Written by Katy Barrett and Jose Ramon Marcaida
What can we learn from images? This has been one of the fundamental questions behind the ‘Origins of Science’ network from its inception and throughout our meetings and events. On 12th June we were again hosted by the Royal Society, for a workshop with an unusual but inspiring structure. A number of network participants each presented a set of images from within the Royal Society archives, speaking for only 10 minutes or so. As a group we then discussed these, drawing out connections and further interesting avenues of research. It worked remarkably well, highlighting an impressive range of questions across the materials, and leading us to animated discussions. One day was not long enough, showing how this format would be a productive model for further events.
The images we discussed were disparate in everything from geography to media, technique, subject, and author. Sachiko Kusukawa kicked off by showcasing the sheer range of images used by correspondents to the Royal Society, including a rather endearing outline drawing of a fruit bat that must have been sketched around a specimen. Felicity Henderson then followed with images by Robert Hooke, including an extraordinary drawing of a ‘walking cart,’ which he developed out of rough sketches submitted to the Society. Eric Jorink took us to Holland with Jan Swammerdam’s intricate drawings of microscopic observations, and the complicated process of turning these into engravings. Scott Mandelbrote showed us a curious panorama of the ancient ruins of Palmira, discussing the assumptions of perspectival viewpoint behind the image. Matthew Hunter rounded off the day with a discussion of comet drawings made by Edmond Halley, and beautiful celestial and astrological charts published by Joannes Bayer in Uranometria (1603).
Discussion topics ranged from the many lives of images in the early modern period, to the social and intellectual status of artists and image-makers. A large part of the conversation was centred around the question of the ‘epistemic’ uses of images. How, for example, did early modern visual culture cope with the challenge of picturing novelty, that is, portraying something that had not been seen before? As Karin Leonhard suggested, the role of images was not only to represent reality, but also to anticipate it somehow. In this regard, how should we historians qualify this anticipation? In other words, how should we interpret the tension between ‘recording’ and ‘inventing’ reality through visual means? And how should the question of accuracy be incorporated into the discussion, e.g., can images ‘improve’ or ‘degrade’? As several participants pointed out, the intellectual ‘public life’ of images was dynamic: images were used to argue and support hypotheses, but could also be interpreted as ways to ‘display knowledge’, or even as tools of persuasion.
This led into a discussion of the importance of visual literacy within early modern intellectual networks, as exemplified in Eric Jorink’s presentation on Jan Swammerdam and Otto Marseus Van Schrieck. How was ‘visual knowledge’ shared within these networks? To what extent did images become a sort of exchange currency among different ‘cultural hubs’ throughout Europe? Would it be possible to identify and characterize distinct ‘visual traditions’ at a geographical level: a ‘Dutch’ visual culture, as opposed to a ‘British’, ‘Italian’ or ‘Iberian’ tradition? Questions of schools and styles led to reflection on the role of visual practitioners –either in the form of unknown, ‘invisible’ agents or well-known and respected artists. Out of the several themes that were addressed, we agreed that certain factors might help us advance our knowledge of early modern artists’ professional status: their contractual obligations, their wages, the work-load. The appearance (and relevance) of the signature might also be important, in particular, the extent to which it would express anything about the authority and the reputation of the hand that produced the image.
Finally, and especially in connection with the Royal Society materials at hand, we thought about the process of handling images as objects –in Joanna Woodall’s words, the ‘haptic’ approach to visual culture. Issues of replica-making and circulation were addressed, as well as the challenge of evaluating the appreciation of these materials outside the culture of collecting –for example, in archival culture, on which, Michael Hunter suggested, there is much to be learned. Certainly we learnt how much richer an understanding of these images can be gained from examining them in person, with the privileged opportunity to move around the room from image to image, and discuss them with such an inspiring group of scholars.
Further images may be found from the Royal Society’s Picture Library at https://pictures.royalsociety.org/home.