The complete scientific compilation of natural history, especially the animal and plant world, was the principal project of the Accademia dei Lincei. Founded in 1603 by the Roman nobleman Federico Cesi (1585-1630) for “the study of nature and particularly mathematics,” the academy went on to become an interdisciplinary, trans-national network of scientific exchange. Cesi and his fellow members commissioned innumerable drawings of plants, animals and fossils. Following Cesi’s death in 1633, the Roman scholar Cassiano dal Pozzo (1588-1657), a member since 1622, acquired from Cesi’s estate his library, manuscripts, scientific instruments and natural history studies. Together with his own extensive antiquarian studies, these were integrated into Pozzo’s Museo Cartaceo (Paper Museum).
Over 6000 of these drawings, for the most brilliantly colored and executed with a hitherto unknown precision, have to date been identified in public and private collections, a large number by David Freedberg. He already published two sections in the Catalogue Raisonné of The Paper Museum of Cassiano dal Pozzo (David Freedberg and Enrico Baldini, Citrus Fruit, London 1997; Andrew C. Scott and David Freedberg, Fossil Woods and Other Geological Specimens, London 2000); another volume is scheduled for 2006, and additional volumes are planned for the future.
The detailed reconstruction of the complicated, almost 100-year history of the creation, collection and publication of the various parts of the Museo Cartaceo allows Freedberg to pay new tribute to the considerable scientific and historical ambitions as well as methodological achievements of Cesi and his circle. In close proximity to his sources, Freedberg brings to light a dramatic piece of scientific and pictorial history and develops a fundamental epistemology of natural history illustrations in the first half of the seventeenth century.
As Freedberg shows, Cesi began by assembling numerous images of individual objects with the goal of ordering natural history in its entirety, using empirical comparison and identification. With this visual encyclopaedia he hoped, independent of known systems of classification, to decipher the inherent order of nature. The as yet unclassified life of the New World was viewed as particularly promising for this empirical project, which is why Cesi, from 1610 at the latest, went to great lengths to acquire copies of a famous, richly illustrated but still unpublished collection of images of the animals and plants of Mexico, which Francisco Hernández had executed between 1571 and 1578 for the Spanish king.
It was practically inevitable, as Freedberg convincingly shows, that this rigid fixation on the vizualisation of nature would lead to a revision of the original project and to a critical reflection about the value of images for scientific purposes. For example, the almost obsessive documentation of anomalies in and hybrid forms of plants and their fruits – and also of fossils – hindered a purely inductive construction of an explicit classification based on the direct study of the individual features of nature (e.g. pp. 351-353; 367f; 375; 377).
Scrutiny through the newly-invented microscope, available to the Lincei by 1618 at the latest, appeared to offer a smooth transition from simple visibleness to classification. Between 1623 and 1628, the Lincei used it to make plant studies (p. 33, also pp. 41, 398) and a detailed engraving of bees (1625; pp. 161, 189-190) – here Freedberg gives a commendable demonstration of the extent to which natural history studies, archaeology, philology and panegyrics are interwoven. But the newly won precision of sight only resulted in a never-ending multiplication of the visible, which made the possibility of classification even more complicated (p. 377). This microscopic documentation of the surface of natural objects actually hindered an analysis of the inner structure and individual organs of living things. However, it became increasingly obvious to Cesi that such an analysis was the prerequisite for a substantiated classification that did not rely solely on the physiognomic principle of superficial similarity (pp. 354f., 404-407). A purely empirical study of countless natural objects basically emphasized their singularities and irregularities, it was therefore not representative of the actual order of nature but rather its disorder. It thus proved impossible to obtain extensive scientific clarification, which Cesi believed would lead to the reduction of the array of data. The methodological aporia of purely empirical research thus became apparent: the problem of pure induction, the sheer insoluble conflict between the overwhelming mass of individual data and the necessity for classification as the means of clarification. And so, paradoxically, it was Cesi himself, who had named his academy after the proverbial sight of the lynx, who became critical of the visual documentation itself.
The Lincei thus increasingly directed their attention from the surface to the inner parts of living things – here also supported by the microscope – by using dissections. But the only scientifically reliable approach was an organology of the inner structures of such organisms and the systematic description of their construction, which in turn was based on mathematical – arithmetic as well as geometric – principles (p. 366). The Lincei noticed that the comparison of reproductive organs especially facilitated classification, and therefore documented them with particular frequency in their drawings (pp. 71, 225-233). However, the laboriously acquired imagery on Mexico’s animal and plant world proved, with few exceptions, to be worthless for such organological analyses.
The arrangement into categories of the mass of visual material and the large number of new observations of details is considered by Freedberg to be the central problem for an empirical study of nature, one that Cesi also reflected upon. In 1628 Cesi organized his methodological views in ramistic tables. His original epistemic faith in the pure visual as the means of acquiring knowledge aimed at totality was replaced by his concept of “phytichnographica”, the geometric depiction of a plant. The only path to understanding was one defined by rules of recognition: schematic, geometrized drawings, backed up by organological analysis using dissection and the microscope (pp. 387f., 393). Pure induction alone, without the establishment of a system of classifying categories, could not resolve the conflict between image and classification and allow the variety of natural things to be ordered. Using this methodical basis, Cesi appears to have formed an idea of the serial chain of living things, and to have even acquired a sense of the importance of time for the development of species and thus for the explanation of intermediary and mixed forms (pp. 386, 391).
Galileo Galilei’s (1564-1642) relationship to the Lincei, of which he became a member in 1611, provided Freedberg with his subtitle: Galileo, his friends, and the beginnings of modern natural history. He interweaves his story of the Lincei’s study of natural life with that of Galileo. Almost in passing, Freedberg succeeds in enriching the latest Galileo studies by establishing the connection between courtly social structures and scientific advancement. Drawing on hitherto ignored sources, Freedberg shows how Galileo’s growing conflict with the Jesuits, and later also with Pope Urban VIII (1568-1644), whose nephew Francesco Barberini (1597-1679) became a member of the Lincei in 1623, is closely related to Cesi’s own history and that of his research (pp. 81-147). Particularly informative is the author’s analysis of Cesi’s epistemological – and thus image-theoretical – orientation on Galileo’s scepticism about the external appearance of things (pp. 387, 390).
Cesi’s examination of Galileo’s methods, especially his reduction of the variety of astronomical phenomena by means of mathematical – in particular geometrical – principles, is seen by Freedberg as the beginning of Cesi’s revision of his own method of studying living things. The visual schema motivated by reason made him aware of the deficiencies of purely empirical observation. Cesi died in 1630, aged 45, without having demonstrated clearly the outcome of his change of method. Freedberg’s enthusiastic reinstatement of the Lincei as part of the heroic early development of modern science thus ends as a melancholic review of an ambitious project in which the flood of detailed images made the acquisition of usable scientific knowledge impossible.
To illuminate the natural history research of the Lincei and to place it in a scientific-historical context, Freedberg was forced to more or less disregard other traditions of interpretation: magical, Paracelsian, theological or ancient. For it was exactly these universalistic concepts which had for so long obscured the empirical methods of the Lincei and prevented recognition of their scientific-historical achievements. Freedberg’s reconstruction of their empirical-historical accomplishment paves the way towards re-examining the metaphysical roots of Cesi’s motivation. What was the motivation behind Cesi’s undefeated desire to contribute to “progress in the field of natural history” (p. 8)? Recent studies have highlighted the importance of stoic philosophy for the Lincei (e.g., E. Reeves, Painting the Heavens. Art and Science in the Age of Galileo, Princeton 1997; Irene Baldriga, L’occhio della lince: i primi Lincei tra arte, scienza e collezionismo [1603-1630], Rome 2002). The Stoa’s particular interest in natural history was based on the notion that only a matter-of-fact perception of things, one completely free of delusion, could prevent false judgements and with them affects against nature. The stoic ethic explains why the Stoa developed a method of direct understanding that was close to an empiric approach. Perhaps it was the great importance the Stoa placed on the unadulterated perception of the senses as the precondition for leading a life according to the laws of nature that explains why Cesi and his friends clung to the idea that the precise documentation of their observations was the quintessence of their knowledge of nature. Thus in Freedberg’s reconstruction of the Lincei’s research, one gets the sense that the stoic ethic was possibly the driving force of the beginnings of early modern natural history studies.
Even if Cesi’s studies in the end failed – as Freedberg conclusively shows – the enthusiasm of his circle of friends for the precise observation of nature, often with the help of instruments, set an important cultural-historical standard. Andreas Thielemann has since shown the fundamental importance of the Cesi circle for the depiction of nature in the pictorial arts (Natur pur? Literarische Quellen und philosophische Ziele der Naturdarstellung bei Elsheimer. Paper presented at the 2004 symposium Adam Elsheimer und sein römischer Kreis. Rom und der Norden. Wege und Formen des künstlerischen Austauschs, Bibliotheca Hertziana, Rome. Publication forthcoming). It is evident from the letter of 28 August 1609 from Giambattista della Porta to Cesi (excerpts in Freedberg, pp. 101f.) that Cesi by then already knew of the construction of the telescope and not just in 1612 when Galileo visited Rome. Thus Thielemann argues that Adam Elsheimer (d. 1610), who was close to Cesi and his circle, studied the Milky Way through Cesi’s telescope and recorded his observations in his Flight into Egypt of 1609.
Freedberg’s Eye of the Lynx once again incorporates Netherlandish art into the international context of the newly developing scientific culture of the visible of around 1600 and thus offers historians of Netherlandish art a new criterion against which to test Svetlana Alpers’s well-known thesis of the northern “art of describing.” It would, for example, be interesting to examine how the visual culture of the Netherlands influenced Netherlandish members of the Lincei, such as Johannes van Heck from Deventer. One could also read Freedberg’s reconstruction of Cesi’s epistemically based scepticism towards images as a fundamental criticism of the tendency of the modern-day “Visual Media Studies” to see media history and the history of knowledge as parallel developments. But above all, one should take Cesi’s collection of images as a methodological menetekel of our own discipline and present-day art historical methods: the more visual data one collects, the more difficult it becomes to make fundamental inductive evaluations.
Bergische Universität, Wuppertal
(Translated from the German by Fiona Healy)