Mechanical Arts, Natural Philosophy, and Visual Representation in Early Modern Europe (seminar)

For more past programming from the Folger Institute, please see the article Folger Institute scholarly programs archive.

This was a spring 2000 semester seminar.

This interdisciplinary seminar utilized recent scholarship and primary sources to examine the role of visual representation in both the mechanical arts and natural philosophy from the fourteenth through the seventeenth centuries. The visual construction of the "natural" and the "real" will be approached through a study of such concepts as "illusionism," "symbolism," and "representation." Throughout the central focus was the cultural status of visual representation and the changing ways in which it is used to construct and legitimate knowledge about the world. For instance, the seminar investigated the ways in which images are used to represent plants, animals, buildings, machines and other mechanical objects, geological formations and other objects of the natural world, anatomies both human and animal, and celestial objects such as the moon. Attention was given to methods of representation such as perspective. The seminar studied the ways in which visual images function in relationship to texts in the works of Leonardo da Vinci, Vesalius, Galileo, Helvétius, Robert Boyle, and Robert Hooke, among others. Participants examined the development, use, and epistemological status of optical instruments such as the telescope and microscope. Sources included both manuscript and print books on machines, including "theaters of machines." Other topics included regional differences between northern Europe and Italy concerning visual images, the influence of ancient concepts of representation, and the cultural and social status of people who create images. The seminar welcomed scholars with backgrounds in history, history of science and technology, literature, and art history, among other disciplines.

Director: Pamela O. Long currently holds a grant from the National Science Foundation to complete her book Openness, Secrecy, Authorship, Ownership: Studies in the Practical, Technical, and Knowledge Traditions of Premodern and Early Modern Europe. She has published in such journals as Isis, History and Technology, Technology and Culture, and the Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies. She has taught at a number of universities including The Johns Hopkins University, the University of Maryland, and St. John's College.