The problem with Jonathan Jones and #histSTM

It cannot be said that I am a fan of Jonathan Jones The Guardian’s wanna be art critic but although I find most of his attempts at art criticism questionable at best, as a historian of science I am normal content to simply ignore him. However when he strays into the area of #histSTM I occasionally feel the desire to give him a good kicking if only a metaphorical one. In recent times he has twice committed the sin of publicly displaying his ignorance of #histSTM thereby provoking this post. In both cases Leonard da Vinci plays a central role in his transgressions, so I feel the need to make a general comment first. Many people are fascinated by Leonardo and some of them feel the need to express that fascination in public. These can be roughly divided into two categories, the first are experts who have seriously studied Leonardo and whose utterances are based on knowledge and informed analysis, examples of this first group are Matin Kemp the art historian and Monica Azzolini the Renaissance historian. The second category could be grouped together under the title Leonardo groupies and their utterances are mostly distinguished by lack of knowledge and often mind boggling stupidity. Jonathan Jones is definitely a Leonardo groupie.

Jones’ first foray into the world of #histSTM on 28 January with a piece entitled, The charisma droids: today’s robots and the artists who foresaw them, which is a review of the new major robot exhibition at the Science Museum. What he has to say about the exhibition doesn’t really interest me here but in the middle of his article we stumble across the following paragraph:

So it is oddly inevitable that one of the first recorded inventors of robots was Leonardo da Vinci, consummate artist and pioneering engineer [my emphasis]. Leonardo apparently made, or at least designed, a robot knight to amuse the court of Milan. It worked with pulleys and was capable of simple movements. Documents of this invention are frustratingly sparse, but there is a reliable eyewitness account of another of Leonardo’s automata. In 1515 he delighted Francois I, king of France, with a robot lion that walked forward towards the monarch, then released a bunch of lilies, the royal flower, from a panel that opened in its back.

Now I have no doubts that amongst his many other accomplishments Leonardo turned his amazingly fertile thoughts to the subject of automata, after all he, like his fellow Renaissance engineers, was a fan of Hero of Alexandria who wrote extensively about automata and also constructed them. Here we have the crux of the problem. Leonardo was not “one of the first recorded inventors of robots”. In fact by the time Leonardo came on the scene automata as a topic of discussion, speculation, legend and myth had already enjoyed a couple of thousand years of history. If Jones had taken the trouble to read Ellie Truitt’s (@MedievalRobots) excellent Medieval Robots: Mechanism, Magic, Nature and Art (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015) he would have known just how wrong his claim was. However Jones is one of those who wish to perpetuate the myth that Leonardo is the source of everything. Actually one doesn’t even need to read Ms. Truitt’s wonderful tome, you can listen to her sketching the early history of automata on the first episode of Adam Rutherford’s documentary The Rise of the Robots on BBC Radio 4, also inspired by the Science Museums exhibition. The whole series is well worth a listen.

On 6 February Jones took his Leonardo fantasies to new heights in a piece, entitled Did the Mona Lisa have syphilis? Yes, seriously that is the title of his article. Retro-diagnosis in historical studies is a best a dodgy business and should, I think, be avoided. We have whole libraries of literature diagnosing Joan of Arc’s voices, Van Gough’s mental disorders and the causes of death of numerous historical figures. There are whole lists of figures from the history of science, including such notables as Newton and Einstein, who are considered by some, usually self declared, experts to have suffered from Asperger’s syndrome. All of these theories are at best half way founded speculations and all too oft wild ones. So why does Jonathan Jones think that the Mona Lisa had syphilis? He reveals his evidence already in the sub-title to his piece:

Lisa del Giocondo, the model for Leonardo’s painting, was recorded buying snail water – then considered a cur for the STD: It could be the secret to a painting haunted by the spectre of death.

That’s it folks don’t buy any snail water or Jonathan Jones will think that you have syphilis.

Let’s look at the detail of Jones’ amazingly revelatory discovery:

Yet, as it happens, a handful of documents have survived that give glimpses of Del Giocondo’s life. For instance, she is recorded in the ledger of a Florentine convent as buying snail water (acqua di chiocciole) from its apothecary.

Snail water? I remember finding it comical when I first read this. Beyond that, I accepted a bland suggestion that it was used as a cosmetic or for indigestion. In fact, this is nonsense. The main use of snail water in pre-modern medicine was, I have recently discovered, to combat sexually transmitted diseases, including syphilis.

So she bought some snail water from an apothecary, she was the female head of the household and there is absolutely no evidence that she acquired the snail water for herself. This is something that Jones admits but then casually brushes aside. Can’t let ugly doubts get in the way of such a wonderful theory. More importantly is the claim that “the main use of snail water snail water in pre-modern medicine was […] to combat sexually transmitted diseases, including syphilis” actually correct? Those in the know disagree. I reproduce for your entertainment the following exchange concerning the subject from Twitter.

Greg Jenner (@greg_jenner)

Hello, you may have read that the Mona Lisa had syphilis. This thread points out that is probably bollocks

 Dubious theory – the key evidence is her buying “snail water”, but this was used as a remedy for rashes, earaches, wounds, bad eyes, etc…

Greg Jenner added,

Seen this ‪@DrAlun ‪@DrJaninaRamirez ? What say you? I’ve seen snail water used in so many different Early Modern remedies

Alun Withey (@DrAlun)

I think it’s an ENORMOUS leap to that conclusion. Most commonly I’ve seen it for eye complaints.

Greg Jenner

‪@DrAlun @DrJaninaRamirez yeah, as I thought – and syphilis expert @monaob1 agrees

 Alun Withey

‪@greg_jenner @DrJaninaRamirez @monaob1 So, the burning question then, did the real Mona Lisa have sore eyes? It’s a game-changer!

Mona O’Brian (@monaob1)

‪@DrAlun @greg_jenner @DrJaninaRamirez interested to hear the art historical interpretation on the ‘unhealthy’ eyes comment!

Alun Withey

‪@monaob1 @greg_jenner @DrJaninaRamirez doesn’t JJ say in the article there’s a shadow around her eyes? Mystery solved. *mic drop*

Greg Jenner

‪@DrAlun @monaob1 @DrJaninaRamirez speaking as a man who recently had to buy eye moisturiser, eyes get tired with age? No disease needed

 Mona O’Brian

@greg_jenner Agreed! Also against the pinning of the disease on the New World, considering debates about the disease’s origin are ongoing

Jen Roberts (@jshermanroberts)

‪@greg_jenner I just wrote a blog post about snail water for @historecipes –common household cure for phlegmy complaints like consumption.

Tim Kimber (@Tim_Kimber)

‪@greg_jenner Doesn’t the definite article imply the painting, rather than the person? So they’re saying the painting had syphilis… right?

Minister for Moths (@GrahamMoonieD)

‪@greg_jenner but useless against enigmatic smiles

Interestingly around the same time an advert was doing the rounds on the Internet concerning the use of snail slime as a skin beauty treatment. You can read Jen Roberts highly informative blog post on the history of snail water on The Recipes Project, which includes a closing paragraph on modern snail facials!





Filed under History of medicine, History of Technology, Renaissance Science, Uncategorized

7 responses to “The problem with Jonathan Jones and #histSTM

  1. Generally, I find the Guardian’s coverage of science to be pretty poor unless they have brought in a specialist, as in the “Occam’s Corner” series. Jonathan Jones seems to be their go-to guy for anything however peripherally related to art.

  2. In the West, the notion of robots goes at least as far back as the story about Daedalus, the mythic inventor who created statues so lifelike that they moved and even had to be chained down lest they escape. People in Leonardo’s time would have read about that in Plato’s dialogues. The theme is much older than that. In fact, the Mesopotamians seem to have imagined that the first robots were human beings. The Gods invented us to do the scut work.

  3. Jeb

    Ellie Truitt’s excellent account on the radio also starts with giving the ‘first’ example and a greek origin as a start point for imaginative thought.

    Jonathan Jones ‘highly imaginative’ account seems to suggest that orgin myth has a relationship with establishing the genius of individuals and cultures. His deployment of ‘one of the first’ suggests its a narrative frame which is expected of popular accounts of the subject.

    I suspect it may be wise to limit expectations here when discussing the first recorded examples we have from a limited and fragmentary historical record.

  4. Pingback: Whewell’s Gazette: Year 3, Vol. #27 | Whewell's Ghost

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