June 17, 1857, Rudolf Blaschka was born.
Today we commemorate his life and achievements as a scientific artist.
It is his 163th birthday.
When the Dutch crown princess and her husband visited Harvard in June 1941, newspapers wrote that both expressed great interest in the unique collection of the Glass Flowers of Harvard. These were made by father and son Blaschka, who dedicated their whole life to the creation of these flowers and who took the secret with them in the grave, when Rudolf died.
The existence of a never revealed secret is a popular myth. Also in the preface to Mary Lee Ware’s “How Were the Glass Flowers made” the question: “Did the secret of the glass flowers die with the makers?” is raised again, with the intention to make an end to it. It was stressed that no such secret processes were applied. It was repeated again that every technique used was known to contemporary glass workers. Also Rudolf, when asked, insisted that in his art is no room for secrecy or egoism.
Both Leopold and Rudolf mastered the art of glass working at a high level. To become such a master it takes a long period of apprenticeship, training and guidance. During that time one grows into being an artisan by assimilating techniques, skills and knowledge. These become part of one's personality. This insight came to me again, when we visited Vittorio Costantini in his workshop in Venice in November 2009. The master glass worker was sitting at his workbench, close to the torch, rods, tubes and samples of glass around him, tools within reach - everything had its place, all was connected organically, it seemed to be a single organism. We saw his hands guide the glass into shapes that he had in mind. His gestures looked easy and effortless.
You may visit the “Musée du Compagnonnage” in Tours, France which stores a wide range of artisanal masterpieces. There one will be impressed and surprised by discovering what complex wonders can emanate from human hands. Mastering highly trained professional skills is not a secret - this is achieved by endurance and dedication.
There is something lost: it is our understanding of the nature of artisanal work. The secret of the Glass Flowers is, that they belong to a bygone era.
How Were the Glass Flowers Made? by Mary Lee Ware. Botanical Museum Leaflets, Harvard University. Vol 19, No. 6 (January 9, 1961) pp 125-136. Publ. Cambridge MA, Harvard University Herbaria. [vid. p. 125]