The Carrara Herbal – Sarah Kyle’s Pandora’s box

Sarah R. Kyle, Associate Professor of Humanities, University of Central Oklahoma, has just published a book  Medicine & Humanism in Late Medieval Italy: the Carrara Herbal in Padua (Routledge 2016). For a discount code, see Routledge brochure pdf

Here is her story about her encounter with the manuscript.

The day the Carrara Herbal arrived at my desk at the British Library I felt like I was opening Pandora’s Box. After all my research, all my grant applications, all the hoops and puzzles to see such rare books, I was finally here – and, now, emerging from its large but unremarkable storage box, so was the book: what would I find inside?

Egerton 2020, f.4

Fig. 1. Anonymous, Frontispiece with Carrara heraldry and “Citron” (Citrus medica, L., citron tree), Carrara Herbal, London, British Library, Egerton 2020, f. 4r, 35 × 24 cm, gouache on vellum, Padua, ca. 1390–1400. Copyright © The British Library Board


The Carrara Herbal is a late fourteenth-century illustrated manuscript of “materia medica” (medicinal substances) commissioned by the last lord of Padua, Francesco II da Carrara (d. 1406). The artist of the unfinished but extraordinary illustrative cycle is unknown. The manuscript contains a translation into Paduan dialect of a Latin version of an Arabic compilation of information about “simples,” singular medicinal substances from the “three kingdoms of nature” (plants, animals, and minerals), and their therapeutic uses.

Broken into several parts, the manuscript’s text is formulaic; each entry (or “chapter”) includes an illustration of the medicinal substance in question (or leaves a space for one), and the text follows a pattern in its presentation of information about the drug and its therapeutic applications. The scribe left a large, blank space within each entry (some of which are several pages in length) for an accompanying illustration of the entry’s substance; yet only the “herbal” section, the section devoted to plant medicines, is illustrated – and it is incomplete. The plant images, while composed by a single artist, vary in style and composition, from the starkly schematic to the resoundingly realistic and to complex combinations of the two. The unknown artist evoked both illustrative traditions and innovations in his representations of plants in gouache (a kind of watercolour paint) on the manuscript’s vellum pages. I was intrigued by why he would choose to represent the plants in these ways, and why so many contemporary scholars had neglected the stylised or schematic plant images in their analyses of this manuscript.

As I scrutinised the diversity of imagery and grappled with the idiosyncrasies of abbreviated Paduan dialect, I was struck by the deeply physical process of reading and studying the text – an observation that came to inform the central argument in my book. The Carrara Herbal was developed to cultivate a particular reading-experience, one that captured the readers at every turn – distracting their focus from the text or from the images with sketches of faces that peek out above the names of cited medical authorities (as though Dioscorides or Galen himself had popped in for a lecture!). These memorable “breaks” in the text and the different styles of images that themselves puncture the flow of words – sometimes growing up from behind or encircling the text block – deny passive reception of the book’s content and continuously remind readers of their engagement in the act of reading this very book. By reminding the reader of the book as an object tied the process of reading, the Herbal ties the reader – inextricably – to its owner, the lord of Padua, and to the patterns of artistic and intellectual patronage engaged by his family over the course of their rule of the city during the fourteenth century.

Egerton 2020  f.165

Fig. 2. Fig. 2. Anonymous, “Çucha” (Cucurbita lagenaria L., bottle gourd), Carrara Herbal, London, British Library, Egerton 2020, f. 165r, 35 × 24 cm, gouache on vellum, Padua, ca. 1390–1400 Copyright © The British Library Boar

The Carrara lords supported the University of Padua, luring prominent scholars away from the competing schools at Bologna, and courted humanists, especially Francesco Petrarca (1304–1374) and Pier Paolo Vergerio (1370–1344/45), to settle and teach in Padua. The Carrara Herbal’s textual content connects it to the growing interest in the “new” Arabic medicine being taught at the university, while its imagery ties it to the patterns of illustrated book collection and of portraiture engaged by Carrara court, and to humanistic ideas about the moral value of reading, art, and nature. I argue that the Carrara Herbal, in creating and cultivating the reading experience that it does, enabled Francesco to bring together several threads of the Carrara family patronage strategy, locating (and promoting) himself at its nexus, as a progressive leader – a “physician prince” of Padua.

Perhaps with the exception of the advocates at the Material Collective, art historians often don’t get to talk about their personal, subjective experiences of art. We analyse the form of a work of art and dissect its content with a critical eye. We consider questions of facture or audience reception and we study – among other things – why and how the works were made, perceived, and understood. But before we can do any of that work, we must experience the art itself – we must reckon with our own subjective engagement and how, in the case of this illustrated book, the visual and textual rhetorics manipulate us as viewers and readers. I recognised and understood this truth, fundamentally, the day I opened the Carrara Herbal and started to read, and since then it has informed my thinking about the production and historical reception of this book and others like it. The form and content of the manuscript, in its text and its imagery, shape the readers’ experience of the book as a whole, continually reminding us of the book’s physical presence.

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Scientific Illustrations in the Freshwater Biological Association Collections

In November 2015, after 6 years of working on Carl Linnaeus’s manuscripts, I began a new job as Information Scientist for the Freshwater Biological Association (FBA) on the shores of Windermere. This entails looking after the library, archives, and biological specimens held by the FBA, all of which relate in one way or another to freshwater research and science, ranging from algae, to fish, invertebrates, pollution, limnology, and hydrology. The FBA was founded in 1929, and I have been adjusting to the move from early modern to more contemporary, mostly 20th-century records. After a period of settling in, learning the ropes, and dealing with the aftermath of Storm Desmond in December (which flooded a number of boxes containing zooplankton, phytoplankton, and fish scales), I have been ferreting away in the archives, looking at the notebooks, drawings, graphs, maps, datasets, and correspondence left by FBA scientists. I have been struck by the amount of material there is, waiting to be studied by historians of science. In particular, I have been struck by the importance of drawings, maps and graphs, amongst other scientific visual illustrations, that would appeal to art historians. Three short examples will show the quality and variety of material of particular interest to readers of this website.

During his time at the FBA, in the early 1930s, Harold Philip Moon (1919-1982) carried out pioneer work on the littoral invertebrates. His archives comprises detailed data collection, annotated maps of Lake District waters such as Windermere and Ullswater, and general notes on biology, compiled as a student at Kings College, Cambridge between 1929 and 1932, many of which include fine pencil and ink drawings.


Fig. 1

Fig. 1. 1913 map of the shore of Windermere with detailed annotation by H.P. Moon, 1950s?

Thomas T. Macan (1910-1985) had a distinguished career as an entomologist, focusing on aquatic insects, which he studied for most of his life at the FBA from 1935 to 1976. His fieldwork notebooks are meticulously drawn up. Macan produced some of the identification keys of freshwater insects that were published by the FBA, including the drawings, the originals of which are in the FBA archives. Macan was clearly attentive to the quality and practices of scientific illustrations. While investigating a map chest the other week, I stumbled across a set of 18 boards (approximately A1 in format) entitled ‘Methods of Illustrating Figures and Diagrams by T.T. Macan’. These boards, produced in April 1976, are sets of instructions for scientific illustrations, looking at contrast, line shading, symbols, graphs, histograms, maps and how to draw types of apparatus.

Fig. 2

Fig. 2. ‘Methods of Illustrating Figures and Diagrams by T.T. Macan’: board explaining contrast, using the work of John Lund

John Lund (1912-2015) and Hilda Canter-Lund (1922-2007) were algologists who both worked at the FBA for most of their career. Together they compiled Freshwater Algae: their microscopic world explored (1995), which contained Hilda Canter-Lund’s beautiful photographs of microscopic algae. John Lund was also responsible for the Fritsch Collection of illustrations of freshwater, brackish and terrestrial Algae (for more information on this collection, see

The FBA holds a rich collection of unstudied archives, of particular interest to historians of science and art historians. Some of the collections can be found on Archives Hub ( For more information, please contact me at

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Deadline 6 July: Funded PhD opportunity on Hans Sloane’s Books

sloaneVisitors to this site might have or know of brilliant undergraduates or Master’s students looking for a funded PhD position. ‘Hans Sloane’s Books: an early Enlightenment library and its material relationships’ is funded by the AHRC (UK), and is a Collaborative Doctoral Partnership between Queen Mary (University of London) and the British Library. For further details, please see:


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New Book by Florike Egmond: Eye for Detail

Those of you who remember Florike Egmond’s rediscovery of Gessner’s natural history drawings would be interested to know that her book discussing those drawings and MUCH more, is now in press. And she’s ask me to share the flyers that offer 20% discount of the book, which will be out in October this year.

For those in the US: eyefordetail-flier-V2-one-page-US.

For those in the UK: eyefordetail-flier-V2-one-page.


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Alex Seltzer on Catesby

From Alex Seltzer – Catesby and physico-theology article published 20 Feb.,2016

Fieldfare of Carolina (c) The Royal Society

Announcing the publication of the following article by Alex Seltzer:  “Catesby’s Conundrums:  mixing representation with metaphor,”  The British Art Journal, XVI no. 3 (Winter 2015/16), 82-92.  The author argues that some of Catesby’s “illogical” combinations of plants and animals for his Natural History of Carolina must be taken as metaphors promoting the argument from design.  Similarities or dichotomies between plants and animals conform with notions derived from physico-theology that many virtuosi embraced.  Catesby’s odd pairings promote the concept of the “Book of Nature” as promoted by the Cambridge Platonists, Robert Boyle, John Ray and William Derham.

A limited number of copies of The British Art Journal (17 pounds UK; $30.00 USA) may be available by contacting agent Ms. Sally Sharp at
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Networking with the Fabrica

Networking with a Book, or

How Vesalius Gave away his Complimentary Copies of the Fabrica

Dániel Margócsy, Márk Somos and Stephen Joffe

(The authors are currently conducting a census of the 1543 and 1555 editions of the Fabrica. Please let us know if you have or know of a copy at

Early modern authors tended not to get paid by the publisher. Instead, they usually received a good number of complimentary copies as payment in kind. Yet we have very little knowledge what they actually did with these copies. Did they sell it wholesale to a bookdealer, did they peddle it at fairs, or did they give it away to friends, relatives, and potential employers, as authors tend to do today? Andreas Vesalius’ De humani corporis fabrica, a revolutionary work of early modern anatomy, offers an excellent case study to reveal what strategies an author employed to put his complimentary copies to good use. The renowned Flemish anatomist came from a well-to-do family, and was already a professor at Padua in 1543 when his atlas appeared, and therefore had little need to sell the Fabrica for a living. Instead, he used these copies both for his own work and for building his professional networks.

It is well known how Vesalius used copies of his own books as a sketchpad for planning revised editions. As Vivian Nutton has shown, Vesalius marked his corrections and modifications of the text and the illustrations for a planned, but never realized, third edition of the Fabrica in a copy of the 1555 edition, now preserved at Toronto’s Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library.[1] He similarly annotated his Institutiones anatomicae in the hopes of revising it, although he ultimately abandoned this project in favor of writing the Fabrica.[2] Yet in both cases, Vesalius used only one volume to record his corrections. What did he do with the other complimentary copies?

One answer is surely patronage. Vesalius dedicated the Fabrica to Emperor Charles V and the Epitome to the future Philip II, and brought the hand-colored presentation copies to the Emperor in person. The gift worked and Vesalius was soon appointed to the court as the personal physician of Charles. Yet Vesalius’ lavishly colored dedication copy to the emperor, now in a private collection, shows only one facet of Vesalius’ complex networking strategies in the period.[3] To keep his job, he also needed to maintain his reputation among his colleagues, and he strategically donated copies of the Fabrica to other physicians to form alliances with them. In all probability, most complimentary copies of the Fabrica were used for such purposes.

Our research has uncovered so far three copies of the 1543 and 1555 editions of the Fabrica that Vesalius probably gave away to his friends. The Landes- und Universitätsbibliothek Bonn (Call no.: Ra 2’ 21/1 Rara) holds a 1543 edition that was once owned by Vesalius, who offered it to the Nuremberg physician Stephanus Lagus in 1548. Vesalius’ strategy of gifting the Fabrica to friends and allies worked well, as Lagus appears to have much appreciated the present, carefully noting the act of donation in his copy: “Sum Stephani Lagi ex dono D. Andreae Vesalii anno 1548 Eslingae.”

Stephanus Lagus’ inscription in his Fabrica. © Landes- und Universitätsbibliothek Bonn

Stephanus Lagus’ inscription in his Fabrica. © Landes- und Universitätsbibliothek Bonn

The note is probably authentic, as Vesalius was traveling with Charles V in the Germanic lands in 1548, and Esslingen was a frequent stop for the emperor. The practice of inscribing copies with the name of the donor was quite common in the period. Lagus himself wrote a similar ex-dono note in his copy of Avicenna’s Canon medicinae, which he received from the Nuremberg pharmacist Albert Pfister. Presents of books were clearly important for Lagus, bearing witness to his network of friends in a material form.

The 1555 copy of the Fabrica at the Städel Museum’s Graphische Sammlung in Frankfurt am Main (Call No.: Tresor 2/390) shows how strategic such gifts may have been to preserve Vesalius’ reputation. As it is well known, the Parisian professor Jacobus Sylvius launched a vicious attack against Vesalius in 1551, calling his former student mad (‘vaesanus’). A former and disillusioned student of Sylvius’, Renatus Henerus came to the help of Vesalius and published a defense in 1555. In all probability, Vesalius thanked Henerus by offering him a copy of the freshly published second folio edition of his Fabrica.

Renatus Henerus’ inscription in his Fabrica. © Städel Museum Graphische Sammlung.

Renatus Henerus’ inscription in his Fabrica. © Städel Museum Graphische Sammlung.

The ex-dono note in the Städel copy specifies that Henerus received his copy as a gift from Vesalius in June 1557, which the family clearly prized. Not only did Renerus mark the act of donation, but his son Petrus also carefully read and annotated the volume, paying special attention to biographical details about Vesalius. Underneath the ex-dono inscription, Petrus composed a short note on Vesalius’ career, and also mentioned that his own father came to Vesalius’ help when Sylvius attacked him. Even a generation later, the family still much valued their connection to Vesalius, and used the Fabrica to create a permanent record of this relationship.  Importantly, the Städel copy also contains the annotations of Renatus Henerus, recording his own role in the Sylvius debate.

Renatus Henerus’s note on p. 40. © Städel Museum Graphische Sammlung.

Renatus Henerus’s note on p. 40. © Städel Museum Graphische Sammlung.

Next to one passage, where Vesalius refers to his critics and supporters without naming them, Renatus fills in “Sylvius” for the critic and “Fuchsius et ego” for the supporters. A member of the family also underlined crucial parts of the Fabrica that were a point of contention between Sylvius and Henerus, such as Vesalius’ discussion of the conspicuous foramen (canalis caroticus) and the rete mirabile. It is unclear if Petrus made this note while readering the Fabrica and his father’s work side by side, or Renatus did so to commemorate his own contributions for posterity. It is also possible, though less likely, that Henerus had access to this copy before the official date of donation, and these underlinings reflect his careful reading of the Fabrica, possibly in the company of Vesalius, to mark those passages he wanted to discuss.


We are less certain about the fate of a third copy of the Fabrica, now preserved at the Bibliothèque des Annonciades of Boulogne-sur-Mer in France (Call No.: Rés. f° S1 3341).

Joannes Viringus’ inscription in his Fabrica. © Bibliothèque municipale de Boulogne-sur-Mer.

Joannes Viringus’ inscription in his Fabrica. © Bibliothèque municipale de Boulogne-sur-Mer.

This copy bears the curious note, “Sum Vesalii Viringii,” implying that it once belonged to the author, before passing into the possession of Joannes Viringus, the Dutch translator of the Epitome. Not in the hand of Vesalius, this highly curious note was probably written by Viringus to record the notable previous owner, even if under erasure, and to mark his own, subsequent ownership. While we have no proof that Viringus and Vesalius met in person, they both lived in Flanders in the same period. Viringus may have acquired the volume from Vesalius as a gift, or he could have purchased it from the family after Vesalius’ death, as he was living near Brussels in the 1560s. Viringus also filled the volume with numerous annotations, in part to record his own observations that confirm Vesalius’, in part to clarify Vesalius’ relationship to earlier and later authors, and in part probably to prepare his Dutch translation of the Epitome.

Joannes Viringus compares the Fabrica with the Epitome, p. 249 [349]. © Bibliothèque municipale de Boulogne-sur-Mer.

Joannes Viringus compares the Fabrica with the Epitome, p. 249 [349]. © Bibliothèque municipale de Boulogne-sur-Mer.

Taken together, these three copies thus reveal how Vesalius’ own copies of the Fabrica entered circulation across the social networks of the author, and helped to disseminate Vesalius’ arguments. They could spur the production of new translations, but also could be used as a token of thanks to contemporaries who defended the author. Vesalius’ previous ownership of these volumes was clearly important to the recipients, who made a note of this for posterity. Yet, despite their reverence for Vesalius, they did not treat the Fabrica as an expensive coffetable book. They made their mark in the text with a pen, leaving evidence for future historians about their close engagement with the text and its arguments with other medical authorities in the period.

[1] Vivian Nutton. “Vesalius Revised. His Annotations to the 1555 Fabrica.” Medical History 56 (2012): 415-443.

[2] Vivian Nutton. “More Vesalian Second Thoughts. The Annotations to the Institutiones anatomicae secundum Galeni sententiam, 1538.” Gesnerus 72 (2015): 94-116.

[3] Sold at Christies Sale 8854, New York, March 18, 1998.

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Notes and Records – Essay Prize – deadline 31-01-16

Lunar Landscape 1910 (C) Royal Society Picture Library

Lunar Landscape 1910 (C) Royal Society Picture Library

Notes and Records: the Royal Society Journal for the History of Science is offering an essay prize.

This biennial competition is open to researchers in the history of science, technology and medicine who have completed a postgraduate degree within the last five years.

The unpublished essay, based on original research, should relate to aspects of the history of science, technology or medicine. The award includes a cash prize of £500. The deadline for submission of an essay is 31st January 2016.

More details at

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2 PhDs @ Leiden in Ichthyology

Drawing of fish from Ms III C 22, 110,© Amsterdam University Library. Please do not reproduce without permission.

Drawing of fish from Ms III C 22, 110,© Amsterdam University Library. Please do not reproduce without permission.

Visitors to this website might be interested to know that there are two PhD (full-time) places on offer at the Faculty of Humanities, Leiden University Centre for the Arts in Society (LUCAS) is looking for a PhD student to work on a project called: Enlightened Fish Books: A New History of Eighteenth-Century Ichthyology (1686-1828), deadline 15 April, and Collection Building: Ichthyology in the Netherlands during the Nineteenth-Century (1760-1880), deadline 15 June. Below are the links to these posts. The funding is generous and Leiden is a beautiful town.

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Two Post-doctoral posts in the graphic and pictorial practices of the early Royal Society

Richard Waller's  study of plants (C) The Royal Society

Richard Waller’s study of plants (C) The Royal Society

Making Visible: the graphic and pictorial practices of the early Royal Society (CRASSH, University of Cambridge)

2 x Postdoctoral Associates, starting 1 September 2015, for 3.5 years

Deadline: 8 April 2015.  Online application at: CRASSH

This AHRC-funded project examines the roles visual resources and practices played in the development and dissemination of scientific knowledge in the first fifty years of the Royal Society (1660-1710). It is an interdisciplinary project led by Dr Sachiko Kusukawa (history of science), with Dr Felicity Henderson (literature and material culture) and Dr Alexander Marr (history of art) as co-investigators. How did drawings, diagrams, tables and charts come to be used alongside words and objects by a group of people who hoped to reform and establish a new form of knowledge of nature, based on collaboration, experimentation and observation? In what ways did it mark the emergence of a scientific visual culture in the early modern period?

The project involves extensive archival research at the Royal Society, study sessions in historical graphic techniques and instrumentation, academic workshops involving international scholars, and interviews with curators and specialists. It also has an ambitious program of public engagement activities, including an exhibition in 2018 at the Royal Society. The findings of the project team will be disseminated through journal articles, a volume of essays, a co-authored monograph, blogs and pod-casts on the project website, as well as in public lectures, workshops and conferences. The project is looking for two PDRAs, one with a background in history of science and the other in history of art, who will collaborate closely.

The project is based at CRASSH, which also hosts Dr Alexander Marr’s ERC Project, Genius Before Romanticism: Ingenuity in Early Modern Art and Science and Dr Subha Mukherji’s ERC project, Epistemic Intersections in Early Modern England: the Place of Literature.

Download a Project Description

This post is suited to scholars in the early stage of their careers who have research experience in either history of art or history of science of the period, and are able to conduct archival research, have or are willing to acquire additional skills (e.g. drawing, printmaking techniques, object-handing, and use of historical instruments) by working with specialists and curators, and are familiar with digital media (database, blogs, websites, podcasts, social media).

The RAs are expected to conduct archival research (mainly at the Royal Society), generate and maintain data on a picture database, work effectively with a wide range of curators and specialists through study sessions and interviews, write research papers (a minimum of two papers during the project), participate in international workshops, assist in editorial work of project publications, generate content for the project website, collaborate on an exhibition to be held at the Royal Society, give gallery talks in that exhibition, plan, arrange and take part in the project’s public engagement activities. They will work closely with the investigators.


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Call for proposals: Art and Science in the Early Modern Low Countries @Rijksmuseum and Trippenhuis

‘Art and Science in the Early Modern Low Countries’ 

Astronomical Clock by Richard Ledutz, c. 1640, 39.5 cm high. Rijjksmuseum

Astronomical Clock by Richard Ledutz, c. 1640, 39.5 cm high. Rijksmuseum

Amsterdam, 17-18 September 2015; submit proposals by 15 April 2015


Anticipating plans for a future exhibition on Art and Science in the Early Modern Low Countries (ca 1550-1730), the Rijksmuseum and the Huygens Institute for the History of the Netherlands (Royal Dutch Academy of
Arts and Sciences) organize a preliminary, two-day conference. This event will take place at the Rijksmuseum (September 17th) and the Trippenhuis (September 18th) in Amsterdam.

The Low Countries were flourishing in the early Modern Period, influenced by developments in Northern Italy and Southern Germany. First Antwerp and later Amsterdam emerged as centers of artistic and scientific innovation and creativity, and as nodal points in the exchange of goods, knowledge and skills. It is certainly no coincidence that a high level of artistic productivity in the Low Countries coincided with the so-called ‘Scientific Revolution’. Seen from a contemporary point of view, ars and scientia were complementary concepts, rather than opposites.

The aim of the conference is to explore the possibilities, prospects and also the pitfalls of the conjunction of ‘art and science’, and to contribute to the developing conversation between historians of art, historians of science
and everyone interested in the visual and material culture of the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Low Countries. The organizers look forward to receiving original submissions that address the relationships between art and science on both a material and a conceptual level.

Proposals which take objects, works of art, images, or illustrated texts as their point of departure are particularly welcomed. These may include ‘borderline’ topics – cross-overs between art and science, such as decorated shells, maps, models, pop-up books or anatomical preparations. Although the focus of the conference will be the Low Countries – both the South and the North – proposals which make reference to developments elsewhere shall certainly be considered, so long as the overall relevance for the main theme is clear.

Topics for discussion may include, but are not limited to:

  • the fluid borders between art and nature, both in theory and in practice (e.g. life casting techniques, strategies of display),
  • the influence and use of new theories and instruments of visual representation (e.g. the use of perspective, anatomical analysis, the telescope, microscope and camera obscura),
  • the processes and techniques that artists used for the visual representation of the increasing body of traditional and new knowledge, such as different print media and the use of color, multi-sheet and interactive prints.
  • the mediation of direct observation by visual conventions and the specific demands of illustrations concerned with the production of new knowledge (for instance with regard to previously unknown flora, fauna and peoples, and to anatomical and astronomical discoveries),
  • the emergence in visual materials of new conceptions of objectivity and trustworthiness (e.g. the meaning of ‘ad vivum’ and its cognates; the character and use of illustrations in natural histories and ‘scientific’ treatises),
  • spaces where scholars, craftsmen and artists cooperated, discussed and produced new knowledge, such as cabinets of curiosities, the workshop, the anatomical theatre and the botanical garden,
  • the role of religion in the definition and construction of knowledge and its influence on the visualization of knowledge.

We invite proposals for 20-minute and 10-minute papers, presenting the results of new or ongoing research. 
A 300-word abstract (preferably including an image or reference to a work of art), together with a short curriculum vitae, should be sent to both:

Jan de Hond (

Eric Jorink (

Proposals should be submitted no later than April 15, 2015.

The selection of proposals will take place during the following month.

For further particulars, see pdf: CfP Art and Science in the Early Modern Low Countries 17-18 September 2015

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