As research over the last decade has made abundantly clear, the relation between ‘art’ and ‘science’ in early modern Europe encompassed much more than the invention of perspective or the use of the camera obscura. As a result of the interest in what aptly has been called ‘visual culture’, not only historians of art, but an increasing number of historians of science have become fascinated in the rich and complex relationship between ars and scientia. To give just a few examples: the iconic engravings in Andreas Vesalius’s De Humani corporis fabrica (1543) are at the focus of scholarly attention (see, most recently, Sachiko Kusukawa, Picturing the Book of Nature, 2012); Mario Biagioli and Horst Bredekamp have put attention to the (rhetorical) use of images by Galileo; Pamela H. Smith has underlined the role of what she called the ‘artisanal knowledge’ of painters and goldsmiths in the ‘scientific revolution’, and in a very recent, splendid exhibition and catalogue, Susan Dackerman has stressed the role of prints in the pursuit of knowledge. Seen from this perspective, the English translation of the lavishly illustrated book by Volker R. Remmert, originally published in German in 2005, is an extremely important contribution.
In this book, Remmert, Chair of the history of science at the University of Wuppertal, takes a closer look at a hitherto neglected subject: the engraved title-pages and frontispieces of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century books on (mainly) astronomy and mathematics. While historians of science until quite recently were mainly interested in texts, tables and the question ‘who was first?,’ they now have become very aware of the role of images in the process of acquiring, interpreting and disseminating knowledge. Remmert’s rich and erudite book underlines the fruitfulness of this approach. He demonstrates, for example, that the title-pages and frontispieces are much more than just PR material to make the contents of the book known to a wider audience. Drawing his examples from a range of well and lesser known books, such as Brahe’s Epistolarum Astronomicarum Libri (1596), Clavius’s Opera Mathematica (1612), Kepler’s Tabulae Rudolphinae(1627), and Galilei’s Dialogo sopra i due sistemi del mondo (1632) and its Latin translation published in Amsterdam (1635), Remmert demonstrates how the visual imagery of the title-pages have no single, fixed intention, but are multi-faceted instruments with a range of intended and unintended meanings. They could be seen in the context of the books they were supposed to illustrate, but also as relatively independent products in their own right, mediating between the scholar, the publisher, the artist and the eye of the beholder. It is certainly no coincidence that many frontispieces circulated (and still circulate) as artistic products in their own right.
Remmert discusses his rich source material in seven – related – case studies. He points, for example, to the important role the engravings played in Jesuit science during the seventeenth century, starting with the much debated discussion over the Copernican system. That the Roman church would not take the hypothesis for granted – as Remmert points out on the basis of a very close look at the frontispiece of Clavius’s Opera Mathematica – would have been clear for a small and learned group of intimi already by 1612, shortly after the publication of Galileo’s telescopic observations ( Sidereus Nuncius, 1609). Visual representations of biblical passages presuming an immobile earth could be taken as a demarcation of the Catholic Church’s position in the twilight zone between the publications of Copernicus’s De revolutionibus (1543) and Galilei’s Il Sagiatore (1623). In other words: images could prefigurate verbal and printed discussions. In his well-documented and lucid account, Remmert makes also very interesting observations on the visual rhetoric involving the fashioning of the two disciplines: astronomy and mathematics. Brahe, Kepler and others were very successful in creating an imagery around the venerable science of astronomy all the way back to Hipparchus and Aristarchus. Others, such as Samuel Marolois and Caramuel Lobkowitz, visually underlined the importance of mathematics for warfare, trade, navigation and – yes – perspective.
Although Remmert’s Picturing the Scientific Revolution is of great relevance for all those who are interested in early modern intellectual and visual culture in Europe in general, it is of particular relevance for historians of Netherlandish art. Almost in passing, we are reminded that the Low Countries played an important role in the ‘scientific revolution;’ that Dutch artists (notably engravers) were top of the bill and received many commissions (also from abroad); and that publishing houses in the Dutch Republic were responsible for circa half of the number of books printed in Europe during the last half of the seventeenth century. In one chapter, Remmert explicitly addresses the Dutch situation. In a fascinating analysis, he demonstrates how some of Brahe’s Dutch students and followers elaborated on the Dane’s invention of a visual tradition. Nicolaus Mulerius, Adriaan Metius and Philip Lansbergen, and later Andreas Cellarius and the lesser known Jan Luyts, developed a visual idiom to communicate their respective cosmological ideas (mainly Copernican), and to put their work firmly both in a respectable tradition and in the contemporary debate. By focusing on a particular theme in a particular place, Remmert demonstrates that there is no such thing as an universal iconography with a fixed significance: ‘Pictures, just like ideas, are understood in ways that alter as they migrate to different circumstances’ (194).
In this book, Remmert focuses on astronomy and mathematics, the disciplines that traditionally are seen as the core of the ‘scientific revolution.’ The author is well aware of the fact that the scope of historians of science has widened over the last decades. They have, amongst other themes, also taken the developments in natural history, medicine and chemistry into account, not to speak of geography, linguistics and what we somewhat anachronistically could call ethnography. It is precisely in these areas that Dutch artists and publishers had their Golden Age between ca. 1670 and 1735. One has only to think of famous works like the multi-volume Hortus Malabaricus (1678-1703) by Hendrik van Reede tot Drakestein; the posthumous Amboinsche Rariteitenkamer (1705) by Georg Rumphius; or the Loccupletissimi rerum thesauri accurate descriptio (1734-1765) by Albertus Seba, works with beautifully executed engraved title-pages or frontispieces. The challenging work of Remmert offers a stimulus for further research into this theme.
Courtauld Institute of Art/ Huygens Institute for the History of the Netherlands