One Cultural Context

Robert E. Wood

Traditionally, literature, art and science have been studied along independent timelines with minimal cross-referencing. What Western historians now call the Early Modern period is studied as the Renaissance, the Age of Discovery, the Age of Print, and the Scientific Revolution. Yet the events and achievements explored in these categories are highly interconnected. I examine here merely one path through this matrix of interconnectedness.

Publishing also made possible an appeal to a wider public and an argument for a new methodology and a new world view.

Even before the print explosion, changes in visual representation, particularly in painting began to affect the way the world was seen. The creation of the illusion of depth within a plane surface through perspective, strongly associated with architecture in the early stages of its development, also prompted changes in visual narrative, allowing a correlation of depth with time. Almost equally important was the representation of light as having a source and direction. Light and shadow contributed to what we would call realistic representation, but also affected the way the world was perceived.  The world was subject to a more intense scrutiny both in science and in art.

Leonardo da Vinci is a name virtually synonymous with Renaissance Man. But though his versatile genius found connections everywhere, it is also true that fields of endeavor were less narrowly defined in the period. He serves as an example of the kinds of thinking that were possible in the period rather than as the initiator of a school of thought. Aside from his famous paintings, Leonardo is best known for his studies of flight. But to my mind, his most remarkable characteristic is his tendency to connect everything with everything else. His study of painting is connected with how we see, with the geometry of representation, with what lies beneath the surface. but his curiosity extends beyond the needs of painting to the heart and the foetus. Some aspects of anatomy address his engineering concerns, the comparison of human anatomy to that of a bird for example.  Some of his ideas anticipate a heliocentric system and he knew that lenses could be combined to magnify the moon. Comparatively few of Leonardo’s ideas were acted upon and few individuals approached his range of interests, but the kinds of connections he was making grew from a way of looking at the world strongly connected with changes in visual representation.

Robert E. Wood's book of poetry, The Awkward Poses of Others, which earned him the Author of the Year in Poetry Award by the Georgia Writers Association
Robert E. Wood’s book of poetry, The Awkward Poses of Others, which earned him the Author of the Year in Poetry Award by the Georgia Writers Association

Galileo’s scientific work and its dissemination fully reflect the literacies of the era and the increased pace of the communication of ideas.  Galileo’s famous astronomical discoveries were precipitated by the news that someone was using lenses in Northern Europe to look at the heavens.  Lens grinding had been available in Italy at least since the thirteenth century and the theory for constructing a telescope perhaps since Euclid. Galileo’s discoveries of the topography of the moon, a host of previously unknown stars, and four of the moons of Jupiter made such a striking impact on Europe because he was able to promulgate his findings through a printed book, Siderius Nuncius (The Starry Messenger). Part of the accessibility of his book results from his rhetorical skill, but a further factor is his skill as a draughtsman and the visual literacy of his audience. For he explains the general topography of mountains and craters through the way light strikes a landscape at sunrise.  Granted the analogy would have been applicable in any era, but that it seemed the most natural way to explain his observations seems characteristic of a particular way of looking.  Later in his career in his Letters on Sunspots, Galileo speaks of the perspective representation of a sphere to explain his argument that the horizontal foreshortening of the sunspots as they reached the visible edge of the sun argued that they were on or near the surface of the sun.  But the more powerful the book became as an instrument of communication, the more dangerous it became.

Print was the great accelerator.  In astronomy, the work of Copernicus was published after his death leaving him clear of controversy, but with an accessible legacy in print. A minority view could be successfully circulated in print. Later astronomers Kepler and Galileo had access to each other’s published work.  Because their research projects were independent, they were able to proceed to results using different assumptions.  Kepler was inclined to privilege Platonic solids; Galileo insisted that no form in nature had other than a utilitarian value.  Publishing also made possible an appeal to a wider public and an argument for a new methodology and a new world view. Print enabled political pamphlets, the distribution of vernacular translations of the Bible, and the print battles of Reformation and Counter-Reformation.

One can hardly distinguish the religious struggles of the period from the political struggles and the power of the book provoked the exercise of power over the book. The vernacular languages of the various regions of Europe were becoming suitable for cultural and scientific work. The translation of the Bible, Christianity’s most important book, into various vernaculars was one of the primary endeavors of the Protestant Reformation. For Roman Catholicism, the imprimatur (literally, let it be printed) was an attempt to control the promulgation of subversive ideas. In this context, the struggle between Galileo and the Inquisition, often seen as a battle between Science and Religion takes on further dimensions. The topic of Galileo’s book, The Dialogue of the Two World Systems, challenged no doctrine.  It is perhaps Galileo’s least scientific book, containing a number of traditional arguments, no new evidence, and even a misconception about the tides. But books have an unusual property.  What is suppressed is deemed important and becomes more powerful than before. One might view the conflict more as a struggle against a technology than against a scientific theory.

As I have suggested, this is a single thread of associations that begins to explore the rich interactions that constitute the fabric of human endeavor.  We can never fully understand any aspect of human culture—the scientific, the technological, or the artistic—in isolation.

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