Scientific Illustration

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SCIENTIFIC ILLUSTRATION. The development of scientific illustration in early modern Europe paralleled a rising interest in studying, collecting, and classifying the natural world. These practices gave rise to new methods of documenting and displaying nature and its products. Although early modern European artists and naturalists did not deliberately set out principles or rules for creating scientific images, a common set of practices emerged during the period that formed the foundation of scientific illustration into the modern period.

From the late medieval period pictorial techniques designed to convince viewers that an image contained an exact record of the artist's observation were increasingly employed in the illustration of botanical and medical texts, as well as in illuminated manuscripts. To convey the impression of accuracy and lifelikeness, artists often depicted objects against a plain background and offered highly detailed renderings of surfaces and textures. Such images functioned variously as practical aids to identification and study, as delightful entertainments, and as symbolic representations of religious and philosophical ideas. The plants and other minute objects represented in the margins of illuminated books of hours inspired readers to marvel at both the complexity and beauty of the natural forms and the artist's skill. During the early modern period images of the natural world continued to be characterized by a dual capacity to delight and instruct the viewer. Leonardo da Vinci's (14521519) pen-and-ink studies of plants, animals, and the human body combined meticulous observation of natural structures with idealized forms and harmonious compositions. Albrecht Dürer's (14711528) plant and animal studies treated subjects similar to those found in the borders of illuminated manuscripts but focused on previously "marginal" subject matter as the main subject of the compositions. The two major botanical publications of the sixteenth century, Herbarum Vivae Eicones (15301536) by Otto Brunfels (c. 14881534) and De Historia Stirpium (1542) by Leonhard Fuchs (15011566), exemplify one of the central problems of scientific illustration. The illustrations in both publications rely on empirical observation but reflect differing ideas about the meaning of accuracy and lifelikeness in images. The images of plants in Brunfels are individualized portraits containing signs of decay and features unique to a particular specimen, whereas the images in Fuchs attempt to capture the general characteristics of the species by presenting perfect, idealized specimens.

Other early modern European artists highlighted the ambiguous relationship between visual images and the reality they purport to represent. Joris Hoefnagel (15421600) often depicted imaginary creatures in a meticulous and convincing visual style, while the deep hues, intense luminosity, and sculptural forms of Jacopo Ligozzi's (15471627) botanical drawings create a profound material presence that in some cases may have surpassed that of the actual specimen. By the end of the seventeenth century, artists such as Maria Sibylla Merian (16471717) incorporated the meticulous style perfected by Dürer, Hoefnagel, and Ligozzi into vibrant compositions of living creatures in their natural habitats competing with one another for survival.

Scientific illustration in early modern Europe was closely connected to the collecting practices of the period, particularly in the field of natural history. Collectors such as Ulisse Aldrovandi (15221605) and Conrad Gessner (15161565) assembled exotic objects from the New World, Asia, the Middle East, and Africa into cabinets of curiosities, the forerunners of modern museums, and published copiously illustrated natural histories based on their collections. Illustrations were used to document and supplement existing collections, and in some cases functioned as collections in and of themselves.

Close connections between artistic and scientific practice were also evident in the area of anatomical illustration. Andreas Vesalius (15141564) worked with artists from Titian's (1488 or 14901576) workshop to produce the illustrations for his De Humani Corporis Fabrica of 1543, in which human figures in various stages of dissection were depicted in poses derived from ancient sculpture. Early modern scientific illustration also treated technical and mechanical subjects, making use of visual forms used in botany, natural history, and anatomy, as well as diagrams, used by astronomers and mathematicians to describe movement and abstract ideas. Over the course of the seventeenth century optical instruments such as the telescope and the microscope were used to investigate previously invisible structures and phenomena, and illustrations were used to communicate these discoveries to others. Galileo Galilei's (15641642) Sidereus Nuncius of 1610 made use of both diagrams and illustrations to convey new knowledge gained through the use of the telescope about the surface of the moon and the newly discovered moons of Jupiter. Robert Hooke's (16351703) Micrographia of 1665 presented readers with meticulously crafted illustrations of magnified objects and creatures observed with a microscope.

See also Anatomy and Physiology ; Hooke, Robert ; Merian, Sibylla ; Museums ; Natural History ; Vesalius, Andreas .


Primary Sources

Hooke, Robert. Micrographia. London, 1665.

Richter, Jean Paul, ed. The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci. 2 vols. New York, 1970.

Vesalius, Andreas. De Humani Corporis Fabrica. Basel, 1543.

Secondary Sources

Edgerton, Samuel Y., Jr. The Heritage of Giotto's Geometry: Art and Science on the Eve of the Scientific Revolution. Ithaca, N.Y., 1991.

Kemp, Martin. The Science of Art: Optical Themes in Western Art from Brunelleschi to Seurat. New Haven and London, 1990.

Koreny, Fritz. Albrecht Dürer and the Animal and Plant Studies of the Renaissance. Translated by Pamela Marwood and Yehuda Shapiro. Boston, 1988.

Janice L. Neri

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Scientific Illustration

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Scientific Illustration