Prints and the Pursuit of Knowledge in Early Modern Europe

By Susan Dackerman. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Art Museums; New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2011. 442 pp. $60.00 (paperback). ISBN 9780300171075.

Prints and the Pursuit of Knowledge in Early Modern Europe is a massive catalogue published in conjunction with a scholarly exhibit of the same name. The exhibit, organized by Susan Dackerman, Curator of Prints, European and American Art, at the Harvard University Art Museums, was mounted at Harvard’s Sackler Museum in 2011 and traveled to the Block Museum at Northwestern University early in 2012. A related symposium at Harvard attracted specialists from the history of science and technology, art history, and a variety of other disciplines. The exhibit was a tour de force, bringing together sixteenth-century scientific instruments and artistic and technical prints that worked in the early modern era to advance knowledge in natural history, medicine, mathematics, astronomy, and other pursuits. The catalogue, unfortunately, is less impressive than the exhibit, either as a work of scholarship or as an example of good design.

The principal theme of the exhibit and catalogue can be briefly summarized as follows. Sixteenth-century artists worked closely with natural philosophers, medical practitioners, mathematicians, cosmographers, and instrument makers, correlating efforts and sometimes collaborating on the production as well as the dissemination of knowledge. Through the agency of prints, artists facilitated the conceptualization of scientific and technical ideas. Most prints were two-dimensional representations in which graphics were typically keyed to an explanatory text. Others contained layered flaps that could be lifted sequentially to disclose what lay beneath the surface, for example, of human skin. Such anatomical models revealed the shape and relative position of internal organs (68-73). Some prints were designed to be cut and folded into observational instruments such as sun dials (66-72, 248-249), astrolabes (311), and celestial globes (95, 115). The exhibit represented this aspect of sixteenth-century printmaking by including reproductions of three-dimensional, paper-based instruments, assembled to afford museum visitors a rare, hands-on opportunity for studying their use. The catalogue itself includes a perforated tear sheet (opposite p. 324) containing twelve gores, which can be cut out and assembled to form a globe that depicts Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Americas as they were understood by cartographers in 1520.

Prints, once produced, were often appropriated and adapted by others. The detailed prints included in Andreas Vesalius’s 1543 De Humani Corporis Fabrica became an indispensible resource for doctors and/or students of anatomy who could not obtain their own cadavers for dissection (150-151). Botanical treatises were an important component of the scholarly experience in the sixteenth century; prints contained in such books spread information about specimens uprooted from the New World and other newly discovered species that had never been accounted for by classical writers (186-199). As art historian Erwin Panofsky explained, the growth of observational or descriptive branches of natural science (such as anatomy, botany, paleontology, and zoology) “was directly predicated upon the rise of representational techniques” (187-188). The flow of information by means of prints, however, sometimes promoted misconceptions about the natural world. Albrecht Dürer never saw the rhinoceros that he envisioned in a famous 1515 woodcut, but his fanciful rendering of the pachyderm stirred international interest, and copycats reproduced the imaginary armor-like plates, extra horn, and mottled skin through many editions (172-183).

The book includes six scholarly essays by Dackerman, Lorraine Daston, Katharine Park, Suzanne Karr Schmidt, and Claudia Swan, as well as 102 catalogue entries by graduate students, describing specific prints or objects and attempting to situate them in meaningful contexts. Much of the written content is abstruse, and few non-specialists will be tempted to peruse the book from cover to cover. Nor is the content uniformly accurate. Perhaps the Ph.D. candidate who erringly refers to a quadrant as a sextant (53) in a 1595 engraving depicting observational instruments is more easily forgiven than the editors or proofreaders who missed the mistake. Other problems with the book’s production are less easily condoned.

The images, as reproduced in the book, are significantly darker than the prints from which they are derived. Prints, of course, can brown and fox with age. But the designer of this volume apparently used digital technology to alter the appearance of many images, toning them for contrast against the white pages of the catalogue. Black ink on white (or off-white) paper has a look and conveys an impression that is not reproduced when the ink and paper are artificially rendered in sepia. The distinction is obvious to those who were fortunate enough to attend the exhibit, but it is also clearly apparent when pages from the book are compared to the prints themselves as they appear in Dackerman’s on-line tour of the exhibit (see The woodcut flaps, for example, of Heinrich Vogtherr’s beautiful anatomical atlas were painstakingly hand-colored in 1544 for a particular purpose. “Tonal modulations are achieved by varying the density of the colors,” the catalogue entry explains. “Differentiation of the organs by color not only helps the viewer tell them apart, but also enhances their solidity and material presence and makes the figures stand out from the surrounding texts” (68-70). In the on-line tour, which shows the atlas on a work bench at Harvard’s Weissman Preservation Center, the colors are vibrantly bright, but the reproductions that appear in the catalogue are significantly muted, distorting our perception of how they might have been used by contemporary practitioners.

Despite the catalogue’s problems, it will (one hopes) inspire continued scholarship in sixteenth-century visual resources. If better produced, it might have served as an accessible and adequate surrogate for the original prints, but it fails in that regard. As this project cogently reminds us, librarians, curators, and archivists in a digital age need to exercise caution when interacting with graphic designers and IT specialists and should not hesitate to assert their authority to ensure the accuracy of reproductions. At stake is the integrity of visual information.

Jeffrey Mifflin, Massachusetts General Hospital Archives