Members' Research Report Archive
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 . . .
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
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.