03 July 2019
Renaissance science works in Treasures of the British Library
To replace the Leonardo da Vinci items that are usually in our Treasures gallery, but are now in the stand-alone "A Mind in Motion" exhibition, our Manuscripts and Incunabula curators have selected some less well-known but very interesting items dealing with the connection between art and science in the Renaissance. On the pure art side are some works by Albrecht Dürer and Michelangelo, but this post is about three volumes of Renaissance science. They sum up the way that humanists during the Renaissance sought to synthesise the existing knowledge of medieval Europeans with rediscovered Classical texts, many of which had been lost in Europe but preserved by Arabic scholars, and further advances that had been made in the Arabic world.
The first item, shelfmark Add MS 41623, is the "Codex Bellunensis", a bound manuscript of herbal material in Latin with some Italian notes. Much of the content is based on De Materia Medica by Pedanius Dioscorides, a famous Greek physician of the first century CE. De Materia Medica was the single most important herbal text in Europe from its writing until the nineteenth century. "Bellunensis" refers to the town of Belluno in Italy, north of Venice, where the manuscript may have been created. The page to which the manuscript is opened in the display shows what is thought to be the first artistic representation of edelweiss, used to treat abdominal and respiratory diseases. The other herbs shown on this spread are valerian, an early sedative, eupatorium, and agrimony. The whole manuscript can be read free online .
The second item, shelfmark Royal MS 12 G VII, is a fifteenth-century Latin copy of Kitab al-Manazir, or "Optics", and another short work, by the great Arab scientist Hasan Ibn al-Haytham, known in Renaissance Europe as Alhazen. The pages on display deal with binocular vision and how the visual axes of the eyes intersect. The book was the first to empirically demonstrate that sight occurs when light reflected from an object enters the eye. Many early classical thinkers had believed that vision worked by the eye emitting some kind of "ray of sight". The book also includes "Alhazen's problem", a geometrical problem involving finding the point on a spherical mirror that a light ray from a given location must strike to be reflected to a second given location. This would not be completely solved algebraically until 1965. The copy on display comes from the Royal Manuscripts collection, a collection of manuscripts and printed books donated by King George II to the British Museum (not to be confused with the King's Library collection housed in the centre of the building, which was donated later by George IV).
The third of these items, shelfmark Add MS 15819, is a manuscript copy of the Phaenomena by Aratus of Soli, a Greek poet of the early third century BCE. This is a long poem with one section describing the constellations of the stars, and a shorter second section on weather forecasting based on observations of the heavenly bodies and animal behaviour. You can read a public domain English prose translation of the poem at the Theoi Project, although we have two copies of the most recent English translation by Douglas Kidd in our collections. Our copy is a manuscript of the Latin translation of the poem by the Roman general Germanicus Julius Caesar, the nephew of the emperor Tiberius and father of Caligula. Our manuscript dates from the fifteenth century and once belonged to, and was probably written for, Francesco Sassetti, a senior manager in the Medici Bank.
Posted by Philip Eagle, with thanks to Eleanor Jackson, Curator of Illuminated Manuscripts, and Karen Limper-Herz, Lead Curator Incunabula and Sixteenth-Century Books.