculous. JW asked how accounts like this could accommodate the accomplishments often most valued in artistic making—improvisation, risk-taking, and dealing with chance.We then concluded with a brief discussion of Basalla. Some of us found the text to share in Prown’s unproductively taxonomic approach to the field or to suffer from conceptual articulation (definition of exactly what utilitarian is supposed to be, etc.), while others found its insights—especially on toys, miniaturization and so on—stimulating. Bibliography suggested by discussion: Bill Brown, Things […]; Robin Kelsey, “The Problem of Luck in Photography,’’ in The Meaning of Photography (Yale University Press, 2008) and Robin Kelsey, Photography and Chance (University of California, 2009). See also: