Sunday, April 11, 2010

Science in the Renaissance (Society of America)

Posted by Darin Hayton on 04/11 at 09:05 AM

The Renaissance Society of America’s annual conference just ended. This year the conference convened in Venice and was, despite the long journey, larger than usual. Perhaps because of the greater number of participants, it was a great year for history of science: somewhere fifteen and twenty panels were devoted to science or medicine.1 The so-called occult sciences of astrology and alchemy were well represented; magic turned up in a panel or two; a couple panels explored science and learning; mathematics was the focus of another panel. There were a few interesting absences. Galileo attracted little attention—only one panel. Exploration and cartography were not hot topics this year. Astronomy (as distinct from astrology), and physics received only glancing treatment. And given that the conference was in Venice, I expected more papers on naval subjects, e.g., ship building and navigation.

One panel explored scientific illustrations: “Drawing, Painting, and Printing Scientific and Technical Figures in the Renaissance.” To be sure, scientific illustrations and paper instruments have started to attract considerable attention. There are a set of questions revolving around how paper instruments were produced and used.2 Another set of questions focus on how illustrations and paper instruments functioned. What sort of meaning did they convey? Did they make ontological claims. For example, Digges’s famous woodcut that represents the fixed stars without enclosing them in a border. The absence of a border has encouraged historians to read this diagram as evidence for Digges’s early adoption of the Copernican infinite universe. How did illustrations and diagrams function with the text they are assumed to illustrate? What is the relationship between the diagrams actually used and those the author might have had in mind when he composed his work, if he intended any? Time and again historians make assumptions about what these illustrations are doing. Historians are only beginning to explore these questions.3 Renzo Baldasso’s paper, “The Making of Geometric Diagrams and Scientific Figures in Renaissance Venice” touched on some of these questions about the role of illustrations in conveying scientific knowledge. In a separate panel (“Genre as an Instrument of Scientific Inquiry”), Evelyn Lincoln’s paper “‘Show and Tell’: Scientific Invention in Illustrated Dialogues” touched on some related questions.

A couple panels looked at the printing of Greek medical texts in Venice. Predictably, the main focus was Aldine’s Greek editions of Galen. The influence of Greek texts after the fall of Constantinople in 1453 has long attracted scholarly attention. Vivian Nutton has expended considerable time and energy tracing Greek medicine into the Latin tradition. The papers in these panels covered some of the same ground, offering specific case studies or different interpretations of the material. Historians are a long way from having a complete picture of when, how, and why physicians, astronomers, mathematicians, and other scholars appropriated Greek learning.

Alchemy was well represented in two panels: “Women and Alchemy in Renaissance Europe, 1550-1660” and “Star Crossed Alchemy.” By looking closely at visual representations, patronage practices, and letters, the papers in the first panel looked at what role women played in alchemical practice. The second panel pressed on the relationship between astrology and alchemy. The papers clearly gestured toward there having been an important relationship between them.4

The astronomical/astrological clock that adorns Venice’s the Piazza San Marco. The clock was originally constructed at the end of the 15th century. It has been restored and updated a number of times since then.

Astrology was by far the most well represented science: four panels and a scattering of papers in other panels, e.g., Stephan Heilen’s paper “Astrological concilia deorum in Renaissance Latin Poetry” or Glen Cooper’s “The Aldine Galen and the 16th-Century Debates over the Validity of Astrological Medicine” or Hiro Hirai’s “Medicine and Astrology in Antoine Mizauld‘s Conversation between Asclepius and Urania.” Heilen looked at three poems, of which two were medico-astrological poems describing the advent of the plague in 1348 and later the advent of the French Disease in 1495.

Friday was an astrology marathon with all four panels that day. The panels were organized roughly thematically: philosophical questions, medicine and the arts, politics and religion, and finally Johannes Kepler. Two of the papers in the first panel, those by Darrel Rutkin and by Sheila Rabin, offered another interpretation of Pico della Mirandola’s famous rejection of astrology. Sheila argued that his change of mind, while not as significant as once thought, was grounded in a defense of religion. Rutkin reviewed the major historiography on Pico, a historiography that sees him as sounding the death knell for astrology and a herald for modern science, and then suggested that it was deeply problematic. Part of the problem is the traditional effort to put Ficino and Pico into dialog, using one’s texts to explicate the other‘s. The third paper looked at Agrippa’s idiosyncratic and cynical use of astrology and magic.

In the second panel Dane Daniel looked at Parcelsus’s astrology, which was clearly linked to his biblical exegesis. Paracelsus was determined to explain an astrology that not only was not in tension with standard Christian doctrines, but actually supported it and could be used to argue for his reforming efforts. Laurence Wuidar made a fascinating argument about how astrology was literally in the music. She has analyzed musical scores to show where and how important characteristics of particular horoscopes for different celebrations were translated into the music that was composed to accompany those celebrations. The musica practica texts apparently provided some instruction to students to learn how to make such translations and to represent astrology in their music.

The third panel looked at religious and political uses of astrology. The first paper looked at a particular Jesuit, Jeremias Drexelius, and offered some reasons for the lack of much astrology in his works. My paper argued that predicting the weather was deeply political, both from the perspective of the astrologers forecasting the weather and from the perspective of the people observing the weather. Further, I suggested that Renaissance weather predictions were inextricably bound up with moral-political judgements on the part of the astrologers (I’ll try to post a draft of my paper in the coming days). Finally, Monica Azzolini presented a detailed picture of Ludovico Sforza’s reliance on astrology for every political decision. His naïve understanding of astrology and his preference for a particular astrologer had disastrous consequences for his political fortunes and those of the entire Italian peninsula when the French army under Charles VIII invaded.

The last panel, though arranged around Kepler’s astrology. Instead, the two papers talked about entirely different approaches the Kepler. The first used Kepler to press on how one might get around C. P. Snow’s two cultures when teaching the history of early-modern science. Text books that teach Kepler, apparently, reify the two cultures rather than complicate those cultures. The second paper, a reading of a recently published article, tried to elucidate Kepler’s optics in order to understand possible mechanisms for planetary influence.

It was interesting to observe the difference in history of science papers at the RSA with those at HSS. Some of the differences are unsurprising: the papers tend to be more cultural history than at the HSS. Surely much of the difference can be traced to the historians themselves, many of whom are cultural historians looking at history of science topics. Another reason for the shift might be the sources available for these older historical topics. While technical treatises existed in reasonable numbers, often the scientific ideas were discussed in less technical terms and literatures. More interesting is how the same historian changes presentation style to fit the assumed audience. In discussions with colleagues who attend both conferences, many of them confessed to adding more context—political, social, etc.—and removing some of the technical details when presenting at the RSA because they don’t want to confuse or bore the audience. Like all sciences, astrology has a sophisticated vocabulary and set of practices, often very mathematical. There seems to be an assumption that people at the RSA would prefer not to hear about these details of the science and instead want to hear about broader cultural issues. The converse assumption seems to govern how these historians present at the HSS. There, they assume people will be bored by the cultural and political contexts and explanations. Consequently, they claim to remove much of that broader discussion and reinsert the technical details.

I admit to feeling the same pressures when writing papers for the two conferences. I fear that to modify the paper in this way—less science for the RSA and less politics for the HSS—is somehow condescending to both audiences, as if Renaissance historians can’t handle the science and historians of science have no patience for politics and culture. More importantly, however, is the assumption that the these categories are somehow distinct. Even without reducing any of those categories to the to others—that is to say, I have no intention of explaining science as an epiphenomenon of culture, nor is culture merely window dressing on the science—it seems they are related in complex ways that can’t be disentangled so easily. And, further, if I believe my description as I present it as the HSS, does that mean I don’t believe the one I give at the RSA? Is this a problem?

In any case, the Renaissance Society of America’s conference was once again a success (though a bit bigger than it usually is, and consequently a bit less intimate). There were many good papers and some excellent question-and-answer sessions. And, of course, Venice was a great place to have a conference.

1How you count the panels depends largely on what you consider science.
2The literature on these questions continues to grow. A number of years back Owen Gingerich wrote a short article on paper instruments in the sixteenth century: Gingerich, Owen.  “Astronomical Paper Instruments with Moving Parts,” in Making Instruments Count.  Essays on Historical Scientific Instruments Presented to Gerard L’Estrange, ed. R.J.W. Anderson, J. A. Bennett, and W. F. Ryan (Aldershot:  Variorum, 1993), 63–74. See also the recent book by Sachiko Kusukawa and Ian Maclean, Transmitting Knowledge: Words, Images, and Instruments in Early Modern Europe (Oxford: OUP, 2006). More recently, Suzanne Karr Schmidt has contributed to this work in her dissertation and recent lectures and articles. Shameless self promotional plug: I have an article coming out in Studies in History and Philosophy of Science that traces the use of paper instruments in university curricula in the early sixteenth century “Instruments and demonstrations in the astrological
curriculum: evidence from the University of Vienna, 1500-1530.”
3Sachiko Kusukawa and Nick Jardine have initiated an ambitious project to collect and study diagrams and illustrations in early-modern astronomical texts in order to understand some of these questions. See Diagrams, Figures and the Transformation of Astronomy, 1450-1650
4The papers were implicitly challenging Bill Newman’s arguments about there being a significant relationship between alchemy and astrology.

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