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The Art of Philosophy in Early Modern Europe

Susanna Berger
[University of Cambridge]
Samuel H. Kress Fellow, 2011 – 2013

In his article “Towards a Reassessment of Renaissance Aristotelianism,” the intellectual historian Charles B. Schmitt (1933 – 1986) asserted: “Aristotelianism did not end with Copernicus, nor even with Galileo and Bacon. In fact, it thrived throughout the sixteenth century, as it never had before, and was still in full bloom for most of the seventeenth century.” He urged his colleagues to devote “more attention . . . to broad and deep explorations of early modern Aristotelianism.” Since the publication of Schmitt’s plea in 1973, intellectual historians have shed light on the vitality and variety of Aristotelianisms in textual sources of this period, yet they have entirely overlooked and in some cases even denied the use of visual art in the teaching and interpretation of Aristotle’s ideas. With the support of a Samuel H. Kress Fellowship I completed my dissertation, “The Art of Philosophy: Early Modern Illustrated Thesis Prints, Broadsides, and Student Notebooks,” which argues that works of art and the production of visual materials were crucial in the early modern intellectual movements that embraced and developed Aristotelian thought, as evidenced by the multiplicity of visual representations in pedagogical materials.

The dissertation examines illustrated thesis prints — broadsides created for use in public oral examinations — to explore how text and image were combined to depict and comment on complex philosophical systems. It focuses in particular on thesis prints interpreting Aristotelian theories of logic and natural philosophy that were designed in the second decade of the seventeenth century by the Parisian Franciscan friar Martin Meurisse (1584 – 1644) and engraved by Léonard Gaultier (1560/1561 – 1635/1640). These prints, which represent fields of knowledge as maps of diverse terrains, visualize, explicate, and enliven the philosophical concepts that inform them.

The best-known thesis print in history is undoubtedly the document containing ninety-five theses that Martin Luther is reputed to have posted on the door of the Wittenberg Castle church in 1517. By this date it had become standard to announce in advance the propositions, or theses, that students were expected to defend or elaborate in disputations. If the event indeed took place, Luther’s thesis print, which presumably was not illustrated, would have been displayed to advertise theses that were scheduled for discussion; contrary to legend, it would not have been created and exhibited to call for the Reformation.

Thesis prints from the early sixteenth century are simple in their design and include text but no imagery. As Louise Rice has shown, in the mid-sixteenth century they began to feature the coat of arms of the dedicatee or another personal device or emblem. By the early seventeenth century, thesis prints with prominent images had come into use in France and Italy.

In most thesis prints, theses and images were separated and had little or no obvious correlation. The prints examined in my dissertation are relatively unusual, belonging to a subcategory whose imagery relates closely to the theses inscribed on the broadside. These prints are nevertheless characteristic of a widespread early modern impulse to practice and disseminate philosophy through the visual arts. Scholars, professors, and students of philosophy gathered, created, and rearranged diagrams and symbolic images in the forms of devices, emblems, hieroglyphs, personifications, and allegories in order to depict and reflect on complex philosophical systems. The dissertation also investigates the crucial pedagogical functions of print collecting and the activity of drawing as evidenced by philosophy students’ class notebooks, in which printed and hand-drawn images are interpolated into transcriptions of lectures.

In my dissertation I argue that these philosophical visual representations must be seen in the context of other early modern modes of organizing systems of knowledge through concise abbreviations and summaries. Over the last two decades, a new discipline of cultural history has developed that focuses on institutions of knowledge and seeks to understand how information was organized and managed in the past. Scholars have studied a range of collections and learning aids, including reference books, cabinets of curiosities, archives, and encyclopedias that were employed during the late medieval and early modern periods to manage an overabundance of information. My dissertation aims to introduce visual counterparts to the textual strategies of selection, encapsulation, and recombination employed by scholars and students in this period. Through their ingenious integrations of word and image and brilliant manipulation of forms, these illustrated broadsides and student notebooks enrich and complicate the philosophical materials they present through a compelling form of visual commentary.


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