Encyclopedia of Renaissance Philosophy

Living Edition
| Editors: Marco Sgarbi

Images in Renaissance Science, Function of

  • Renzo BaldassoEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-02848-4_933-1


Medieval natural philosophy proper, i.e., philosophia naturalis, was concerned with understanding natural motion and change, understood in the broadest forms; it was anchored primarily to Aristotle’s Physica, De caelo, De generatione et corruptione, and De animalibus. These Aristotelian texts and their textual traditions did not relay on graphic arguments or visual representations. Over the course of the Renaissance, the intellectual and cultural boundaries, investigative domain, and methods of natural philosophy were transformed by the expansion of subalternated disciplines, including anatomy, botany, and mechanics. Because these disciplines made extensive use of illustrations, the epistemic value of visual representation became important and images served both as representations of the evidence and as demonstrations. During the sixteenth century, a second factor that supported a new function for images in science developed from the philosophical controversy about the status of geometrical proofs and mathematical knowledge more generally, known as the quaestio de certitudine mathematicarum. The ground for the transformation of natural philosophy during the sixteenth century and the new role to be played by illustrations within it was prepared during the fifteenth century by the rise of what Alexandre Koyré called a mentalité visuelle. Specifically, technical drawings and the language of disegno acquired currency at court; graphic apparata were devised for recently recovered and newly edited classical scientific treatises, as epitomized by Ptolemy’s Cosmographia; finally, mathematical humanists made mathematical sciences fashionable for courtiers, at a time when the printing press canonized illustrations as text, contributing to shaping of a new intellectual culture.

Heritage and Rupture with the Tradition

Images and visual representation more generally had no role in medieval science proper. Experiments and observation of natural events were at best marginal to the methods of scholastic natural philosophy, an enterprise that was anchored on Aristotelian texts and their commentary traditions, and supported by verbal arguments based on logic. The discoveries about the natural world that came first from the explorations of new lands and environments and then from the heavens, which were relayed by images, did not challenge natural philosophers until the later sixteenth century. However, the transformation of the discipline, including the role of visual representation in it, began in the fifteenth century and it was prompted by the discovery of lost classical texts and the arrival of Greek manuscripts, both understood to be closer in format to the originals than those extant in the scholastic Latin tradition. An important innovation for the methods of the discipline of logic came from Aristotelian logic texts brought to Italy by Byzantine emigres, which were filled with diagrams and graphic arguments; following the texts and teaching of scholars such as George of Trebizond, figures became common in logic. An earlier similar case is that of the Geographia by Ptolemy brought to Florence in 1397 by Manuel Chrysoloras: singlehandedly, this manuscript transformed the study of geography, rendering maps integral to this discipline and identifying visual representation as an essential dimension of classical science to be recovered by humanists. In their hunt for lost manuscripts, humanists found not only famous works such as De rerum natura by Lucretius and De architectura by Vitruvius – to mention only Poggio Bracciolini’s most famous finds – but also texts such as Athenei Atheniensis mathamatici cum picturis instrumentorum and De machinis et instrumentis bellicis cum picture expressi, which, even though they did not enter the canon of high learning, nonetheless had a substantial impact on how images came to be seen. These classical texts on engineering and machines, including chapter X of Vitruvius’s De architectura, elevated the status of technical drawings: these were no longer simply the sketches used by engineers since the later middle ages to find and convey solutions in the context of architecture, ship building, and military sciences; they became fashionable means of communications between artists/engineers and their patrons and advisers, requiring these intellectuals and noblemen to become familiar with visual and graphic reasoning. Though at court they retained a more illustrative rather than exploratory nature, the circulation of technical drawings in high culture environments not only brought emphasis to their draftsmanship and ennobled the figure of the engineer – role played for instance by Filarete and Leonardo at the Milanese court – but also contributed to the currency of graphic representation as a form of knowing and a form of investigation of natural and artificial processes.

Leon Battista Alberti is one of the fifteenth-century humanists who argued for a solid theoretical footing to the drawings and visual reasoning by developing and grounding in Euclidean geometry the notion of disegno – an umbrella term that encompasses both draftsmanship skills and the ability to reason by graphic means – a notion that will be enshrined as the father of all arts by Giorgio Vasari in the sixteenth century. As the figures in his own manuscript of Euclid’s Elements suggest (Biblioteca Marciana, Lat. VII, 39, =3271), Alberti’s commitment to the epistemic role of visual representation was certainly shaped by his study of geometric diagrams – the efforts of humanists to create correct figures for this text will continue into the sixteenth century and find an illustrious interpreter in Luca Pacioli. The conviction in the power of images and, specifically, of diagrams in science is epitomized by the publishing project undertaken by Johannes Regiomontanus, a friend of Alberti and a protégé of Cardinal Bessarion. In 1472, Regiomontanus became a printer in order to produce correct scientific texts inclusive of diagrams and figures embedded in the text block (Fig. 1). His premature death in 1476 prevented the completion of his publishing program that included all major classical and modern scientific authors, from Archimedes, Euclid, and Pappus to Nicholas of Cusa, Puerbach, and Witelo. However, Regiomontanus’s idea of printing mathematical and scientific texts with complete and high quality apparatus of figures found another interpreter in Erhard Ratdolt, who has been deemed the most inventive printer after Gutenberg. In 1482, he issued the Elements’s first edition in a large print run (likely exceeding 2,000 copies), with over 500 figures printed from type-high metal rule embedded in plaster, an innovative solution that also allowed the insertion of types for the letters. In his preface, Ratdolt makes several points about figures in mathematical and scientific texts worth noting: “[…] until now, no one has found a way to make the geometric figures that abound in these works and without which nothing in mathematics can be properly understood […] and I hope that because of my contribution [i.e. the new method to print diagrams], soon the majority of books pertaining to the disciplines the Greeks call ‘mathemata’ as well as the rest of the sciences will incorporate figures” (Dedicatory Letter to Doge Mocenico, Euclid 1482) (Fig. 1). His hopes did not materialize quickly, but in the sixteenth century, figures became common in scientific publications and essential tools for the study of the Book of Nature.
Fig. 1

Guidobaldo del Monte, Mechanicorum Liber (Pesaro: Hieronymus Concordia, 1577) pp. 106v–107r

Innovative and Original Aspects

Though growing in presence also in astronomical texts, it was in anatomical and botanical publications that scientific images came to a special prominence over the course of the sixteenth century. The acceptance of their new status is embodied by the question Leonhart Fuchs asked in the Preface of De historia stirpium (Paris, 1542): “Who in his right mind would condemn pictures which can communicate information much more clearly than the words of even the most eloquent men?” (Preface, x–xi). Notably, the notion of the superiority of visual over verbal representation for the purpose of describing natural specimens was invoked already by the end of the fifteenth century, from among others by Leonardo who claimed that words, however eloquent, simply fail to represent a specimen for readers, making drawing and visual representation a necessary. The 518 remarkable woodcuts appearing in the 896 pages of De historia stirpium made Fuchs’s question seem rhetorical, but various writers did in fact questioned the value of illustrations, following in the footsteps of the ancients, including Pliny the Elder who had doomed the usefulness of images in science because, in addition to the challenge for scribes and illuminators to make accurate copies, book illustrations cannot reproduce the colors and capture only one state of the specimen’s appearance. Even though the illustrations of De historia stirpium and De humani corporis fabrica (1543) helped botany and anatomy gain prominence while strengthening the connection between the role of visual representation and the observational/descriptive nature of these sciences, Andreas Vesalius made clear to his readers that the Fabrica’s illustrations were not to replace the experience of dissecting bodies, thus confirming also anatomical theaters together with the botanic gardens as important new learning environments. The very form of the images helped the arguments by Fuchs and Vesalius go beyond the descriptive dimension (historia) and become causal knowledge (scientia): their figures are not “photographic” or ad vivum representations, but they generalize the firsthand experience, editing the accidental components of the specimen-subject to ensure an ideal morphological description.

Impact and Legacy

Precisely the challenge of establishing causal, reason knowledge plagued the status and epistemological value of visual representation of natural specimens, a subject discussed extensively at the Accademia dei Lincei. Federico Cesi and other members recognized the value of images to make records of esperienze and anomalies, but they admitted their limits for studying the features that explain the workings of the natural world and establish a classification order in it. As exemplified by the pairs of images developed by Guidobaldo del Monte for his Mechanicorum liber of 1577 (Fig. 1), the necessary step to endow visual representation with epistemological value was the mathematization of its forms, i.e., the reduction or translation of the visible into diagrammatic forms, which may be studied by geometric analysis. This commitment to this diagrammatic reduction and to geometry as the approach to study the natural word is epitomized by Galileo’s statement that “this grand book – I mean the Universe – cannot be understood unless one first learns to comprehend the language and the characters in which it is written. It is written in the language of mathematics, and its characters are triangles, circles, and other geometrical figures, without which it is humanly impossible to understand a single word of it” (Asseyer 1623).



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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Arizona State UniversityTempeUSA

Section editors and affiliations

  • Matteo Valleriani
    • 1
  1. 1.Max Planck Institute for the History of ScienceBerlinGermany