Interview with Marta Ajmar


Fig. 1: VARI’s Project meeting, Encounters on the Shop Floor: Embodiment and the Knowledge of the Maker, Photo: Marta Ajmar.

Fig. 2: Dr Marta Ajmar, Photo: Marta Ajmar.

Dr Marta Ajmar is Deputy Director of the V&A Research Institute (VARI). She co-leads the five-year collaborative research project Encounters on the Shop Floor: Embodiment and the Knowledge of the Maker in which practitioners in the arts, performance, the humanities, science and social sciences, museum professionals and entrepreneurs engage together with questions of embodied knowledge and skill through participatory research and co-production. In 2006, Marta Ajmar directed the research project for the major V&A exhibition The Domestic Interior in Italy, 1400–1600. Her research lies principally in the material culture of Renaissance and early modern Italy and the Mediterranean world. Her co-edited volumes include At Home in Renaissance Italy (V&A Publications, 2006) and Approaching the Italian Renaissance Interior: Sources, Methodologies, Debates (Blackwell, 2007). She is currently working on the monograph Material Mimesis: Local and Global Connections in the Arts of the Italian Renaissance, which explores the arts of the Italian Renaissance through a new lens, 'material mimesis', whereby one art engages in the cognitive imitation of another materially and technologically, bringing to light artisanal experimentation and knowledge exchange with both local and non-European arts.

I had the chance to talk to Marta Ajmar about her current research on early modern pottery and wood inlay (intarsia) and her engagement with material culture studies during her time as Visiting Professor at the Institute of Art History at the University of Bern where she taught a class in the Master’s Program “Art History with special qualifications in Curatorial Studies” entitled Bringing Matter to Life: Materiality, Embodiment and Making in the Long Renaissance (Fall Semester 2017).

Michèle Seehafer: What fascinates you about pottery and inlaid work from the Renaissance and early modern period?

Marta Ajmar: I became interested in these two areas of material culture because they are technologically and sensorially innovative and experimental, but in some ways have remained at the margins of historiographic debates. They open new doors into questions of multi-sensorial engagement. They are technologies that encourage an approach that involves vision, but goes well beyond that. They are designed for haptic engagement and are also meant to be perceived through movement. For example, we have fifteenth and sixteenth-century sources that talk about people’s engagement with intarsia and describe touching its surface while walking. This haptic response, both tactile and kinetic, is something that I am very interested in. It is also an area of material culture, especially in the case of early modern pottery, that might have stimulated the sense of taste. We know that people were responsive to the smell and the taste of earth and that certain products were particularly celebrated for the taste that they brought to the food that was cooked in them.

Pottery and inlaid work complicate the understanding of early modern material culture, foregrounding it as something not only visual but demanding instead a multivalent sensorial engagement. They also open up questions of value and disturb comfortable systems of classification. For example, pottery travels between different systems of value depending on the technological know-how that is embedded in it and whether it goes through processes that might turn the artefact into a novelty, as we see with lustreware. The brilliant effect of the lustre, acquired through a third firing, is something that enables these pots to be compared to gold. While they still have a lower value than metalwork, they enter an area of appreciation as something intrinsically innovative that lifts them above common earthenware.

Intarsia and tin-glazed lustreware are technologies that made their way into Europe from Asia. They emerged in Renaissance Europe as technologies that were very quickly apprehended as being local, but in fact their trajectories were much longer and very cross-cultural. Tin-glazed pottery and intarsia were able to quickly develop and respond to changing demands through all kinds of imitations. Sometimes these productions were framed as local substitutes and designed to capture a new market, as with Italian maiolica substitutes for porcelain known as ‘porcelletta’ or ‘little porcelain’. In fact, although these terms of endearment suggest closeness and familiarity, many of these objects demanded a high level of speculation and an imitative effort that required experimentation, combining raw materials and processes that in some instances had not been tested before. They engaged with experiential processes that encouraged a high degree of embodied thinking.

Fig. 3: Reconstructing a fifteenth-century intarsiapanel in the workshop of Simone Chiarugi, Florence, Photo: Marta Ajmar.

What does reenactment mean for you?

Re-enactment provides a point of entry into technologies and processes that may well be dead, where we might have very few opportunities of actually having any kind of direct engagement and therefore much understanding. It is an area of scholarly practice that has been embedded for a long time in certain disciplinary areas, for example archaeology. For material culture or history only in recent years has reenactment gained more credibility and become more accepted as a legitimate method for gaining new insights into technological and social processes. Working within a museum makes this approach a more familiar experience, as this practice sits at the heart of conservation. Conservators engage on a daily basis with processes of reconstruction.

Re-enactment has opened a whole number of new areas of thinking for me. It has had a humbling effect and has revealed itself as an important direction of travel. It has made me very aware – awakened me in a sense – to the inherent importance of materials. Even the first contact makes you aware of the resistance and potential of the material. But most importantly it has opened up a deep understanding of temporality. The work of historians of material culture involves an overwhelming engagement with the finished object. However, any kind of reconstruction forces one to “unpack” the finished object. In fact, my experience of working with those two materials has led me to think much more about the close interaction between human agency, the material, the environment in which this encounter happens and the multiple outcomes this could generate. It has opened up a different understanding of embodied skill and knowledge.

Why do you think that re-enactment is such a powerful research tool?

Some of the work that I am carrying out at the moment involves thinking about the deep structure of early modern objects. I am working on processes of trans-material imitation that often involve an approximation to other artefacts not just at a surface level but at a deep, structural level. In order to gain some insight into objects that seem to be particularly salient in terms of processes of trans-material connection one needs to understand at a deep level their materiality. Of course, there are a whole number of conservation and material science tools that allow you to have a good understanding of the material composition of an artefact. However, understanding the creation process is very difficult unless one establishes a process of reconstruction and engages in an ‘embodied’, ‘hands-on’ way with the object. Attempts to use reconstruction with the aim of achieving accuracy are completely utopian and I do not see it as the main point. Nevertheless reconstruction is the nearest we can get to an understanding of the multiple processes of embodied action and speculative work that can help explain the processes which eventually result in an object.

How does the activity of working with these objects shape your emotional attachment to them?

It alters dramatically the relationship we have with an object in a sense that it creates a close connection with the maker/makers involved in the processes of production. While probably other forms of engagement with objects at a haptic and even visual level have the benefit of connecting you with the world of use, reconstruction is a much more powerful tool to get some insight into the cultures of production. It can reveal things that are quite difficult to acknowledge otherwise, particularly if the point of departure tends to emphasise objects for their uniqueness. Very often when we are engaging with Renaissance and early modern objects – even when they were serially produced – we tend to perceive them as unique because of the kind of access that we have to them and the rate of survival. The process of reconstruction can be very surprising in terms of opening up different perspectives. I have engaged, for example, in re-making marbled ceramics and that process allowed me to get some insight into a highly decorative object that became a popular commodity. Having re-made marbled pottery I feel much more confident in saying that they were genuine proto-industrial products: the processes of production were designed for speed, for minimum risk in production and for making the most of very cheap raw materials. Little skill was required, as demonstrated by the fact that without any training I could make them proficiently almost immediately. We tend to associate early modern productions with a high investment of skill and expertise, but certain commodities demanded a minimum of expertise and allowed significant speed of production. Marbled pottery raises questions about early modern histories of labour, allowing us to open a window into the empowerment and possibly also the alienation of the labour force involved.

Fig. 4: Partial reconstruction of marbling technique on a maiolica dish, Scuola Ceramica di Montelupo, Florence, April 2017, Photo: Marta Ajmar.

What do these objects tell us about the way in which the use of particular colours or other materials was interlinked with identities, values, and emotions?

One of the things that is interesting to think about is the work that historians of medicine are doing. They highlight the existence of a strong interest in the power of particular materials and colours and a belief system about their impact on people’s well-being and health. What comes to mind is the popularity of the colour green. It was often used to paint walls of rooms designed for intellectual work, for example libraries, because it was thought to have a beneficial effect on sight, but it is also a colour that had a persistent presence in such things as tapestries and furniture such as chests. Interestingly, green also had a strong presence in wood inlay, where it developed a fascinating history. Some of the most vibrant uses of green inlay were generated through the help of a fungus, the Chlorociboria. It is interesting on the one hand to think about the emotional impact that colours like these might have generated, but also to consider the response – of wonder? – that a new colour of that kind would have aroused in people. Because green is a colour that we associate with particular technologies, such as textile and glass technology, seeing it on a wood surface would have been a novel experience, something surprising. Gilding is also interesting. Gold is a material that we tend to associate very strongly with ideas of status and prestige because of its intrinsic value – of course this is all very central to its popularity in the early modern period. But it is also a material that a number of natural philosophers, such as Marsilio Ficino (1433–1499), talk about as having a very beneficial effect on health and for that reason should be ingested as well as looked at very closely. This again opens up interesting questions about multiple points of access into the investigation and understanding of certain materials.

Which pottery/inlaid work fascinated you most? And why?

Pottery I find endlessly fascinating because it is a material that brings an enormous confidence in its own embodiedness and carries a very strong anthropomorphic potential, but at the same time for complex reasons also carries an intrinsic discontent about its own status. In many ways it is one of those materials with a remarkable potential for jumping out of its own position in a certain socio-economic or material context and occupying, at least temporarily, positions that have long belonged to other media. One of these areas of constant interaction is that between pottery and metalwork. That explains why entire areas of terminology that we associate with metalwork are imported into pottery: thus pottery might be called ‘studded’ or ‘hammered’on the basis of its volumetric decorative patterns evoking those found in metal. This linguistic transfer is no doubt an attempt to elevate pottery’s status, but also bears witness to some of the processes invested in creating this connectivity, processes which do bear a strong resemblance with metalwork. Early modern pottery is also a material able to resonate and respond quite quickly to commodities of recent arrival in Europe. I am not thinking just about the well-known examples of imitation porcelain of all kinds, but also about the ability of pottery to respond to hard stone, to animal materials like tortoise-shell, and to embed through the body and the glaze something highly mimetic that disturbs hierarchies of material classification. One of the most interesting things about mimetic ceramics is the capturing of shapes of extraordinary longue durée. We see, for example, Buddhist designs embedded in sixteenth-century Italian pottery and which followed trajectories that are very difficult to track down. These journeys became materialized in objects whose histories are deeply cross cultural and highly cross temporal and challenge easy periodisations.

Fig. 5: Tazza, decorated with manganese glaze possibly imitating lacquer or tortoise shell, earthenware, Italy, 1580–1600, Victoria and Albert Museum, London © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

What is the trajectory of material culture studies? How do you think material culture studies will develop in the next few years?

For me one of the things that material culture studies carries at its heart is the potential to redress questions of epistemology, of how we create and order knowledge. It constantly confuses categories that in other disciplinary contexts might feel more acceptable. For example, the idea of animated matter and of the agency of objects is a popular concept in the Renaissance that still carries a significant potential today. It is a perspective that might help us humans rethink our deep relationship with forces much greater than ourselves and encourage us come to terms with them rather than live under the pretence that we control them. Equally influential is a Renaissance debate around materials where the distinctions between animal, vegetal and mineral are broken down. I think this is another area that could make a powerful and topical contribution towards contemporary debates around materiality and sustainability.

Thank you very much for your time!

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