Category Archives: History of Technology

Vision, Seeing Better, Seeing Further

In the normal blog post rotation, a book review should be due today. However, instead today’s post is a literature review, listing and describing books on the histories of the theories of vision, spectacles, and telescopes, with the latter coming first as they are the actual main theme of the review. I announced my intention to do this is response to a regular readers request, so long ago I’ve forgotten when, and I was recently reminded of that announcement when someone on Twitter asked me if one of the history of the telescope books, which I own is any good; it is as I will explain later.

The classical standard text on the early history of the telescope is Albert van Helden’s The Invention of the Telescope, which was first published as a paper in the Transactions of the American Philosophical Society in 1977 but has long been available as a monograph, the second edition appearing in 2008 to celebrate the 400thanniversary of the invention of the telescope. 

Van Helden presents and analyses all of the early literature related to the emergence of the telescope in the first decade of the seventeenth century, as well as earlier descriptions of instruments similar to the telescope that proceeded it His text contains full quotes from the original literature in their source languages followed by English translations. It is justifiably called a classic and is a must read for anybody seriously studying the history of the telescope.

Van Helden’s text includes the historical references to Zacharias Janssen (1585–before 1632), as one of the candidates for the invention of the telescope. In 2008, there was a big conference in Middelburg, in the Netherlands, where the telescope first emerged, to celebrate that 400th anniversary; I was there! In the conference proceedings, The origins of the telescope (edited by Albert van Helden, Sven Dupré, Rob van Gent, Huib Zuidervaart, and published by KNAW Press, Amsterdam, 2010) there is a paper by Huib J. Zuidervaart, The ‘true inventor’ of the telescopeA survey of 400 years of debatewhich clearly shows that Zacharias Janssen was not an inventor of the telescope.

The entire proceedings contain an amazing collection of papers on all possible aspects of the history of the telescope by an all star cast of the world’s best historians of optics. It is available as a printed book but is also available as an open access e-book online.

The two books I’ve described so far only really deal with the origins of the telescope; we now turn our attention to books that delve further into the history of the telescope. A classic that is substantially older than van Helden’s The Invention of the Telescope is Henry King’s The History of the Telescope, which was originally published by Charles Griffin & Co. Ltd. In 1955 and then republished by Dover in 1979. 

It opens with a short chapter on the beginning of astronomical observation that is followed by an even shorter chapter on the history of lenses and optics that ends with Lipperhey and his invention of the refracting telescope, with the rival claims of Metius and Jansen. There follows chapter for chapter a chronological history of telescopes and their user and uses beginning with Galileo and ending around 1950 with the construction of the Jodrell Bank radio telescope. Despite the fact that it is dated, it is well researched and well written and can still be read with profit.

More up to date is Fred Watson’s Stargazer the life and times of the Telescope (Da Capo Press, 2005).

As with King, Watson opens with the pre-telescopic era and the various reports of things that might have been telescope but probably weren’t prior to 1608 and Lipperhey.

He then takes his reader on an episodic journey through the history of the telescope down to the present day, ending with plans and discussion of a new generation of super telescopes. A well-researched and well written book, which I found a pleasure to read and highly informative. 

I managed an absolute classic in Middelburg in 2008. I got into a conversation with another participant at the conference and during the exchange started to talk about something from Watson’s book blithely unaware that my conversation partner was the man himself! Mildly embarrassing but also somewhat amusing.

For those readers, who are interested but don’t want to plough their way through a dense academic tome on the history of the telescope but would prefer something more digestible, I heartily recommend Richard Dunn’s The Telescope: A Short History (National Maritime Museum, 2009, Conway, 2011).

Dunn was then curator at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, which has its own excellent collection of telescopes, and is now Keeper of Technologies and Engineering at the Science Museum. The chapters of his book are more topic orientated rather than purely chronological. Beautifully illustrated, it is a comparatively light introduction to the history of the telescope, as I said ideal for those interested but not necessarily prepared to take a deep dive into the subject. This was the book I got asked about recently on Twitter. 

Of a somewhat different nature is Marvin Bolt’s Telescopes Though the Looking Glass (Adler Planetarium, 2009).

This is actually a catalogue of an exhibition that Bolt curated at the Adler upon his return from the 2008 conference in Middelburg. I will quote Bolt’s brief description of the exhibition in full because it captures the general concept of all of the history of the telescope texts:

The exhibition and catalogue address four themed zones. The first, the pretelescope zone, addresses ways in which people have looked at the sky and tried to make sense of it, using their surrounding landscapes or relatively simple tools to develop an understanding or model of the Universe. Zone two presents the invention of the telescope, the challenges it brought to the Earth-centered Universe, and the beautiful craftsmanship and ornamentation of some of the earliest surviving examples in the world. In zone three, the technical challenges of improving telescopes led to variations in design and materials; the telescopes also became popular devices with brand-name recognition. Zone four displays the culmination of the refracting telescope and the emergence of spectroscopy, leading to the marvels of modern telescopes: some see wavelengths beyond the optical realm, others detect invisible particles, a few compensate for atmospheric turbulence, while still others travel beyond the Earth’s atmosphere into space.

Each exhibit is illustrated with a description on the facing page. If you can find a copy, it’s a great introduction to the history of the telescope. 

The ‘if you can find a copy’, illustrates a major problem with this bibliography. Because they only have a limited appeal and target readership, many of the books I am describing are out of print and you have to hunt around to find second-hand copies. Several of mine were bought second-hand.

Galileo, of course, gets a whole telescope bibliography to himself. I’ll start with Eileen Reeves’ excellent Galileo’s Glassworks (Harvard University Press, 2008).

There was a significant gap between Galileo first hearing about the new invention from the Netherlands and the manufacture of his own first telescope. In her book Reeves argues convincingly that Galileo at first thought that the new instrument was somehow based on mirrors and spent substantial time and effort trying to work out how. Reeves backs this up with a detailed account of the history of (magical) mirrors that allowed their owners to see great distances.

The book also contains much information on the critical period before and during the early period of telescope manufacture. A fascinating, thoroughly researched, and beautifully book.

Galileo’s TelescopesA European Story (Harvard University Press, 2015) by Massimo Bucciantini, Michele Camerota, and Franco Giudice and translated by Catherine Bolton describes in great detail the spread of the influence of Galileo’s publications on his telescopic discoveries and the distribution of the instruments that he manufactured throughout Europe and the influence that he exercised thereby.

An important contribution to the literature on the early telescope and its influence, well researched and excellently presented.

The same phenomenon, Galileo’s telescopes and their influence, is treated from a different angle by Mario Biagioli in his Galileo’s Instruments of CreditTelescopes, Images, Secrecy (University of Chicago Press, 2007).

This can be read alone but is much better read as a sequel, which it was, to Biagioli’s Galileo CourtierThe Practice of Science in The Culture of Absolutism (University of Chicago Press, 1993). 

In the earlier book Biagioli basically presents Galileo as a social climber, who uses his scientific career to win status within the political climate of Northern and Middle Italy at the beginning of the seventeenth century. Hustling for status and favour, Biagioli argues, I think correctly, that Galileo’s downfall was largely a product of the mechanisms of absolutist politics. Having raised Galileo up as a favourite at his papal court, Maffeo Barberini, Pope Urban VIII, then cast him down as a demonstration of his absolute power during a period of political crisis. This treatment of court favourites was quite common in absolutist regimes throughout Europe.

In his second volume, Biagioli shows how Galileo, having become the telescope man throughout Europe, through the publication of his Sidereus Nuncius in 1610, manufactured telescopes together with his instrument maker, who usually gets left out of the story, and distributed them as favours throughout Europe.

However, he did not give them to other mathematicians and astronomers, who could have used them to confirm Galileo’s discoveries or made new ones of their own, but to powerful figures within the Catholic Church and political potentates, in order to raise his own social status. In his defence it should be pointed out Galileo was not alone in doing this. It was common practice for Renaissance mathematici to design and manufacture high class scientific instruments as gifts for potential aristocratic patrons.

Both of Biagioli’s books are excellent and highly recommended for anybody interested in Galileo, his telescopes, his telescopic discoveries, and his use of them within a socio-politic context rather than a scientific one.

Having looked briefly at the social, political, and cultural contexts of the telescope and Galileo’s use of the instrument and his discoveries, it should be obvious that the advent of the telescope and its impact was not just scientific. Two further books by Eileen Reeves investigate the impact of the new culture of visual awareness in two non-scientific areas.

Her Painting the HeavensArt and Science in the Age of Galileo (Princeton University Press, 1997) explores the impact that the new telescopic astronomical discoveries had on the work of a group of leading contemporary artists.

Her Evening NewsOptics, Astronomy, and Journalism in Early Modern Europe(University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014).

The weekly newssheets began to emerge in Early Modern Europe almost simultaneously with the invention of the telescope and the publication of Galileo’s Sidereus Nuncius. To quote the publishers blurb:

Early modern news writers and consumers often understood journalistic texts in terms of recent developments in optics and astronomy, Reeves demonstrates, even as many of the first discussions of telescopic phenomena such as planetary satellites, lunar craters, sunspots, and comets were conditioned by accounts of current events. She charts how the deployment of particular technologies of vision—the telescope and the camera obscura—were adapted to comply with evolving notions of objectivity, censorship, and civic awareness. Detailing the differences between various types of printed and manuscript news and the importance of regional, national, and religious distinctions, Evening News emphasizes the ways in which information moved between high and low genres and across geographical and confessional boundaries in the first decades of the seventeenth century.

Changing direction, the man who is credited with being the first to publicly present a working telescope Hans Lipperhey (c. 1570–1619) in Middelburg in 1608, was a professional spectacle maker. This is in no way surprising as spectacle makers were the artisans, who worked with lenses. This means if one wants to understand the invention of the telescope, one must also take a look at the history of spectacles. Above all one needs to answer the questions, how did spectacle come to be invented and given that spectacles first emerged in the late thirteenth century, why did it take more than two hundred years before somebody invented the telescope? 

There are two books that answer these questions in great detail of which the first is Rolf Willach’s magisterial Long Route to the Invention of the TelescopeA Life of Influence and Exile (American Philosophical Society, 2008), like van Helden’s The Invention of the Telescope, published in English both as a journal article in the society’s transactions and as a separate monograph.

It also appears in English in the volume The origins of the telescope described above. His essay was originally published in German in Der Meister und die FernrohreDas Wechselspiel zwischen Astronomie und Optik in der GeschichteFestschrift zum 85. Geburtstag von Rolf Riekher[1] herausgeben von Jürgen Hamel und Inge Keil, Acta Historica Astronomia Vol. 33, Verlag Harri Deutsch, 2007. 

For those of my readers who can read German this volume contains a large collection of excellent papers on the history of the telescope. A couple of them are even in English.

The number of different publications of Willach’s essay signify its ground-breaking status in the histories of spectacles and telescopes. Based on his very extensive empirical investigations he hypothesises that the invention of spectacles was made by monks working in medieval cloisters, cutting and polishing gemstones to decorate reliquaries, the containers for holy relics. At the other end of the two hundred years, he showed that the clue to constructing a successful telescope lay in stopping down the eyepiece lens with a mask. This is because early lenses were inaccurately ground, and the outer edges of the lens distorted the image. By masking off the outer edges, the image became comparatively sharp and usable. 

Equally impressive is Vincent Ilardi’s Renaissance Vision from Spectacles to Telescopes (Memoires of the American Philosophical Society, Band 259, 2007).

This is the definitive account of the Early Modern history of spectacles. Ilardi was a diplomatic historian, who studied a vast convolute of trade documents and correspondence in order to reconstruct the history of spectacles in the first two centuries of their existence. I have read this book twice but do not own a copy as it is prohibitively expensive, thank God for libraries. Iladi should have held a lecture in Middelburg in September 2008 but he was already dying of prostate cancer, which deprived the world of his excellence in January 2009. 

The histories of spectacles and telescopes are, of course, just integral parts of the much wider history of optics. Optics was originally the theory of vision, how do we see? How do our eyes perceive the world around us bringing information of everything within our field of vision into our brain for processing. 

The absolute classic, which outlines the various theories developed from the ancient Greeks down to Johannes Kepler at the beginning of the seventeenth century and the advent of the telescope is David C. Lindberg’s Theories of Vision from Al-Kindi to Kepler (University of Chicago Press, 1976).

Popular wisdom claims that the ancient Greeks believed that we see with a fire that the eyes emit to touch and illuminate the objects seen. This is in simplistic form the extramission theory of vision of Plato. Lindberg explains that this was only one of several extramission and intromission (rays entering the eyes) theories of vision held by different individuals and schools of philosophy in ancient Greece. He also presents the geometric opticians–Euclid, Ptolemaeus, Heron–who propagated a mathematical extramission theory. 

Moving on he shows how these theories were assimilated by Islamic scholars and how al-Kindi supported a Euclidian extramission theory but also developed his punctiform theory of reflection, which states that light is reflected from every point on an object in every direction. Enter al-Haytham, who produced a synthesis of an intromission theory, geometrical optics, and al-Kindi’s punctiform theory of reflection, which when translated into Latin in the thirteenth century became the so-called perspectivist theory, which led the field in Europe right down to Kepler. Lindberg sees Kepler as the last of the perspectivists. The book is a historical tour de force. If you are really interested, Lindberg has a long list of excellent academic papers investigating individual topics in medieval optics.

Even an absolute classic can be surpassed, and this has happened to Lindberg’s masterpiece. A. Mark Smith was a doctoral student of Lindberg’s and followed in his master’s footsteps becoming a brilliant historian of optics. His synthesis is From Sight to Light (University of Chicago Press, 2015).

His narrative follows that of Lindberg, but in greater detail and including many figure that Lindberg did not feature. The biggest difference come at the end, unlike Lindberg, he does not consider Kepler the last of the perspectivists but rather the first of a new direction in the optics. He argues his case very convincingly and I think he in probably correct.

If I were to recommend just one of the two, then it would have to be Smith and that despite the fact that the Lindberg was one of those turning point books in my own development. Of course, I think you should read both of them! Smith, like his mentor, has a very long list of papers and book on optics, all of which are recommended reading.

Both Lindberg and Smith stop at the beginning of the seventeenth century, although Smith has a short capital at the end sketching the further developments during the century. If you want to follow the story further then I recommend Oliver Darrigol’s A History of OpticsFrom Greek Antiquity to the Nineteenth Century (OUP, 2012).

Darrigol deals with the passage from the Greeks to Kepler in the first thirty-six pages of his books and devotes the rest to developing the story from there down to the end of the nineteenth century with Stoke, Poincare et al. 

As I noted above when talking about Galileo and his telescopic discoveries, the new possibilities revealed by the new instruments and the new theories of optics went well beyond the boundaries of science touching on other areas such as culture, politics and society. They literally changed people’s perceptions of the world in which they lived. I will briefly mention three books which deal with this, a by no means exhaustive list. 

The first one that I read was Svetlana Alpers’ The Art of DescribingDutch Art in the Seventeenth Century(University of Chicago Press, 1984).

As we have already seen with Eileen Revees’ Painting the HeavensArt and Science in the Age ofGalileo art visually reflected the new developments in optics. To quote a review of Alpers’ book: 

“The art historian after Erwin Panofsky and Ernst Gombrich is not only participating in an activity of great intellectual excitement; he is raising and exploring issues which lie very much at the centre of psychology, of the sciences and of history itself. Svetlana Alpers’s study of 17th-century Dutch painting is a splendid example of this excitement and of the centrality of art history among current disciples. Professor Alpers puts forward a vividly argued thesis. There is, she says, a truly fundamental dichotomy between the art of the Italian Renaissance and that of the Dutch masters. . . . Italian art is the primary expression of a ‘textual culture,’ this is to say of a culture which seeks emblematic, allegorical or philosophical meanings in a serious painting. Alberti, Vasari and the many other theoreticians of the Italian Renaissance teach us to ‘read’ a painting, and to read it in depth so as to elicit and construe its several levels of signification. The world of Dutch art, by the contrast, arises from and enacts a truly ‘visual culture.’ It serves and energises a system of values in which meaning is not ‘read’ but ‘seen,’ in which new knowledge is visually recorded.”—George Steiner, Sunday Times

My second book is Stuart Clark’s Vanities of the EyeVision in Early Modern European Culture (OUP, 2007).

Once again to quote the back cover blurb:

Vanities of the Eye investigates the cultural history of the senses in early modern Europe, a time in which the nature and reliability of human vision was the focus of much debate. In medicine, art theory, science, religion, and philosophy, sight came to be characterized as uncertain or paradoxical-mental images no longer resembled the external world. Was seeing really believing? Stuart Clark explores the controversial debates of the time-from the fantasies and hallucinations of melancholia, to the illusions of magic, art, demonic deceptions, and witchcraft. The truth and function of religious images and the authenticity of miracles and visions were also questioned with new vigor, affecting such contemporary works as Macbeth- a play deeply concerned with the dangers of visual illusion. Clark also contends that there was a close connection between these debates and the ways in which philosophers such as Descartes and Hobbes developed new theories on the relationship between the real and virtual. Original, highly accessible, and a major contribution to our understanding of European culture, Vanities of the Eye will be of great interest to a wide range of historians and anyone interested in the true nature of seeing.

The Last of my three is Laura J Snyder’s Eye of the BeholderJohannes Vermeer, Antoni van Leeuwenhoek, and the Reinvention of Seeing (W. W. Norton, 2015):

Once again resorting to publisher’s blurb:

By the early 17th century the Scientific Revolution was well under way. Philosophers and scientists were throwing off the yoke of ancient authority to peer at nature and the cosmos through microscopes and telescopes. 

In October 1632, in the small town of Delft in the Dutch Republic, two geniuses were born who would bring about a seismic shift in the idea of what it meant to see the world. One was Johannes Vermeer, whose experiments with lenses and a camera obscura taught him how we see under different conditions of light and helped him create the most luminous works of art ever beheld. The other was Antoni van Leeuwenhoek, whose work with microscopes revealed a previously unimagined realm of minuscule creatures. 

By intertwining the biographies of these two men, Laura Snyder tells the story of a historical moment in both art and science that revolutionized how we see the world today.

I’m going to close this overlong literature review with two books that I don’t think you’ll be able to get hold of, but you might get lucky. Peter Louwman is a rich Dutchman, who has a very impressive automobile museum in De Haag. The museum also houses a massive historical collection of telescopes and binoculars.

For the 400th anniversary conference in Middelburg Louwman produced a wonderful annotated edition of the French newsletter reporting on the visit of the Ambassador of Siam to Den Haag in September 1608, which contains a description of Lipperhey’s demonstration of his telescope to the assembled delegates of the peace conference taking place there.

This special edition contains an explanatory introduction, a facsimile of the newsletter,

a French transcription, and an English as well as a Dutch translation.

First every report of a public demonstration of a telescope pp. 9-11

Every participant in the conference received a copy and I think it’s the best goody that I’ve every received at a conference. I think for a time it was on sale in the museum shop but that no longer appears to be the case.

Another Louwman publication is a wonderful catalogue of the Louwman Collection of Historic Telescopes, A Certain Instrument for Seeing Far by P.J.K. Louwman and H. J. Zuidervaart (2013), which definitely used to be sold by the museum, because I bought one, but no longer seems to be available.

One of hundreds of beautiful illustration in the book

I’m not trying to impress my readers with all the books that I’ve read on the history of optics and the telescopic but trying to make clear that if you truly want to understand that history, the road that led up to the invention of the telescope, its impact as a scientific instrument, and its impact outside of the direct field of science then you have to extend your scope and dig deep. 


[1] Rolf Riekher was a leading German optician and historian of optics, who bought me a cup of tea and a piece of cake on a sunny afternoon in Middelburg in 2008.

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Filed under History of Astronomy, History of Optics, History of Technology

Renaissance science – XXXX

As we have seen in previous episodes, Ulisse Aldrovandi (1522–1605) was one of the leading natural historians of the sixteenth century. The first ever professor for natural history at the University of Bologna.

Ulisse Aldrovandi (1522 – 1605). attributed to Ludovico Carracci. Source: Wikimedia Commons

He created the university’s botanical garden, one of the oldest still in existence. Collected about 4760 specimens in his herbarium on 4117 sheets in sixteen volumes, which are still preserved in the university and wrote extensively on almost all aspects of natural history, although much of his writing remained unpublished at his death. However, despite all these other achievements in the discipline of natural history, visitors to Bologna during his lifetime came to see his teatro di natura (theatre of nature), also known as his natural historical collection or museum.  This was housed in the palatial country villa that he built with the money he received from the dowry of Francesca Fontana, his wife, when he married her. His theatre contained some 18,000 specimens of the diversità di cose naturali (diverse objects of nature). These included flora and fauna, as well as mineral and geological specimens. He wrote a description or catalogue of his collection in 1595. 

In 1603, after negotiation with the Senate, Aldrovandi arranged for his teatro di natura to be donated to the city of Bologna after his death in exchange for the promise that they would continue to edit and publish his vast convolute of unpublished papers. This duly took place, and his collection became a public museum in the Palazzo Poggi, the headquarters of the university, opening in 1617, as the first public science museum.

Palazzo Poggi Bologna c.1750 Source: Wikimedia Commons

As with all of his natural history undertakings, Aldrovandi’s natural history museum was not the first, there being already ones in the botanical gardens of the universities of Pisa, Padua, and Florence but none of them approached the scope of Aldrovand’s magnificent collection. Also, later, the University of Montpelier had its own natural history collection. However, it wasn’t just institutions that created these early natural history museums. Individual apothecaries and physicians also set about collecting flora and fauna. 

The apothecary Francesco Calzolari (1522–1609) had an impressive Theatrum Naturae in Verona with 450 species on display. 

Source: Wikimedia Commons
Francesco Calzolari’s Cabinet of curiosities. From “Musaeum Calceolarium” (Verona, 1622) Source: Wikimedia Commons

Likewise, the papal physician, Michele Mercati (1541–1593), who was superintendent of the Vatican Botanical Garden, had a notable collection concentrating on minerology, geology, and palaeontology in Rome 

Source: Wikimedia Commons
Engraving made by Antonio Eisenhot between 1572 and 1581, but published in 1717, representing the Vatican mineral collection as organized by Michele Mercati Source: Wikimedia Commons

The Neapolitan apothecary Ferrante Imperato (1523–1620?)  published Dell’Historia Naturale in Naples in 1599, which was based on his own extensive natural history collection and containing the first printed illustration of such a collection. 

Portrait of Ferrante Imperato by Tanzio da Varallo  Source: Wikimedia Commons
Title page of Dell’ historia naturale, Napoli, 1599, by Ferrante Imperato (1550-1625). Source: Houghton Library, Harvard University via Wikimedia Commons
Engraving from Dell’ historia naturale, Napoli, 1599, by Ferrante Imperato (1550-1625). Source: Houghton Library, Harvard University via Wikimedia Commons

In the sixteenth century it became very fashionable for rulers to create cabinets of curiosities also know by the German terms as Kunstkammer or Wunderkammer. These were not new and had existed in the two previous centuries but in the Renaissance took on a whole new dimension. These contained not only natural history objects but also sculptures and paintings, as well curious items from home and abroad, with those from abroad taking on a special emphasis as Europe began to make contact with the rest of the world. 

The curiosity cabinet is a vast topic, and I don’t intend to attempt to cover it in this blog post, also it is only tangentially relevant to the central topic of this blog post series. I will, however, sketch some aspect that are relevant. Although they covered much material that wasn’t scientific, they were fairly obviously inspired by various aspects of the increasingly empirical view of the world that scholars had been developing throughout the Renaissance. We don’t just go out and actually observe the world for ourselves, we also bring the world into our dwellings so that all can observe it there. They represent a world view created by the merging of history, art, nature, and science. Although principally the province of the rich and powerful, for whom they became a status symbol, some notable Wunderkammer were created by scholars and scholars from the various scientific disciplines were often employed to search out, collect, and then curate the object preserved in the cabinets. 

Some of these cabinets created by the Renaissance rulers also had sections for scientific instruments and their owner commissioned instruments from the leading instrument makers of the era. These are not the average instruments created for everyday use but top of the range instruments designed to demonstrate the instrument makers skill and not just instruments but also works of art. As such they were never really intended to be used and many survive in pristine condition down to the present day. One such collection is that which was initially created by Elector August of Saxony (1526–1586), can be viewed in the Mathematish-Physikalischer Salon in the Zwinger in Dresden. 

Portrait of the Elector August of Saxony by Lucas Cranach Source: Wikimedia Commons
Planetenlaufuhr, 1563-1568 Eberhard Baldewein et al., Mathematisch-Physikalischer Salon

Equally impressive is the collection initially created by Wilhelm IV, Landgrave of Hessen-Kassel, (1532-1592), who ran a major observational astronomy programme, which can be viewed today in the Astronomisch-Physikalische Kabinett

Portrait of Wilhelm IV. von Hessen-Kassel by Kaspar van der Borcht († 1610) Source: Wikimedia Commons
Equation clock, made for Landgrave William IV of Hesse-Kassel by Jost Burgi and Hans Jacob Emck, Germany, Kassel, 1591, gilt brass, silver, iron Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City via Wikimedia Commons

Not surprisingly Cosimo I de’ Medici Grand Duke of Tuscany (1519–1574)

Agnolo Bronzino, Porträt von Cosimo I de’ Medici in Rüstung, 1545, Source: Uffizien via Wikimedia Commons

had his cabinet of curiosities, the Guardoroba Nuova, in the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, designed by the artist and historian of Renaissance art Giorgi Vasari (1511–1574), who, as I have documented in an earlier post, in turn commissioned the artist, mathematician, astronomer and cartographer, Egnatio Danti (1536–1586), to decorate the doors of the carved walnut cabinets, containing the collected treasures, with mural maps depicting the whole world. Danti also designed the rooms centre piece, a large terrestrial globe. 

Source: Fiorani The Marvel of Maps p. 57

The alternative name Wunderkammer became common parlance because various German emperors and other rulers somewhat dominated the field of curiosity cabinet construction. Probably the largest and most spectacular Wunderkammer was that of the Holy Roman Emperor, Rudolf II (1552–1612).

Rudolf II portrait by  Joseph Heintz the Elder 1594 Source: Wikimedia Commons

He was an avid art collector and patron, but he also collected mechanical automata, ceremonial swords, musical instruments, clocks, water works, compasses, telescopes, and other scientific instruments. His Kunstkammer incorporated the three kingdoms of nature and the works of man. Unusually, Rudolf’s cabinet was systematically arranged in encyclopaedic fashion, and he employed his court physician Anselmus de Boodt (1550–1632), a Flemish humanist, minerologist, physician, and naturalist to catalogue it. De Boodt had succeeded Carolus Clusius (1526–1609) as superintendent of Rudolf’s botanical garden.

Rudolf II Kunstkammer

Although it was a private institution, Rudolph allowed selected professional scholars to study his Wunderkammer. In fact, as well as inanimate objects Rudolf also studiously collected some of Europe’s leading scholars. The astronomers Nicolaua Reimers Baer (1551–1600), Tycho Brahe (1546–1601), and Johannes Kepler (1571–1630) all served as imperial mathematicus. The instrument maker, Jost Bürgi came from Kassel to Prague. As already mentioned, Carolus Clusius (1526–1609) and Anselmus de Boodt (1550–1632) both served as superintendent of the imperial botanical gardens. The later also served as personal physician to Rudolf, as did the Czech naturalist, astronomer, and physician Thaddaeus Hagecius ab Hayek (1525–1600). The notorious occultist Edward Kelly (1555-1597) worked for a time in Rudolf’s alchemy laboratory.

When Rudolf died his Wunderkammer was mostly transferred to Vienna by his brother and successor as Holy Roman Emperor, Matthias, where it was gradually dissipated over the years. Although, his was by far the most spectacular Rudolf’s was only one of many cabinets of curiosity created during the Renaissance by the rich and powerful as a status symbol. However, there were also private people who also created them; the most well-known being the Danish, naturalist, antiquary, and physician Ole Worm (1588­–1654).

Ole Worm and Dorothea Worm, née Fincke artist unknown Source: Wikimedia Commons

Son of Willum Worm a mayor of Aarhus, he inherited substantial wealth from his father. After attending grammar school, he studied theology Marburg and graduated Doctor of Medicine at the University of Basel in 1611. He also graduated MA at the University of Copenhagen in 1618. He spent the rest of his life in Copenhagen, where he taught Latin Greek, physics, and medicine, whilst serving as personal physician to the Danish King, Christian IV (1577–1648). He died of the bubonic plague after staying in the city to treat the sick during an epidemic.

As a physician he contributed to the study of embryology. Other than medicine he took a great interest in Scandinavian ethnography and archaeology. As a naturalist he determined that the unicorn was a mythical beast and that the unicorn horns in circulation were actually narwhal tusks. He produced the first detail drawing of a bird-of-paradise, proving that they, contrary to popular belief, did in fact have feet. He also drew from life the only known illustration of the now extinct great auk.

OLe Worm’s Great Auk Source: Wikimedia Commons

Worm is best known today for his extensive cabinet of curiosity the Museum Wormianum a great collection of curiosities ranging from native artifacts from the New World, to stuffed animals and fossils in which he specialised.

1655 – Frontispiece of Museum Wormiani Historia Source: Wikimedia Commons

As with other cabinets, Worm’s collection consisted of minerals, plants, animals, and man-made objects. Worm complied a catalogue of his collection with engravings and detailed descriptions, which was published posthumously in four books, as Museum Wormianum. The first three books deal respectively with minerals, plants, and animals. The fourth is archaeological and ethnographical items. 

Title page 
Museum Wormianum. Seu historia rerum rariorum, tam naturalium, quam artificialium, tam domesticarum, quam exoticarum, quæ Hafniæ Danorum in œdibus authoris servantur. Adornata ab Olao Worm … Variis & accuratis iconibus illustrata. Source

A private cabinet of curiosity that then became an institutional one was that of the Jesuit polymath, Athanasius Kircher (1602-1680). Kircher referred to variously as the Master of a Hundred Arts and The Last man Who Knew Everything belonged very much to the Renaissance rather than the scientific revolution during which he lived and was active.

Athanasius Kircher engraving by Cornelis Bloemaert Source: Wikimedia Commons

He was author of about forty major works that covered a bewildering range of topics, which ranged from the genuinely scientific to the truly bizarre. Immensely popular and widely read in his own time, he quickly faded into obscurity following his death. Born in Fulda in Germany, one of nine children, he attended a Jesuit college from 1614 till 1618 when he entered the Jesuit Order. Following a very mixed education and career he eventually landed in the Collegio Romano in 1634, where he became professor for mathematics. Here he fulfilled an important function in that he collected astronomical data from Jesuit missionaries throughout the world, which he collated and redistributed to astronomers throughout Europe on both sides of the religious divide. 

Given he encyclopaedic interests it was perfectly natural for Kircher to begin to assemble his own private cabinet of curiosities. In 1651, the Roman Senator Alfonso Donnini (d.1651) donated his own substantial cabinet of curiosities to the Collegio, and the authorities decided that it was best placed in the care of Father Kircher. Combining it with his own collection, Kircher established, what became known as the Musæum Kircherianum, which he continued to expand throughout his lifetime.

Musæum Kircherianum, 1679 Source: Wikimedia Commons

The museum became very popular and attracted many visitors. Giorgio de Sepibus published a first catalogue in 1678, the only surviving evidence of the original layout. Following Kircher’s death the museum fell into neglect but was revived, following the appointment of Filippo Bonanni (1638–1725), Kercher’s successor as professor of mathematics, as curator in 1698. Bonnani published a new catalogue of the museum in 1709. The museum prospered till 1773 till the suppression of the Jesuit Order led to its gradual dissipation, reestablishment in 1824, and final dispersion in 1913.

Filippo Bonanni, Musaeum Kircherianum, 1709 Source: Wikimedia Commons

As we have seen cabinets of curiosities often evolved into public museums and I will close with brief sketches of two that became famous museums in England in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. 

John Tradescant the Elder (c. 1570–1638) was an English, naturalist, gardener, and collector. He was gardener for a succession of leading English aristocrats culminating in service to George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham. In his duties he travelled widely, particularly with and for Buckingham, visiting the Netherlands, Artic Russia, the Levant, Algiers, and France. Following Buckingham’s assassination in 1628, he was appointed Keeper of the King’s Gardens, Vines and Silkworms at Oatlands Palace in Surrey.

John Tradescant the Elder (portrait attributed to Cornelis de Neve) Source: Wikimedia Commons

On his journeys he collected seeds, plants, bulbs, as well as natural historical and ethnological curiosities. He housed this collection, his cabinet of curiosities, in a large house in Lambeth, The Ark.

Tradescant’s house in Lambeth: The Ark Source: Wikimedia Commons

This was opened to the public as a museum. The collection also included specimens from North America acquired from colonists, including his personal friend John Smith (1580–1631), soldier, explorer, colonial governor, and Admiral of New England.

His son, John Tradescant the Younger (1608–1662) followed his father in becoming a naturalist and a gardener.

John Tradescant the Younger, attributed to Thomas de Critz Source: Wikmedia Commons

Like his father he travelled widely including two trips to Virginia between 1628 and 1637. He added both botanical and other objects extensively to the family collection in The Ark. When his father died, he inherited his position as head gardener to Charles I and Henrietta Maria of France working in the gardens of Queens House in Greenwich. Following the flight of Henrietta Maria in the Civil War, he compiled a catalogue of the family cabinet of curiosities, as Museum Tradescantianum, dedicated to the Royal College of Physicians with whom he was negotiating to transfer the family botanical garden. A second edition of the catalogue was dedicated to Charles II after the restoration.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Around 1650, John Tradescant the Younger became acquainted with the antiquarian, politician, astrologer and alchemist, Elias Ashmole (1617–1692), who might be described as a social climber.

Elias Ashmole by John Riley, c. 1683

Born into a prominent but impoverished family, he managed to qualify as a solicitor with the help of a prominent maternal relative. He married but his wife died in pregnancy, just three years later in 1641. In 1646-47, he began searching for a rich widow to marry. In 1649, he married Mary, Lady Mainwaring, a wealthy thrice widowed woman twenty years older than him. The marriage was not a success and Lady Manwaring filed suit for separation and alimony, but the suit was dismissed by the courts in 1657 and having inherited her first husband’s estate, Ashmole was set up for life to pursue his interests in alchemy and astrology, without having to work. 

Ashmole helped Tradescant to catalogue the family collection and financed the publication of the catalogue in 1652 and again in 1656. Ashmole persuaded John Tradescant to deed the collection to him, going over into his possessing upon Tradescant’s death in 1662. Tradescant’s widow, Hester, challenged the deed but the court ruled in Ashmole’s favour. Hester held the collection in trust for Ashmole until her death.

In 1677, Ashmole made a gift of the Tradescant collection together with his own collection to the University of Oxford on the condition that they build a building to house them and make them available to the general public. So, the Ashmolean Museum, the world’s second university museum and Britain’s first public museum, came into existence on 24 May 1683.

The original Ashmolean Museum building on Board Street Oxford now the Museum of the History of Science, Oxford Source: Wikimedia Commons

My second British example is the cabinet of curiosities of Hans Sloane (1660–1753), physician, naturalist, and collector.

Slaughter, Stephen; Sir Hans Sloane, Bt; Source: National Portrait Gallery, London via Wikipedia Commons

Sloane was born into an Anglo-Irish family in Killyleagh a village in County Down, Ulster. Already as a child Sloane began collecting natural history items and curiosities, which led him to the study of medicine. In London, he studied botany, materia medica, surgery, and pharmacy. In 1687, he travelled to Jamaica as personal physician to the new Governor Christopher Monck, 2nd Duke of Albemarle. Albemarle died in the following year, so Sloane was only in Jamaica for eighteen months, however, in this time he collected more than a thousand plant specimens and recorded eight hundred new species of plants, starting a lifetime of collecting.

Sloane married the widow Elizabeth Langley Rose a wealthy owner of Jamaican sugar plantation worked by slaves, making Sloane independently wealthy. There followed a successful career as physician, Secretary of the Royal Society, editor of the Philosophical Transactions, President of the Royal College of Physicians, and finally President of the Royal Society. Throughout his life, Sloane continued to collect. He used his wealth to acquire the natural history collections of Barbadian merchant William Courten (1572–1636), papal nuncio Cardinal Filippo Antonio Gualterio (1660–1728), apothecary James Petiver (c.1665–1718), plant anatomist Nehemiah Grew, botanist Leonard Plukenet (1641–1706), gardener and botanist the Duchess of Beaufort (1630–1715), botanist Adam Buddle (1662–1715), physician and botanist Paul Hermann (1646–1695), botanist and apothecary Franz Kiggelaer  (1648–1722), and botanist, chemist, and physician Herman Boerhaave (1668–1738).

 When he died Sloane’s collection of over seventy-one thousand items– books manuscripts, drawings, coins and medals, plant specimens and more–was sold to the nation for £20,000, well below its true value. It formed to founding stock of the British Museum and British Library, which opened in 1759.

Montagu House, c. 1715 the original home of the British museum

The natural history collection was split off to found the Natural History Museum, which opened in South Kensington in 1881.

The Natural History Museum. This is a panorama of approximately 5 segments. Taken with a Canon 5D and 17-40mm f/4L. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The Renaissance practice of creating cabinets of curiosities played a significant role in the creation of modern museums in Europe. It also provided scientists with collections of materials on which to conduct their research, an important element in the development of empirical science in the Early Modern Period. 

 

 

 

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Christmas Trilogy 2021 Part 2: He was the author of rambling volumes on every subject under the sun?

The acolytes of Ada Lovelace are big fans of Sydney Padua’s comic book, The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage (Penguin, 2015). One can not deny Padua’s talent as a graphic artist, but her largely warped (she claims mostly true) account of their relationship is based on heavy quote mining and even distortion of quotes to make Lovelace look good and Babbage less than good. Just to give one example, there are many, many more, of her distortion of known facts she writes: 

I believe Lovelace used music as an example not only because she was steeped in music theory, but because she enjoyed yanking Babbage’s chain, and he famously hated music (my emphasis)

There is no evidence whatsoever that Babbage hated music, in fact rather the opposite. What Padua is playing on is Babbage’s infamous war with the street musicians of London and was about noise pollution and not about music per se. In fact, anybody, who has listened to a half-cut busker launching into their out of tune rendition of Wonderwall for the third time in an hour, would have a lot of sympathy with Babbage’s attitude.

I’m not going to analyse all the errors and deliberate distortions in Padua’s work, but I will examine in some detail one of her bizarre statements:

It’s not clear why Babbage himself never published anything other than vague summaries about his own machine. He published volumes of ramblings on every subject under the sun (my emphasis) except that of his life’s work (my emphasis)

Calling the Analytical Engine “his life’s work” shows an ignorance of the man and his activities. This is a product of a sort of presentism that has reduced Charles Babbage in the popular imagination to “the inventor of the first computer” and blended out the rest of his rich and complicated life. A life full of scientific, mathematical, and socio-political activities. The Analytical Engine was a major project in Babbage’s life, but it was far from being his life’s work.

The Illustrated London News (4 November 1871) Source: Wikimedia Commons

Babbage actually only published a total of eight books over a period of forty years, none of which is in anyway rambling. If we look at the list a little more closely, then it actually reduces to three.

  1. (1825) Account of the repetition of M. Arago’s experiments on the magnetism manifested by various substances during the act of rotation, London, William Nicol
  2. Babbage, Charles (1826). A Comparative View of the Various Institutions for the Assurance of Lives. London: J. Mawman.
  3. Babbage, Charles (1830). Reflections on the Decline of Science in England, and on Some of Its Causes. London: B. Fellowes.
  4. Babbage, Charles (1832).On the Economy of Machinery and Manufactures London: Charles Knight.
  5. Babbage, Charles (1837).The Ninth Bridgewater Treatise, a Fragment. London: John Murray.
  6. Babbage, Charles (1841).Table of the Logarithms of the Natural Numbers from 1 to 108000. London: William Clowes and Sons.
  7. Babbage, Charles (1851).The Exposition of 1851. London: John Murray
  8. Babbage, Charles (1864).Passages from the Life of a Philosopher, London, Longman

No: 1 on our list is a thirty-page scientific paper co-authored with John Herschel and like No: 6, a book of log tables, need not bother us here. No: 2 is a sort of consumers guide to life insurance and is not really relevant here. Statistical tables of life expectancy and insurance schemes based on them had become a thing for mathematicians since the early eighteenth century, Edmund Halley had dabbled, for example. The leading English mathematician John Joseph Sylvester (1814–1897) worked for a number of years as an insurance mathematician. No:5 The Ninth Bridgewater Thesis gives Babbage’s views on Natural Theology, which he developed in a separate paper on his rational explanation for miracles based on programming of his Difference Engine, which I have dealt with here. No. 8 is of course his autobiography, a very interesting read. All of Babbage’s literary output has a strong campaigning element.

This leaves just three volumes that we have to consider in terms of the Padua quote, Reflections on the Decline of Science in England, and on Some of Its Causes, On the Economy of Machinery and Manufactures, and The Exposition of 1851

Reflections on the Decline of Science in England, and on Some of Its Causes is as it’s title would suggest a socio-political polemic largely directed as the Royal Society. Babbage thought correctly that there had been a decline in mathematics and physics in the UK over the eighteenth century, which was continued into the nineteenth. He began his attacks on the scientific establishment during his time as a student at Cambridge, when together with John Herschel and George Peacock he founded the Analytical Society, which campaigned to replace the teaching of Newton’s dated mathematics and physics with the much more advanced material from the continent. His Reflections on the Decline of Science upped the ante, as the now established Lucasian Professor for mathematics he launched a full broadside against the scientific established and in particular the Royal Society. 

Babbage was not alone in his wish for reform and he and his supporters were labelled the Declinarians. The Declarians failed in their attempt to introduce reform into the Royal Society, but the result of their campaign was the creation of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, which was founded in 1831 by William Harcourt, David Brewster, William Whewell, James Johnston, and Babbage. Babbage’s book was regarded as the spearhead of the campaign. The BAAS was a new public mouthpiece for the scientific establishment that was more open, outward going, and liberal than the moribund Royal Society.

Babbage’s On the Economy of Machinery and Manufactures from 1832, might be considered Babbage’s most important publication. Following the death of his first wife in 1827, Babbage went on a several-year tour of the continent visiting all the factories and institutions, which used and/or dependent on automation of some sort, studying and investigating. On his return from the continent, he did the same in the UK, once again examining all of the industrial applications of automation that he could find. This research took up more than ten years and Babbage became, probably, the greatest living authority on the entire subject of automation. This knowledge led him in two different directions. On the one hand it lay behind his decision the abandon his Difference Engine, a special-purpose computer, and instead invest his energy in his planned Analytical Engine, a general-purpose computer. On the other hand, it led to him writing his On the Economy of Machinery and Manufactures

When it appeared On the Economy of Machinery and Manufactures was a unique publication, nothing quite like it had ever been published before. The book deals with the economic, social, political, and practical aspects of automation, and has been called on influential early work on operational research. It grew out of an earlier essay in the Encyclopædia Metropolitana An essay on the general principles which regulate the application of machinery to manufactures and the mechanical arts (1827). The book was a major success with a fourth edition appearing in 1836. From the second edition onwards, it included an extra section on political economy, a subject not included in the first edition.

The book also contains a description of what is now known a Babbage’s Principle, which emphasises the commercial advantage of more careful division of labour. An idea already anticipated in the work of the Italian economist Melchiorre Gioja (1767–1829). The Babbage’s Principle means dividing up work processes amongst several workers according to the varying skills. Such a division of labour was behind the origin of his Difference Engine. In the eighteenth century the French government had broken-down the calculation of mathematical tables to simple steps with each computer, those doing the calculations, often women, just doing one of two steps before passing the calculation onto the next computer. The Difference Engine was designed to automate this process.

Babbage never the most diplomatic of intellectuals thoroughly annoyed the publishing industry by including a detailed analysis of book production in On the Economy of Machinery and Manufactures including revealing the publishing trade’s profitability.

Babbage’s book had a major influence on the development of economics in the nineteenth century and was quoted in the work of John Stuart Mill, Karl Marx, and John Ruskin. The book was translated into both French and German. It has been argued that the book influenced the layout of the Great Exhibition of 1851 and it to this we turn for Babbage’s last book, his The Exposition of 1851

View from the Knightsbridge Road of The Crystal Palace in Hyde Park for Grand International Exhibition of 1851. Dedicated to the Royal Commissioners., London: Read & Co. Engravers & Printers, 1851Source: Wikimedia Commons

The book is Babbage’s analysis of the Great Exhibition of 1851, brought into life by the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, and for which the original Crystal Palace was created. The Great Exhibition also led to the establishment of the V&A, the Natural History Museum, and the Science Museum to provide permanent homes for many of the exhibits. This was the first world fair and Babbage was personally involved. One of the working modules of his Difference Engine was on display and in the windows of his house, which lay on the route to the exhibition, he demonstrated his optical signally device for ships, inviting visitors to the Crystal Palace to post the signalled number in his letterbox. To a large extent The Exposition of 1851 is a coda to both Reflections on the Decline of Science and On the Economy of Machinery and Manufactures, which leads us an answer to the question of Babbage’s life’s work.

Padua thinks incorrectly that the Analytical Engine was his life’s work, a fallacy that is certainly shared by those, who only know Babbage as the inventor of the “first computer.” In reality, Babbage’s life’s work was the promotion and advancement of science and technology, his calculating engines representing only one aspect of a much wider vision. From his days as a student fighting for an improvement in the teaching of the mathematical sciences at Cambridge University, through his campaign to modernise the Royal Society, which led instead to the creation of the BAAS, he was also instrumental in founding the Astronomical Society. His research on automation leading to the highly influential On the Economy of Machinery and Manufactures and his direct and indirect involvement in the Great Exhibition. All of these served one end the promotion and advancement of science and its applications.  

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Renaissance Science – XX

The term the Republic of Letters is one that one can often encounter in the history of Early Modern or Modern Europe, but what does it mean and to whom does it apply? Republic comes from the Latin res publica and means res “affair, matter, thing” publica “public, people.” However, here it is the “people” or “men”, as they mostly were, of letters. So, our Republic of Letters is the affairs of the men of letters or literati, as they are today more often known. Most often the Republic of Letters is used, as for example on Wikipedia, to refer to the long-distance intellectual community in the late 17th and 18th centuries in Europe and the Americas. However, the earliest known appearance of the term in Latin, respublica literaria, appeared in a letter from the Italian politician, diplomat, and humanist Francesco Barbaro (1390–1454)

Chiesa di Santa Maria del Giglio Venezia – Francesco Barbaro Source: Wikimedia Commons

written to his fellow country man the scholar and humanist Poggio Bracciollini (1380–1459)

Riproduzione novecentesca del ritratto di Poggio Bracciolini, inciso da Antonio Luciani nel 1715. Source: Wikimedia Commons

in 1417, so the original Republic of Letters was the Renaissance literary humanist movement of Northern Italy. Here, we also have a second interpretation of the Letters part of the term, meaning literally the letters that the members of the community wrote to each other to communicate their ideas, to announce their discoveries and to comment on the ideas and discoveries of others. In fact, that first use of the term came about when Poggio was off searching through monastery libraries and sent news of one of his discoveries back to Florence. Barbaro replied to his news thanking him for the gift offered to the literaria res publica for the greater progress of humanity and culture.

Initially this community of communication by letter was restricted to the comparatively small group of the literary humanists of Northern Italy, but with time came to embrace an ever-widening community from China to the Americas and including, as we will see, the whole world of science. Such a community didn’t exist in the Middle Ages, so what changed in the Renaissance that made this happen or indeed possible? 

One simple, partial answer was the change of available writing material, when paper replaced parchment and velum. Parchment and velum were much too expensive to be used for large scale letter writing and correspondence. As I sit at my desk writing this post I’m surrounded by an abundance of paper, piles of books printed on paper, delivery notes, invoices and bank statements printed on paper, notebooks and note slips made of paper, a printer/scanner/copier filled with paper waiting to be printed and other bits and bobs made of paper. Paper is ubiquitous in our lives, and we seldom think about its history. 

If we ignore the fact that wasps were making paper millions of years before humans emerged on the Earth, then paper has only existed for about 0.1% (approximately two thousand years) of the approximately two million years that the genus Homo has been around. It has only been present in Europe for about half of that time. Invented in China sometime before the second century BCE,

Woodcuts depicting the five seminal steps in ancient Chinese papermaking. From the 1637 Tiangong Kaiwu of the Ming dynasty. Source: Wikimedia Commons

paper making was transmitted into the Islamic Empire sometime in the eighth century CE. It first appeared in Europe in Spain in the eleventh century CE. This is of course during the High Middle Ages but the knowledge and use of paper remained restricted to Spain, Italy, and Southern France until well into the fourteenth century, when paper making began to slowly spread into Northern France, The Netherlands, and Germany. The first English paper mill wasn’t built until 1588. 

Ulman Stromer’s Paper-mill. First permanent paper-mill north of the Alps 1390 (From Schedel’s Buch der Chroniken of 1493.)

New production technics and new raw materials for paper production vastly increased output and reduced costs, so that by the fifteenth century paper was much more widely available and by many factors cheaper than parchment and a growing letter writing culture could and did develop. However, before that culture could truly develop, another aspect that we take for granted had to be developed, a delivery system. 

Once again, as I sit in front of my computer, I can communicate almost instantly with people all over the world by email or at least a dozen different social media channels. I can also grab my mobile telephone and either telephone with it or send an SMS. Or I can phone them with my landline telephone and if I want to send something tangible, I can resort to the post service or anyone of a dozen international delivery companies. We live in a thoroughly network society. Most of this simply didn’t exist forty years ago but even then, the landline telephones and the postal services connected people worldwide if at much higher costs. Of course, none of this existed in the Middle Ages.

In the High Middle Ages only the rulers and the Church had courier services to deliver their missives, others were dependent on the infrequent long distant traders and travellers. This began to change in the late Middle Ages/Renaissance as long distant trade began to become more and more frequent and the large North Italian and Southern German finance house became established. Traders and financiers built up communications networks throughout Europe, which also functioned as commercial post services. Big trading centres such as Nürnberg, Venice, and the North German Hansa cities had their own major, highly efficient courier services.

Late in the fourteenth century the Dutchy of Milan set up a postal service and in the second half of the fifteenth century Louis XI set up a post service in France. In 1490 the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I gave the von Taxis family a licence to set up a postal service for the whole of the empire. This is claimed to be the start of the modern postal series.

Taxis postal routes 1563 Source: Wikimedia Commons

By fifteen hundred it was possible for scholars throughout Europe to communicate with each other by letter and they did so in increasing numbers, setting up their own informal networks of those interested in a given academic discipline: Natural historians communicated with natural historians, mathematici with mathematici, humanist with humanists and not least artists with artists.

Augsburg Postoffice 1600 Source: Wikimedia Commons

With the advent of the of the so-called age of discovery the whole thing took on a new dimension with missionaries and scholars exchanging information with their colleagues at home in Europe from the Americas, Africa, India, China, and other Asian lands. Here it was the big international trading companies such as the Dutch East India Company and English East India Company, who served as the courier service.

A modern replica of the VOC Duyfken a small ship built in the Dutch Republic. She was a fast, lightly armed ship probably intended for shallow water, small valuable cargoes, bringing messages, sending provisions, or privateering. Source: Wikimedia Commons

There is another important aspect to this rising exchange of letters between scholars and that is the open letter meant for sharing. This was an age when the academic journal still didn’t exist, so if a scholar wished to announce a new discovery, theory, speculation, or whatever he could only do so by word of mouth or by letter if what he wished to covey was not far enough developed or extensive enough for a book or even a booklet. A scholar would write his thoughts in a long letter to another scholar in his field. If the recipient thought that the contained news was interesting or important enough, he would copy it and send it on to another scholar in the field or even sometimes several others. 

Through this process ideas gradually spread through a chain of letters within an informal network, throughout Europe.  By the seventeenth century several significant figures became living post offices each at the centre of a network of correspondence in their respective field. I recently wrote about Marin Mersenne (1588–1648), the Minim friar, who served such a function and who left behind about six hundred such letters from seventy-nine different scientific correspondence in his cell when he died.

Marin Mersenne Source: Wikimedia Commons

His younger contemporary the Jesuit professor of mathematics at the Collegio Romano, Athanasius Kircher (1602–1680), sat at the centre of a world spanning network of some seven hundred and sixty correspondents, collecting information from Jesuit missionaries throughout the world and redirecting it to other, not just Jesuit, scholars throughout Europe.

Athanasius Kircher portrait by Cornelis Bloemaert Source: Wikimedia Commons

One of his European correspondents, for example, was Leibniz (1646–1716), who himself maintained a network of about four hundred correspondents. 

Leibniz portrait by Christoph Bernhard Francke Source: Wikimedia Commons

Two members of Mersenne network, who had extensive correspondence networks of their own were Ismaël Boulliau (1605–1694), of whose correspondence, about five thousand letters written by correspondents from all over Europe and the Near East still exist although many of his letters are known to have been lost

Ismaël Boulliau portrait by Pieter van Schuppen Source: Wikimedia Commons

and Nicolas-Claude Fabri de Peiresc (1580–1637), who certainly holds the record with ten thousand surviving letters covering a wide range of scientific, philosophical, and artistic topics.

Nicolas-Claude Fabri de Peiresc portrait by Louis Finson Source: Wikimedia Commons

Later in the century the European mathematical community was served by the very active English mathematics groupie John Collins (1626–1683), collecting and distributing mathematics news. His activities would contribute to the calculus priority dispute and accusations of plagiarism between Newton and Leibniz, he, having supposedly shown Newton’s unpublished work to Leibniz. Another active in England at the same time as Collins was the German, Henry Oldenburg (c. 1618–1677), who maintained a vast network of correspondents throughout Europe.

Henry Oldenburg portrait by Jan van Cleve (III)

Oldenburg became Secretary of the newly founded Royal Society and used his letters to found the society’s journal, one of the first scientific journals, the Philosophical Transactions, the early issues consisting of collections of the letters he had received. Oldenburg’s large number of foreign correspondents attracted the attention of the authorities, and he was for a time arrested and held prisoner in the Tower of London on suspicion of being a spy.

The simple letter, written on comparatively cheap paper and delivered by increasingly reliable private and state postal services, made it possible for scholars throughout Europe to communicate and cooperate with each other, starting in the Early Modern period, in a way and on a level that had not been possible for their medieval predecessors. In future episodes of this series, we will look at how these correspondence networks helped to further the development of various fields of study during the Renaissance. 

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I do wish people wouldn’t post things like this

I stumbled across the following image on Facebook, being reposted by people who should know better, and it awoke my inner HISTSCI_HULK:

I shall only be commenting on the first three images, if anybody has any criticism of the other ones, they’re welcome to add them in the comments.

To what extent Galileo developed his own telescope is debateable. He made a Dutch, telescope a model that had first been made public by Hans Lipperhey in September 1608. By using lenses of different focal lengths, he managed to increase the magnification, but then so did several others both at the same time and even before him.

Galileo was not the first to point the telescope skywards! As I have pointed out on several occasions, during that first demonstration by Lipperhey in Den Hague, the telescope was definitely pointed skywards:

The said glasses are very useful at sieges & in similar affairs, because one can distinguish from a mile’s distance & beyond several objects very well, as if they are very near & even the stars which normally are not visible for us, because of the scanty proportion and feeble sight of our eyes, can be seen with this instrument[1]

Even amongst natural philosophers and astronomers, Galileo was not the first. We know that Thomas Harriot preceded him in making astronomical observations. It is not clear, but Simon Marius might have begun his telescopic astronomical observations before Galileo. Also, the astronomers of the Collegio Romano began telescopic observations before Galileo went public with his Sidereus Nuncius and who was earliest they or Galileo is not determinable.

I wrote a whole very detailed article about the fact that Newton definitively did not invent the reflecting telescope that you can read here.

By the standards of the day William Herschel’s 20-foot telescope, built in 1782 seven years before the 40-foot telescope, was already a gigantic telescope, so the 40-footer was not the first. Worse than this is the fact that the image if of one of his normal ‘small’ telescopes and not the 40-footer. 

Herschel’s 40-foot telescope Source: Wikimedia Commons

People spew out these supposedly informative/educational or whatever images/articles, which are sloppily researched or not at all and are full of avoidable error. To put it bluntly it really pisses me off!


[1] Embassies of the King of Siam Sent to His Excellency Prince Maurits Arrived in The Hague on 10 September 1608, Transcribed from the French original, translated into English and Dutch, introduced by Henk Zoomers and edited by Huib Zuidervaart after a copy in the Louwman Collection of Historic Telescopes, Wassenaar, 2008 pp. 48-49 (original pagination: 9-11)

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Filed under History of Optics, History of science, History of Technology

The seventeenth-century Chinese civil servant from Cologne 

From its very beginnings the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits) was set up as a missionary movement carrying the Catholic Religion to all corners of the world. It also had a very strong educational emphasis in its missions, carrying the knowledge of Europe to foreign lands and cultures and at the same time transmitting the knowledge of those cultures back to Europe. Perhaps the most well-known example of this is the seventeenth-century Jesuit mission to China, which famously in the history of science brought the latest European science to that far away and, for Europeans, exotic land. In fact, the Jesuits used their extensive knowledge of the latest European developments in astronomy to gain access to the, for foreigners, closed Chinese culture.

It was, initially, Christoph Clavius (1538–1612), who by introducing his mathematics programme into the Jesuits more general education system, ensured that the Jesuits were the best purveyors of mathematics in Europe in the early seventeenth century and it was Clavius’ student Matteo Ricci (1552–1610), who first breached the Chinese reserve towards strangers with his knowledge of the mathematical sciences.

The big question is what did the Chinese need the help of western astronomers for and why. Here we meet an interesting historical contradiction for the Jesuits. Unlike most people in the late sixteenth century and early seventeenth century, the Jesuits did not believe in or practice astrology. One should not forget that both Kepler and Galileo amongst many others were practicing astrologers. The Chinese were, however, very much practitioners of astrology at all levels and it was here that they found the assistance of the Jesuits desirable. The Chines calendar fulfilled important ritual and astrological functions, in particular the prediction of solar and lunar eclipses for which the emperor was personally responsible, and it had to be recalculated at the ascension to the throne of every new emperor. There was even an Imperial Astronomical Institute to carry out this task.

Although the Chinese had been practicing astronomy longer than the Europeans and, over the millennia, had developed a very sophisticated astronomy, in the centuries before the arrival of the Jesuits that knowledge had fallen somewhat into decay and had by that point not advanced as far as that of the Europeans. Before the arrival of the Jesuits, the Chinese had employed Muslim astronomers to aid them in this work, so the principle of employing foreigners for astronomical work had already been established. Through his work, Ricci had convinced the Chinese of his superior astronomical knowledge and abilities and thus established a bridgehead into the highest levels of Chinese society.

The man, who, for the Jesuits, made the greatest contribution to calendrical calculation in seventeenth century was the, splendidly named, Johann Adam Schall von Bell (1591–1666). Born, probably in Cologne, into a well-established aristocratic family, who trace their roots back to the twelfth century, Johann Adam was the second son of Heinrich Degenhard Schall von Bell zu Lüftelberg and his fourth wife Maria Scheiffart von Merode zu Weilerswist. He was initially educated at the Jesuit Tricoronatum Gymnasium in Cologne and then in 1607 sent to Rome to the Jesuit run seminary Pontificium Collegium Germanicum et Hungaricum de Urbe, where he concentrated on the study of mathematics and astronomy. It is thought that his parents sent him to Rome to complete his studies because of an outbreak of the plague in Cologne. In 1611 he joined the Jesuits and moved to the Collegio Romano, where he became a student of Christoph Grienberger

A portrait of German Jesuit Johann Adam Schall von Bell (1592–1666), Hand-colored engraving, artist unknown Source: Wikimedia Commons

He applied to take part in the Jesuit mission to China and in 1618 set sail for the East from Lisbon. He would almost certainly on his way to Lisbon have spent time at the Jesuit College in Coimbra, where the missionaries heading out to the Far East were prepared for their mission. Here he would probably have received instruction in the grinding of lenses and the construction of telescopes from Giovanni Paolo Lembo (c. 1570–1618), who taught these courses to future missionaries.

Schall von Bell set sail on 17 April 1618 in a group under the supervision of Dutch Jesuit Nicolas Trigault (1577–1628), Procurator of the Order’s Province of Japan and China.

Nicolas Trigault in Chinese costume, by Peter Paul Rubens, the Metropolitan Museum of Art Source: Wikimedia Commons
De Christiana expeditione apud Sinas, by Nicolas Trigault and Matteo Ricci, Augsburg, 1615. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Apart from Schall von Bell the group included the German, polymath Johannes Schreck (1576–1630), friend of Galileo and onetime member of the Accademia dei Lincei, and the Italian Giacomo Rho (1592–1638). They reached the Jesuit station in Goa 4 October 1618 and proceeded from there to Macau where they arrived on 22 July 1619. Here, the group were forced to wait four years, as the Jesuits had just been expelled from China. They spent to time leaning Chinese and literally fighting off an attempt by the Dutch to conquer Macau. 

In 1623 Schall von Bell and the others finally reached Peking. In 1628 Johann Schreck began work on a calendar reform for the Chinese. To aid his efforts Johannes Kepler sent a copy of the Rudolphine Tables to Peking in 1627. From 1627 to 1630 Schall von Bell worked as a pastor but when Schreck died he and Giacomo Rho were called back to Peking to take up the work on the calendar and Schall von Bell began what would become his life’s work.

He must first translate Latin textbooks into Chinese, establish a school for astronomical calculations and modernise astronomical instruments. In 1634 he constructed the first Galilean telescope in China, also writing a book in Chinese on the instrument. In 1635 he published his revised and modernised calendar, which still exists. 

Text on the utilisation and production of the telescope by Tang Ruowang (Chinese name of Johann Adam Schall von Bell) Source: Wikimedia Commons
Galilean telescope from Schall von Bell’s Chinese book Source: Wikimedia Commons

Scall von Bell used his influence to gain permission to build Catholic churches and establish Chinese Christian communities. This was actually the real aim of his work. He used his knowledge of mathematics and astronomy to win the trust of the Chinese authorities in order to be able to propagate his Christian mission.

In 1640 he produced a Chinese translation of Agricola’s De re metallica, which he presented to the Imperial Court. He followed this on a practical level by supervising the manufacture of a hundred cannons for the emperor. In 1644, the emperor appointed him President of the Imperial Astronomical Institute following a series of accurate astronomical prognostication. From 1651 to 1661 he was a personal advisor to the young Manchurian Emperor Shunzhi (1638–1661), who promoted Schall von Bell to Mandarin 1st class and 1st grade, the highest level of civil servant in the Chinese system.

Johann Adam Schall von Bell and Shunzhi Emperor Source: Wikimedia Commons

Following the death of Shunzhi, he initially retained his appointments and titles, which caused problems for him in Rome following a visitation in Peking by the Dominicans. The Vatican ruled that Jesuits should not take on mundane appointments. In 1664 Schall von Bell suffered a stroke, which left him vulnerable to attack from his rivals at court. He was accused of having provoked Shunzhi’s concubine’s death through having falsely calculated the place and time for the funeral of one of Shunzhi’s sons. 

The charges, that included other Jesuits, were high treason, membership of a religious order not compatible with right order and the spread of false astronomical teachings. Schall von Bell was imprisoned over the winter 1665/66 and Jesuits in Peking, who had not been charged were banned to Kanton. He was found guilty on 15 April 1665 and sentenced to be executed by Lingchi, death by a thousand cuts. However, according to legend, there was an earthquake shortly before the execution date and the judge interpreted it as a sign from the gods the Schall von Bell was innocent. On 15 May 1665 Schall von Bell was released from prison on the order of the Emperor Kangxi (1654–1722). He died 15 August 1666 and was rehabilitated by Kangxi, who ensured that he received a prominent gravestone that still exists. 

Jesuit astronomers with Kangxi Emperor by Philippe Behagle French tapestry weaver, 1641 – 1705 Source: Wikimedia Commons

Schall von Bell was represented at his trial by Flemish Jesuit Ferdinand Verbiest (1623–1688), who would later take up Schall von Bell’s work on the Chinese calendar but that’s a story for another day. Schall von Bell reached the highest ever level for a foreigner in the Chinese system of government but in the history of science it is his contributions to the modernisation of Chinese astronomy and engineering that are most important. 

Jesuit Mission to China, left to right Top: Matteo Ricci, Johann Adam Schall von Bell, Ferdinand Verbiest Artist: Jean-Baptiste Du Halde (1674 – 1743) French Jesuit historian Source: Wikimedia Commons

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Filed under History of Astrology, History of Astronomy, History of Technology, Renaissance Science

Renaissance Science – XV

Vitruvius’ De architectura was by no means the only book rediscovered from antiquity that dealt with the construction and use of machines and the Renaissance artist-engineers were also not the only authors producing new texts on machines. In this episode of our series, we are going to look at another stream of writings that led to some of the most impressive publications on machines ever produced.

Ancient books, in Europe, on machines do not begin with Vitruvius, who actually comes quite late in the development of this type of literature. There are several known authors from ancient Greece, whose works did not survive but who are mentioned and even quoted by later authors such as Vitruvius and Pliny. Polyidus of Thessaly, who is mentioned by Vitruvius, served under Philip II of Macedonia in the fourth century BCE. He is credited with the development of covered battering rams and a giant siege tower (helepolis) by Byzantium in 340 BCE.  His students Diades of Pella and Charias, both also mentioned by Vitruvius, served under Philip’s son Alexander the Great. 

In Alexandria the earliest known author was Ctesibius, who invented a wide range of machines, which he described in his Commentaries, now lost but known to both Vitruvius and Hero of Alexandria. Much better know is a contemporary of Ctesibius, Philo of Byzantium (c. 280–c. 220 BCE), also known as Philo Mechanicus, who lived and worked in Alexandria. He wrote a major work in nine books covering mathematics, general mechanics, harbour building, artillery, pneumatic machines, mechanical toys, siege engines, siege craft, and cryptography. His work on artillery and siege craft survived in Greek as did fragments of his books on mathematics and mechanical toys but were first translated in the 19th century. Parts of his book on pneumatics, however, survived in a Latin translation, De ingeniis spiritualibus, from an Arabic manuscript. It can however be assumed that his works were well known to and influenced other authors later in antiquity.

We have already met Vitruvius the most well-known author on things mechanical during the Roman Empire and had a brief reference to Athenaeus Mechanicus (fl. mid first century BCE). Athenaeus, a Greek living in Rome, wrote a book on siege craft titled On Machines, which cites both Diades of Pella and Philo of Byzantium, as sources. Much of his book parallels that of Vitruvius implying the use of common sources.

In the middle of the first century CE, we meet Hero of Alexandria, whose exact dates are unknown, perhaps the most well-known Greek engineer of Antiquity, who exercised a similar influence in the Renaissance to Vitruvius. Works that are attributed with certainty are Pneumatica (on pneumatics), AutomataMechanica (written for architects and only preserved in Arabic), Metrica (measuring areas and volumes), On the DioptraBelopoeica (war machines), and Catoptrica (the science of reflected lights). His Belopoeica is attributed to Ctesibius. The Metrica first reappeared in the nineteenth century and the Mechanica was unknown in Europe. However, the Pneumatica, the Automata, and the Belopoeica were translated from Greek into Latin and printed and published in the sixteenth century.

The book About automata by Hero of Alexandria (1589 edition) Source: Wikimedia Commons

Hero was the last of the technical authors of antiquity but the later authors such as Pliny the Elder (23/24–79 CE) or Pappus of Alexander (c. 290–c. 350 CE) reference authors such as Vitruvius and Hero.

Before moving forward to the Renaissance, we need to take a brief look at the developments in the Islamic Empire. In the ninth century the translators the Bana Musa, three Persian brother, Ahmad, Muhammad, and Hasan bin Musa ibn Shakir, published a large, illustrated work on machines the Book of Ingenious Devices in 850 CE. It drew on the work of Hero of Alexandria and Philo of Byzantium as well Persian, Chinese, and Indian engineering. It was translated into Latin by Gerard of Cremona in the thirteenth century.

Original illustration of a self trimming lamp discussed in the treatise on Mechanical Devices of Ahmad ibn Musa ibn Shakir. Drawing can be found in the “Granger Collection” located in New York. Source: Wikimedia Commons

In the twelfth century Badīʿ az-Zaman Abu l-ʿIzz ibn Ismāʿīl ibn ar-Razāz al-Jazarī (1136–1206) wrote his The Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices. Truly spectacular, it contains descriptions of fifty complex machines and was the most advanced such book produced up till this time, but it was never translated into Latin and so had no influence in the Renaissance.

Diagram of a hydropowered perpetual flute from The Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices by Al-Jazari in 1206. Source: Wikimedia Commons

It should be noticed that in antiquity texts on machines had an emphasis on war machines. During the fifteenth century the first texts on machines were also on war machines and were written by physicians and not artisans. Konrad Kyeser (1366–1405) wrote a book on military engineering, Bellifortis, dedicated to the Holy Roman Emperor Ruprecht III, who ruled from 1400–1410.

Konrad Kyeser, illustration on his Bellifortis manuscript (Cod. Ms. philos. 63) Source: Wikimedia Commons
War wagon (Clm 30150 manuscript) Source: Wikimerdia Commons

Giovanni Fontana (c. 1395–c. 1455), who like Kyeser studied medicine at the University of Padua, also wrote a book on military engineering, Bellicorum instrumentorum liber.

Illustration from Bellicorum instrumentorum liber, Venice c. 1420 – 1430 Source: Wikimedia Commons

In Germany in the fifteenth century there were several books on military engineering written in the vernacular as well as a German translation of Kyeser’s Bellifortis. The author of the Feuerwerksbuch from 1420 is not known. Martin Mercz (c. 1425–1501), a gunner, also wrote a Feuerwerksbuch around 1473. Philipp Mönch wrote a Kriegsbuch in 1496

The texts produced by the Renaissance artist-engineers that we looked at in the last episode, whilst distributed in manuscript, were never issued as printed books, as was the case with most of the fifteenth century books of military engineering. The introduction of printing to the genre of machine texts had a major impact. One book on military engineering that was printed and published was the Elenchus et index rerum militarium by the humanist scholar Roberto Valturio (1405–1475), a compendium of ancient authorities with an emphasis on the technological aspects of warfare.

The author’s preface to the treatise „De re militari“ in the manuscript Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Lat. 7237, fol. 1r. Source: Wikimedia Commons

It was written for and dedicated to Sigismund Malatesta of Rimini (1471-1468), a successful military leader but also a humanist poet, originally between 1455 and 1460 and distributed widely in manuscript but was published in Verona in 1472. It went through many printed editions and translations. Leonardo da Vinci was known to have owned a copy.

Illustration from De re militari by Robertus Valturius Source: Wikimedia Commons

Two printed books in particular set new standards for books on machines and engineering, the Pirotechnia of Vannoccio Biringuccio (1480–died before1539) published posthumously by Curtio Navo in Venice in 1540

and De re metallica by Georgius Agricola (1494–1555) also published posthumously by Froben in Basel in 1556.

Both books deal with mining, the extraction of metallic ores and the working of metal smelted from the ores. Both are lavishly illustrated with the drawings in Agricola’s book being of a much higher standard than those in Biringuccio’s book. 

I have dealt with both books and their authors in earlier posts (see links above) and so won’t go into great detail here but in these two books with have an excellent example of the crossover between the world of the university educated theoretician and the artisan on artisanal topics. Agricola is a university educated physician writing theoretically about a group of related artisanal topics, whereas Biringuccio is an experienced artisan writing a theoretical book about his artisanal trades. 

The late sixteenth century saw the birth of a new book genre, the machine book. These were books of diagrams of machines with brief descriptions, usual presented by the author to a powerful patron. The main ones were very popular and went through several editions or reprints. These books often contained not only machines designed by the authors, but their presentations of machines drawn from other sources. Many of these studies were almost certainly not intended as serious designs to be built but were rather ingenious studies designed to impress rich patrons, in the nature of the futuristic design studies that car companies present at car shows. This also, almost certainly, applies to many of the designs to be found in the manuscripts of Leonardo da Vinci.

The earliest of the machine books by the French Protestant, inventor and mathematician, Jacques Besson (1540? – 1573). He said that he was born in Colombières near Briançon in the Alps on the south-eastern border of France, now in Italy. In the 1550s he taught mathematics in Paris and was working as a hydraulic engineer in Lausanne, Switzerland. In 1559 he published a book in Zurich and in 1561 he was awarded citizenship in Geneva as a science and mathematics teacher. In 1562 he was a pastor in Villeneuve-de-Berg in France but 1565 finds him back in Paris where he published his La Cosmolabe, a multiple instrument based on the astrolabe designed for use in navigation, surveying, cartography, and astronomy. 

Cosmolabe by Jacques Besson Source: Wikimedia Commons

In 1569 in Orléans he presented a draft of his new volume Theatrum Instrumentorum (giving the machine book genre the alternative name of Theatre of Machines) to Charles IX, as a result returning to Paris as Master of the Kings Machines. The Theatrum Instrumentorum, containing sixty plates, was printed and published in 1571-2.

In Besson case his book only contains machines that he claimed to have invented himself. Following the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in 1572 Besson fled to London where he died in the following year. 

In 1572, our next machine book author, Agostino Ramelli (1531–c. 1610) a Catholic military engineer, was involved in the siege of the Protestant stronghold, La Rochelle.

Agostino Ramelli author portrait Source: Wikimedia Commons

Very little is known about Ramelli other than that he was born in Ponte Tresa on Lake Lugano on the border between Switzerland and the Duchy of Milan. He seems to have served most of his early life as a military engineer and comes to prominence at La Rochelle, because he was wounded and taken prisoner. Henry, Duke of Anjou, arranged his release and when Henry became King of France in 1575, he apparently appointed Ramelli royal engineer, as he styled himself in the preface to his book, engineer of the most Christian King of France. 

In 1588 he self-published his Diverse Et Artificiose Machine, the book, the largest of the genre, contains one hundred and ninety-five plates, printed from high quality engraved copper plates.  The majority of the machines are hydraulic engines. Unlike Bresson, who included no war machines in his book, about one third of Ramelli’s book consists of war machines. 

Title: Complex machine using water-wheel, bellows, and turbine action Abstract/medium: 1 print : engraving.Source: Wikimedia Commons
Depiction of sixteenth century cannon placements from Le diverse et artificiose machine del capitano Agostino Ramelli, page 708 of 720 Source: Wikimedia Commons

Ramelli is certainly today the most well known of the machine book authors because his book-wheel has become an iconic image on social media. Due to the lavish quality of the illustrations Ramelli’s book became an instant coffee table book, which was probably his intention, and is still in print today.

Ramelli Book-Wheel Source: Wikimedia Commons

We know very little about Bresson and even less about Ramelli, but in the case of the third author of a major machine book, Vittorio Zonca (1568–1603), we know next to nothing. His book, Novo Teatro di Machine et Edificii, was published posthumously by Francesco Bertelli in Padua in 1607. Bertelli appears not to have known Zonca but describes him as a Paduan architect. Like the books of Bresson and Ramelli. Zonca’s volume went through several edition. 

Title page Source: Wikimedia Commons
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Interestingly the German, Jesuit polymath, Johann Schreck (1576–1630), one time member of the Accademia dei Lincei and friend of Galileo,  published a book in Chinese in 1627, based on Zonca’s book and incorporating plates from Bresson and Ramelli titled, Diagrams and explanations of the wonderful machines of the Far West (abridged Chinese title, Qí qì túshuō).

a description of a windlass well, in Agostino Ramelli, 1588. Source: Wikimedia Commons

 

Description of a windlass well, in Diagrams and explanations of the wonderful machines of the Far West, 1627. Source: Wikimedia Commons
Original Pompeo Targone field mill in Zonca’s treatise of 1607. Source: Wikimedia Commons
Chinese adaptation of the field mill in Diagrams and explanations of the wonderful machines of the Far West, 1627. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The German architect and engineer, Heinrich Zeising (died 1610 or earlier) compiled the first German machine book borrowing heavily from the works of Walther Hermann Ryff’s German edition of Vitruvius, Besson, Ramelli, Zonca, Gerolamo Cardano, and others This was published as Theatrum Machinarum in six parts by Henning Grosse in Leipzig between 1607 and 1614. In the foreword to the second part in 1610, Grosse informed the reader that Zeising was deceased .

Source:

The Bishop of Czanad in Hungary, Fautus Verantius (c. 1551–1617), in his retirement, published a multilingual machine book, Machinae Novae, in 1616. It had 49 plates containing 55 machines, described in Latin and Italian in one variant and in Latin, Italian, Spanish, French, and German in another. There exists the possibility that Verantius saw and was influenced by Leonardo’s manuscripts.

 

Portrait of Fausto Veranzio, (Šibenik (Sebenico) circa 1551 – Venice, January 17, 1617) Source: Wikimedia Commons
Drawing of suspension cable-stayed bridge by Fausto Veranzio in his Machinae Novae Source: Wikimedia Commons

In 1617 Octavio Strada published an encyclopaedic collection of machine drawings supposedly complied by his grandfather Jacopo Strada (1517–1588)–courtier, painter, architect, goldsmith, and numismatist–under the title La premiere partie des Desseins Artificiaux in Frankfurt, about which very little in known. 

STRADA, Jacobus de (c.1523-1588) and Octavius de STRADA. Desseins Artificiaulx de Toutes Sortes des Moulins a Vent, a l’Eau, a Cheval & a la Main. Frankfurt: Paul Jacobi, 1618. Source:

The Italian engineer and architect, Giovanni Branca (1571–1645) dedicated a collection of illustrations of mechanical inventions to the governor of Loreto Ancona, which he then published as a book Le machine in 1629. The book contains 63 illustrations with descriptions in Latin and Italian, but whereas the books of Bresson and Ramelli are large format volumes with lavish copper plate engravings, Branca’s book is a small octavo volume illustrated with simple woodcuts.

Title page
Branca Le Machine

In the relatively brief period covering the last quarter of the sixteenth century and the first quarter of the seventeenth century, the Renaissance Theatre of Machines books, as they became known after the first one from Jacques Besson, were very popular. Although they continued to be reprinted throughout the seventeenth century their time was over and literature over technology moved on into different formats. This is one of the signs that Renaissance science did indeed peter out in the middle of the seventeenth century.

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Filed under History of Technology, Renaissance Science

Renaissance Science – XIV

In the previous episode we saw how the Renaissance rediscovery of Vitruvius’ De architectura influenced the development of architecture during the Renaissance and dissolved the boundary between the intellectual theoreticians and the practical artisans. However, as stated there Vitruvius was not just an architect, but was also an engineer and his Book X deals quite extensively with machines both civil and military. This had a massive influence on a new type of artisan the Renaissance artist-engineer and it is to these that we now turn our attention. 

Artist-engineers were very much a Northern Italian Renaissance phenomenon, but even earlier artists had been categorised as craftsmen or artisans and not as artists as we would understand the term. The occupation of artist-engineer was very much influenced by the popularity of Vitruvius’ De architectura. The most well-known Renaissance artist engineer is, of course, Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519), but he was by no means unique, as he is often presented in popular accounts, but he stood at the end of a line of other artist-engineers, who are known to have influenced him. Here I will deal principally with those artisan artist-engineers, who dissolved the boundary between practice and theory by witing and circulating treatises on their work.

At the beginning of the line were the Florentine rival, goldsmiths Lorenzo Ghiberti (1378–1455) and Filippo Brunelleschi (1377–1446). In 1401 there was a competition to design the first set of new doors for the Florence Baptistery. Ghiberti and Brunelleschi were two of the seven artists on the short list. Ghiberti won the commission and set up a major engineering workshop to carry out the work. 

It took Ghiberti twenty-one years to complete the first set of doors featuring twenty New Testament Bible scenes, the four evangelists and four of the Church Fathers, but once finished they established his reputation, as a great Renaissance artist. In 1425 he was awarded a second commission for another set of doors, these featuring ten Old Testament scenes in realistic perspective presentation took another twenty-seven years. The second set of doors included portraits of both Ghiberti and his father Bartolomeo Ghiberti. 

Ghiberti self portrait from his second set of doors (modern copy Source: Wikimedia Commons

We don’t need to go into any great detail here about the doors or the other commissions that Ghiberti’s workshop finished.

Ghiberti’s second set of doors, known as the Gates of Paradise (modern copy) Source: Wikimedia Commons

What is much more relevant to our theme is his activities as an author. Although he was the artisan son of an artisan father, Ghiberti crossed the medieval boundary between theory and practice with his Commentarii, a thesis on the history of art, written in Italian. He drew on various sources from antiquity including the first century BCE illustrated Greek text on machines by Athenaeus Mechanicus and Pliny’s Naturalis Historia, a text much discussed by the Renaissance Humanists, but his major source was Vitruvius’ De architectura. Ghiberti died without finishing his Commentarii and it was never published. However, many important Renaissance artist, such as Donatello and Paolo Uccello, served their apprenticeships in his workshop, so his influence on future generations was very large.

One probable graduate of Ghiberti’s workshop was Antonio Averlino (c. 1400–c. 1469) known as Filarete, a sculptor and architect. 



Filarete, Self-portrait medal, obverse, c. 1460, bronze. London, V & A

 Between 1461 and 1464, he wrote a vernacular volume on architecture in twenty-five books, his illustrated Trattato di Architettura, which circulated widely in manuscript. Central to his theory of architecture was the Vitruvian ideal of practice combined with theory. The most significant part of his book was his design for Sforzinda an ideal city named after his patron Francesco Sforza (1401–1466). This was the first of several ideal cities, which became a feature of the Renaissance. It is thought that his inspiration came from the works of Plato and his knowledge of this came from his friend at the Sforza court, the humanist scholar and philologist Francesco da Tolentino (1398–1481) known as Filelfo. Once again, we have, as in the last episode, a cooperation across the old boundaries between a scholar and an artisan.

Filarete Sforzinda

Filippo Brunelleschi poses a different problem. Like Ghiberti trained as a goldsmith, he went on to become the epitome of a Renaissance Vitruvian architect. However, there is no direct evidence that connects him with De architectura or its author. There is no direct evidence that connects him with anything except for the products of his life’s work, most notably the dome of the Santa Maria del Fiori cathedral in Florence. He is also renowned as the inventor or discoverer of the mathematical principles of linear perspective, as explained in episode seven of this series. This links him indirectly to Vitruvius, as some authors insist that he only rediscovered linear perspective, quoting Book 7 of De architectura, where Vitruvius describes the use of some form of perspective on the ancient Greek theatre flats. 

Filippo Brunelleschi in an anonymous portrait of the 2nd half of the 15th century (Louvre, Paris) Source: Wikimedia Commons

More importantly, Brunelleschi, as an architect, not only designed and supervised the construction of the buildings that he was commissioned to build but also devised and constructed the machines that he needed on his building sites to facilitate those constructions. For his work on the Santa Maria dome, for example he designed a crane to lift the building materials up to the top of the cathedral.

Brunelleschi’s revolving crane

A drawing of that crane can be found in Leonardo’s manuscripts. He was also granted a patent by the ruling council of Florence for the design of a ship to transport heavy loads of stone on rivers and canals.

Reproduction of Brunelleschi’s patent boat Source: Wikimedia Commons

Brunelleschi was also like, Vitruvius, a successful hydraulic engineer. It is hard to believe that he wasn’t influenced by De architectura.

There is no doubt about the Vitruvian influence of our next artist-engineer, Mariano di Jacopo (1382–c. 1453) known as Taccola (the jackdaw), who, as I explained in an earlier post on that Renaissance iconic figure, included a Vitruvian Man in his drawings. Taccola, who is known to have worked as a sculptor, superintendent of roads and hydraulic engineer, was from Sienna. He met and talked with Brunelleschi, one of the few people known to have done so. 

Taccola produced two annotated manuscripts the four books of De ingeneis, written between 1419 and 1433, and De machnis issued in 1449, which was partially an improved version of his De ingeneis.


ResearchGate
Jacopo Mariano Taccola, De ingeneis, Book I. Codex Latinus 197,..

Both manuscripts contain numerous illustrations of machines for hydraulic engineering, milling (and mills were one of the most important types of machines in medieval and Renaissance culture), construction and military machinery, all topics covered by Vitruvius.

First European depiction of a piston pump by Taccola, c.1450 Source: Wikimedia Commons

His manuscripts also some of Brunelleschi’s construction machines. Taccola is in one sense a transitional figure as his representations, of three-dimensional machines, often use medieval drawing conventions rather than Brunelleschi’s recently discovered linear perspective. 

Taccola’s works were never printed but copies of his manuscripts are known to have circulated widely during his lifetime and to have been highly influential. After his death his influence waned as his work was superceded by the more advance work of Francesco di Giorgio Martini and Leonardo da Vinci both of whom were heavily influenced by Taccola.

Francesco di Giorgio Martini (1439–1501) was, like Taccola, from Siena and was an architect, engineer, painter, sculptor, and writer.

His Vitruvian influence is very obvious in his work, as also the influence of Taccola. Francesco worked for much of his life on an Italian translation of Vitruvius’ De architectura, which he never published. Like Filarete he wrote an architectural treatise Trattato di archtettura, ingegneria e arte militare, worked on over decades and finished sometime after 1482. Many of his machines are taken from Taccola’s manuscripts. As can be seen from the title, it continues the Vitruvian tradition. Like Filarete’s volume it contains a design for an ideal town. Probably inspired by Sulpizio’s first printed edition of De architectura and Alberti’s De re aedificatoria, he produced a new edition of his own book known as Trattato II. 

Edificij et machine, Martini, Francesco di Giorgio, 1439-1501, brown ink and wash, ca. 1475-ca. 1480, The volume comprises 103 drawings by Francesco di Giorgio Martini and his assistants, featuring machines and devices for lifting columns and other heavy weights, schemes for transporting water, and mechanisms for milling and moving boats. There are also a few drawings showing how people could walk or float on water standing on inflatable containers and using an oar to propel themselves. PUBLICATIONxINxGERxSUIxAUTxONLY Copyright: LCD2_180906_23583

Both Taccola and Francesco are known to have influenced the most famous of the Renaissance artist-engineers, Leonardo da Vinci. As well as the obvious direct influence of Vitruvius, many of the machines illustrated in Leonardo’s manuscripts are taken from the work of Brunelleschi, Taccola and Francesco di Giorgio. As an apprentice, Leonardo had worked on the final phase of Brunelleschi’s dome for the Santa Maria Cathedral, and he took the opportunity to study Brunelleschi’s building site machines and scaffolding. He owned copies of the manuscripts of both Taccola and Francesco, the latter of which he annotated heavily. Leonardo, as is well known, wrote reams of annotated manuscripts on his machines but never published any of them.

Watter wheel, just one of Leonardo’s hundreds of drawings of machines Source

All of the artist-engineers that I have briefly sketched here are examples of artisans who crossed over or better dissolved the boundaries between theoretical and practical knowledge. They are also, so to speak, the stars of a much larger and widespread group of Renaissance artist-engineers, whose influence spread throughout the Renaissance, changing and elevating the status of the skilled artisan.  

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Renaissance Science – XIII

As already explained in the fourth episode of this series, the Humanist Renaissance was characterised by a reference for classical literature, mostly Roman, recovered from original Latin manuscripts and not filtered and distorted through repeated translations on their way from Latin into Arabic and back into Latin. It was also a movement that praised a return to classical Latin, away from the, as they saw it, barbaric medieval Latin. In the fifth episode we also saw that, what I am calling, Renaissance science was characterised by a break down of the division that had existed between theoretical book knowledge as taught on the medieval universities and the empirical, practical knowledge of the artisans. As also pointed there this was not so much a breaking down of boundaries or a crossover between the two fields of knowledge as a meld between the two types of knowledge that would over the next two and a half centuries lead to the modern concept of knowledge or science.

One rediscovered classical Latin text that very much filled the first criterium, which at the same time played a major role in the second was De architectura libri decem (Ten Books on Architecture) by the Roman architect and civil and military engineer Marcus Vitruvius Pollio (c.80-70–died after 15 BCE), who is usually referred to simply as Vitruvius and there are doubts about the other two names that are ascribed to him. 

From the start we run into problems about the standard story that the manuscript was rediscovered by the Tuscan, humanist scholar Poggio Bracciolini (1380–1459) in the library of Saint Gall Abbey in 1416, as related by Leon Battista Alberti (1404–1472) in his own architecture treatise De re aedificatoria (1452), which was modelled on Vitruvius’ tome. In reality, De architectura had never been lost during the Middle Ages; there are about ninety surviving medieval manuscripts of the book.

Manuscript of Vitruvius; parchment dating from about 1390 Source: Wikimedia Commons

The oldest was made during the Carolingian Renaissance in the early nineth century. Alcuin of York was consulted on the technical terms in the text. During the Middle Ages many leading scholars including Hermann of Reichenau (1013–1054), a central figure of the Ottonian Renaissance, and both Albertus Magnus (c. 1200– 1280) and Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274), who laid the foundations of medieval Aristotelian philosophy, read the text, and commented on it. 

However, although well-known it had little impact on architecture in the medieval period. The great medieval cathedrals and castle were built by master masons, whose knowledge was practical artisanal knowledge passed on by word of mouth from master to apprentice. This changed with Poggio’ rediscovery of Vitruvius’ work and the concept of the theoretical and practical architect began to emerge.

Before we turn to the impact of De architectura in the Renaissance we first need to look at the book and its author. Very little is known about Vitruvius, as already stated above, the other names attributed to him are based on speculation, most of what we do know is pieced together from the book itself. Vitruvius was a military engineer under Gaius Julius Caesar (100–44 BCE) and apparently received a pension from Octavian (63 BCE–14 CE), the later Caesar Augustus, to whom the book is dedicated. The book was written around twenty BCE. Vitruvius wrote it because he believed in making knowledge public and available to all, unlike those artisans, who kept their knowledge secret.

The ten books are organised as follows:

  1. Town planning, architecture or civil engineering in general and the qualification required by an architect or civil engineer
  2. Building materials
  3. Temples and the orders of architecture
  4. As book 3
  5. Civil buildings
  6. Domestic buildings
  7. Pavements and decorative plasterwork
  8. Water supplies and aqueducts
  9. The scientific side of architecture – geometry, measurement, astronomy, sundials
  10. Machines, use and construction – siege engines, water mills, drainage machines, technology, hoisting, pneumatics

In terms of its reception and influence during the Renaissance the most important aspect is Vitruvius’ insistence that architecture requires both ratiocinatio and fabrica, that is reasoning or theory, and practice or construction. This Vitruvian philosophy of architecture took architecture out of the exclusive control of the master mason and into the hands of the theoretical scholars in union with the artisans. This move was also motivated by the humanist drive to study archaeologically the Roman remains in Rome the Eternal City. Vitruvius provided a guide to understanding the Roman architecture, which would become the model for the construction of new buildings. 

But for it to become influential Vitruvius’s text first had to become widely available. The first printed Latin edition was edited by the humanist scholar Fra. Giovanni Sulpizio da Veroli (fl. c. 1470–1490) and published in 1486 with a second edition in 1495 or 1496.

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The first printed edition had no illustrations. Fra. Giovanni Giocondo da Verona (c. 1433–1515) produced the first edition with woodcut illustrations, published in Venice in 1511. A second improved edition was published in Florence in 1521. 

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In order for De architectura to reach artisans it needed to be translated into the vernacular, as most of them couldn’t read Latin. This process began in Italy and during the sixteenth century spread throughout Europe. The process started already before De architectura appeared in print. As mentioned above Alberti’s De re aedificatoria (On the Art of Buildings), not a translation of De architectura but a book strongly modelled on it appeared in Latin in print in 1452.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

The first Italian edition appeared in 1486 A second Italian edition, by the humanist mathematician Cosimo Bartoli (1503-1572), which became the standard edition, appeared in 1550. Alberti was very prominent in Renaissance culture and very widely read. His influence can be measured by the fact that a collective bilingual, English/Italian, edition of his works on architecture, painting and sculpture was published as late as 1726. 

The first Italian edition of De architectura with new illustration and added commentary by Cesare Cesariano (1475-1543) was published at Como in 1521.

1521 Italian edition title page Source
1521 Italian edition

A plagiarised version was published in Venice in 1524. The first French edition, translated by Jean Martin (died 1553), which is said to contain many errors, was published in Paris in 1547.

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The first German edition was translated by Walther Hermann Ryff (c. 1500–1548). As far as can be determined, it appears the Ryff was an apothecary but work mostly as what today would probably be described as a hack. He published as editor, translator, adapter, and compiler a large number of books, around 40, over a wide range of topics, although the majority were in some sense medical, and was seemingly very successful. He was often accused of plagiarism. The physician and botanist, Leonhart Fuchs (1501–1566) described him as an “extremely brazen, careless, fraudulent author.” Apart from his medical works, Ryff obviously had a strong interest in architecture. He edited and published a Latin edition of De architectura in Strasbourg in 1543. This was followed by a commentary on De architectura in German, Der furnembsten, notwendigsten, der gantzen Architectur angehörigen Mathematischen vnd Mechanischen künst, eygentlicher bericht, vnd vast klare, verstendliche vnterrichtung, zu rechtem verstandt der lehr Vitruuij, in drey furneme Bücher abgetheilet (The most distinguished, necessary, mathematical and mechanical arts belonging to the entire architecture, actual report and clear, understandable instruction of the teachings of Vitruvius shared in three distinguished books), published by Johannes Petreius, the leading European scientific publisher of the period, in Nürnberg in 1547. For obvious reasons this is usually simply referred to as Architektur. This was obviously a product of the German translation of De architectura, which Petreius had commissioned Ryff to produce and, which he published in Nürnberg in 1548 under the title, Vitruvius Teutsch. Nemlichen des aller namhafftigisten vñ hocherfahrnesten römischen Architecti vnd kunstreichen Werck zehn Bücher von der Architectur und künstlichem Bawen… (Vitruvius in German…).

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We return now to Italy and the story of the stone mason, Andrea di Pietro della Gondola, born in Padua in 1508. Having served his apprenticeship, he worked as a stone mason until he was thirty years old. In 1538–39, he was employed to rebuild the villa of the humanist poet and scholar, Gian Giorgio Trissino (1478–1550) to rebuild his villa in Cricoli.

Gian Giorgio Trissino, portrayed in 1510 by Vincenzo Catena Source: Wikimedia Commons
Villa Trissino Source: Wikimedia Commons

Trissino ran a small private learned academy for young gentlemen in his renovated villa and apparently, having taken a shine to the young stone mason invited him to become a member. Andrea accepted the offer and Trissino renamed him Palladio.

Portrait of Palladio by Alessandro Maganza Source: Wikimedia Commons

The two became friends and colleagues, and Trissino, who was deeply interested in classical architecture and Vitruvius took the newly christened Palladio with him on trips to Rome to study the Roman ruins. Palladio became an architect in 1540 and became a specialist for designing and building neo-classical, Palladian, villas. 

Villa Barbaro begun 1557 Source: Wikimedia Commons

Trissino died in 1550 but Palladio acquired a new patron, Daniele Barbaro (1514–1570), a member of one of the most prominent and influential aristocratical families of Venice.

Daniele Barbaro by Paolo Veronese (the book in the painting is Barbaro’s translation of De architectura)

Daniele Barbaro studied philosophy, mathematics, and optics at the University of Padua. He was a diplomat and architect, who like Trissino, before him, accompanied Palladio on expeditions to study Roman architecture. In 1556, Barbaro published a new Italian translation of De architectura with an extended commentary, Dieci libri dell’architettura di M. Vitruvio.

I dieci libri dell’architettura di M. Vitruvio tradutti et commentati da monsignor Barbaro eletto patriarca d’aquileggia 1556 Images by Palladio Source

In 1567, he, simultaneously published, a revised Italian and a Latin edition entitled M. Vitruvii de architectura. The illustrations for Barbaro’s editions were provided by Palladio. Barbaro provided the best, to date, explanations of much of the technical terminology in De architectura, also acknowledging Palladio’s theoretical contributions to the work.

Palladio had become one of the most important and influential architects in the whole of Europe, designing many villas, palaces, and churches. He also became an influential author publishing L’Antichida di Roma (The Antiquities of Rome) in 1554,

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and I quattro libri dell’architettura (The Four Books of Architecture) in 1570, which was heavily influenced by Vitruvius. His books were translated into many different languages and went through many editions right down into the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. His work inspired leading architects in France and Germany.

Title page from 1642 edition Source: Wikimedia Commons

Up till now we have said nothing about England, which as usual lagged behind the continent in things mathematical, although in the second half of the sixteenth century both Leonard Digges and John Dee, of the so-called English school of mathematics, counted architecture under the mathematical disciplines. In 1563 John Shute (died 1563) included Vitruvian elements in his The First and Chief Grounds of Architecture.

John Shute The First and Chief Grounds of Architecture.

Inigo Jones (1573–1652) was born into a Welsh speaking family in Smithfield, London. There is minimal evidence that he was an apprentice joiner but at some point, before 1603 he acquired a rich patron, who impressed by his sketches, sent him to Italy to study drawing in Italy.

Inigo Jones by Anthony van Dyck

In a second visit to Italy in 1606 he came under the influence of Sir Henry Wotton (1568–1639) the English ambassador to Venice.

Henry Wotton artist unknown Source: Wikimedia Commons

Wotton was interested in astronomy, and it was he, who sent two copies of Galileo’s Sidereus Nuncius (1610) to London on the day it was published. Wotton convinced Jones to learn Italian and introduced him to Palladio’s I quattro libri dell’architettura. Jones’ copy of the book has marginalia that references Wotton. In 1624, Wotton published The Elements of Architecture a loose translation of De architectura into English. The first proper translation appeared only in 1771. 

19th century reprint Source

Inigo Jones introduced the Vitruvian–Palladian architecture into England and became the most influential architect in the country, becoming Surveyor of the King’s Works.

The Queen’s House in Greenwich designed and built by Inigo Jones Source: Wikimedia Commons

His career was ended with the outbreak of the English Civil War in 1642. England’s most famous architect Christopher Wren (1632–1723), a mathematician and astronomer turned architect stood in a line with Vitruvius, Palladio, and Jones. It is very clear that the humanist rediscovery and promotion of De architectura had a massive influence on the development of architecture in Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, in the process dissolving the boundaries between the theoretical intellectuals and the practical artisans. 

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The deviser of the King’s horologes

There can’t be many Renaissance mathematici, whose existence was ennobled by a personal portrait by the master of the Renaissance portraits, Hans Holbein the younger. In fact, I only know of one, the German mathematicus, Nicolas Kratzer.

Nicolas Kratzer Portrait by Hans Holbein the younger

One might be excused for thinking that having received this singular honour that Kratzer had, in his lifetime, achieved something truly spectacular in the world of the Renaissance mathematical disciplines; however, almost the opposite is true. Kratzer appears to have produced nothing of any significance, was merely the designer and maker of sundials, and an elementary maths teacher, who was only portrayed by Holbein, because for a time they shared the same employers and were apparently mates. 

So, who was Kratzer and how did he and Holbein become mates? Here we find a common problem with minor scientific figures in the Renaissance, there are no biographies, no handy archives giving extensive details of his life. All we have are a few, often vague, sometimes contradictory, traces in the proverbial sands of time from which historians have attempted to reconstruct at least a bare outline of his existence. 

Kratzer was born in 1487 in Munich, the son of a saw-smith and it is probably that he learnt his metal working skills, as an instrument maker, from his father. He matriculated at the University of Köln 18 November 1506 and graduated BA 14 June 1509. He moved onto the University of Wittenberg, famous as the university of Martin Luther. However, this was before the Reformation and Wittenberg, a young university first founded in 1502, was then still Catholic. We now lose track of Kratzer, who is presumed to have then worked as an instrument maker. Sometime in the next years, probably in 1517, he copied some astronomical manuscripts at the Carthusian monastery of Maurbach, near Vienna. 

In January 1517, Pieter Gillis (1486–1533) wrote to his erstwhile teacher Erasmus (1466–1536) that the skilled mathematician Kratzer was on his way with astrolabes and spheres, and a Greek book.

HOLBEIN, Hans the Younger (b. 1497, Augsburg, d. 1543, London) Portrait of Erasmus of Rotterdam 1523 Wood, 76 x 51 cm National Gallery, London

This firmly places Kratzer in the circle of humanist scholars, most famously Erasmus and Thomas More (1478–1535) author of Utopia, who founded the English Renaissance on the court of Henry VIII (1491–1547). Holbein was also a member of this circle. Erasmus and Holbein had earlier both worked for the printer/publisher collective of Petri-Froben-Amerbach in Basel. Erasmus as a copyeditor and Holbein as an illustrator. Holbein produced the illustrations for Erasmus’ In Praise of Folly (written 1509, published by Froben 1511)

Holbein’s witty marginal drawing of Folly (1515), in the first edition, a copy owned by Erasmus himself

Kratzer entered England either at the end of 1517 or the beginning of 1518. His first identifiable employment was in the household of Thomas More as maths teacher for a tutorial group that included More’s children. It can be assumed that it was here that he got to know Holbein, who was also employed by More. 

Thomas More Portrait by Hans Holbein 1527

For his portraits, Holbein produced very accurate complete sketches on paper first, which he then transferred geometrically to his prepared wooden panels to paint them. Around 1527, Holbein painted a group portrait of the More family that is no longer extant, but the sketch is. The figures in the sketch are identified in writing and the handwriting has been identified as Kratzer’s. 

Like Holbein, Kratzer moved from More’s household to the court of Henry VIII, where he listed in the court accounts as the king’s astronomer with an income of £5 a quarter in 1529 and 1531. It is not very clear when he entered the King’s service but in 1520 Cuthbert Tunstall (1474–1559), later Prince-Bishop of Durham, wrote in a letter:

Met at Antwerp with [Nicolas Kratzer], an Almayn [German], devisor of the King’s horologes, who said the King had given him leave to be absent for a time.

Both Tunstall and Kratzer were probably in Antwerp for the coronation of Charles V (1500–1558) as King of Germany, which took place in Aachen. There are hints that Kratzer was there to negotiate with members of the German court on Henry’s behalf. Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528) was also in the Netherlands; he was hoping that Charles would continue the pension granted to him by Maximilian I, who had died in 1519. Dürer and Kratzer met in the house of Erasmus and Kratzer was present as Dürer sketched a portrait of Erasmus. He also drew a silver point portrait of Kratzer, which no longer exists. 

 

Dürer sketch of Erasmus 1520
Dürer engraved portrait of Erasmus based on 1520 sketch finished in 1526. Erasmus reportedly didn’t like the portrait

Back in England Kratzer spent some time lecturing on mathematical topics at Oxford University during the 1520s. Here once again the reports are confused and contradictory. Some sources say he was there at the behest of the King, others that he was there in the service of Cardinal Wolsey. There are later claims that Kratzer was appointed a fellow of Corpus Christi College, but the college records do not confirm this. However, it is from the Oxford records that we know of Kratzer’s studies in Köln and Wittenberg, as he was incepted in Oxford as BA and MA, on the strength of his qualifications from the German institutions, in the spring of 1523. 

During his time in Oxford, he is known to have erected two standing sundials in the college grounds, one of which bore an anti-Lutheran inscription.

Drawing of Kratzer’s sundial made for the garden of Corpus Christi College Oxford

Neither dial exists any longer and the only dial of his still there is a portable brass dial in the Oxford History of Science Museum, which is engraved with a cardinal’s hat on both side, which suggests it was made for Wolsey.

Kratzer polyhedral sundial presumably made for Cardinal Wolsey Museum for the History of Science Oxford

On 24 October 1524 Kratzer wrote the following to Dürer in Nürnberg

Dear Master Albert, I pray you to draw for me a model of the instrument that you saw at Herr Pirckheimer’s by which distances can be measured, and of which you spoke to me at Andarf [Antwerp], or that you will ask Herr Pirckheimer to send me a description of the said instrument… Also I desire to know what you ask for copies of all your prints, and if there is anything new at Nuremberg in my craft. I hear that our Hans, the astronomer, is dead. I wish you to write and tell me what he has left behind him, and about Stabius, what has become of his instruments and his blocks. Greet in my name Herr Pirckheimer. I hope shortly to make a map of England which is a great country, and was not known to Ptolemy; Herr Pirckheimer will be glad to see it. All who have written of it hitherto have only seen a small part of England, no more… I beg of you to send me the likeness of Stabius, fashioned to represent St. Kolman, and cut in wood…

Herr Pirckheimer is Willibald Pirckheimer (1470–1530), who was a lawyer, soldier, politician, and Renaissance humanist, who produced a new translation of Ptolemaeus’ Geographia from Greek into Latin.

Engraved portrait of Willibald Pirckheimer Dürer 1524

He was Dürer’s life-long friend, (they were born in the same house), patron and probably lover.  He was at the centre of the so-called Pirckheimer circle, a group of mostly mathematical humanists that included “Hans the astronomer, who was Johannes Werner (1468–1522), mathematician, astronomer, astrologer, geographer,

Johannes Werner artist unknown

and cartographer and Johannes “Stabius” (c.1468–1522) mathematician, astronomer, astrologer, and cartographer.

Johannes Stabius portrait by Dürer

Werner was almost certainly Dürer’s maths teacher and Stabius worked together with Dürer on various projects including his star maps. The two are perhaps best known for the Werner-Stabius heart shaped map projection. 

Dürer replied to Kratzer 5 December 1524 saying that Pirckheimer was having the required instrument made for Kratzer and that the papers and instruments of Werner and Stabius had been dispersed.

Here it should be noted that Dürer, in his maths bookUnderweysung der Messung mit dem Zirkel und Richtscheyt (Instruction in Measurement with Compass and Straightedge), published the first printed instructions in German on how to construct and orientate sundials. The drawing of one sundial in the book bears a very strong resemblance to the polyhedral sundial that Kratzer made for Cardinal Wolsey and presumably Kratzer was the original source of this illustration. 

Dürer drawing of a sundial

Kratzer is certainly the source of the mathematical instruments displayed on the top shelf of Holbein’s most famous painting the Ambassadors, as several of them are also to be seen in Holbein’s portrait of Kratzer.

in’s The AmbassadorsHolbe

Renaissance Mathematicus friend and guest blogger, Karl Galle, recently made me aware of a possible/probable indirect connection between Kratzer and Nicolas Copernicus (1473–1543). Georg Joachim Rheticus (1514–1574) relates that Copernicus’ best friend Tiedemann Giese (1480–1550) possessed his own astronomical instruments including a portable sundial sent to him from England. This was almost certainly sent to him by his brother Georg Giese (1497–1562) a prominent Hanseatic merchant trader, who lived in the Steelyard, the Hansa League depot in London, during the 1520s and 30s.

London’s Steelyard

He was one of a number of Hanseatic merchants, whose portraits were painted by Holbein, so it is more than likely that the sundial was one made by Kratzer. 

Georg Giese portrait by Hans Holbein 1532

Sometime after 1530, Kratzer fades into the background with only occasional references to his activities. After 1550, even these ceased, so it is assumed that he had died around this time. In the first half of the sixteenth century England lagged behind mainland Europe in the mathematical disciplines including instrument making, so it is a natural assumption that Kratzer with his continental knowledge was a welcome guest in the Renaissance humanist circles of the English court, as was his younger contemporary, the Flemish engraver and instrument maker, Thomas Gemini (1510–1562). Lacking homegrown skilled instrument makers, the English welcomed foreign talent and Kratzer was one who benefited from this. 

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