Science blog

3 posts categorized "Visual arts"

07 May 2021

Wiley Digital Archive on history of science now available at the British Library

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The words Wiley Digital Archive, with a logo of three books standing as if on a shelf
We are happy to announce that this week we have acquired the Wiley Digital Archives of several major learned societies. The collections currently available are those from the New York Academy of Sciences, the British Association for the Advancement of Science, the Royal Geographical Society, the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, and the Royal College of Physicians. The database also includes scientific material from major British universities, digitised as part of the BAAS project.

Information in the archives includes field notes on Hausa Islamic law, beginners' lessons in the Mole language spoken in parts of Ghana, research for a government investigation into early-Victorian mine ventilation, reports on an earthquake in Erzerum, Turkey in 1859, a recipe for a "very rare and excellent" seventeenth-century "wound drink", and a huge range of maps. The Royal College of Physicians collections include a number of digitised incunabula and medieval printed books. For those items which might be harder to read, automated transcriptions are available.

Unfortunately the database cannot currently be used from outside the Library, but we are open again and any reader with an interest in the history of science is highly recommended to come in and try it out.

03 July 2019

Renaissance science works in Treasures of the British Library

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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.

Manuscript page showing pictures of flowers
Depiction of edelweiss from the Codex Bellunensis.

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).

Manuscript page showing artistic depiction of constellations
Illustration from the Phaenomena

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.

10 October 2018

Andreas Vesalius - The most famous Belgian you have never heard of

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This week, the episode of Sky Arts’ Treasures of the British Library featuring the actor Jim Carter, who you might remember as Mr. Carson in Downton Abbey or, if you are a bit older, Philip Marlow’s father in The Singing Detective, was broadcast. One section covered Jim’s interest in anatomy, and among the items we showed him was one of our copies of Andreas Vesalius’s paradigm-shifting anatomy textbook, Atlas of the Human Body, the first truly scientific anatomical work. The copy shown in the programme is our copy of the book's first edition, which was owned by Hans Sloane, a famous eighteenth-century doctor and collector whose collections of books, antiques and curiosities formed the original core of both the British Museum and the British Library. I showed the book to Jim in the programme, and here is some more information on Vesalius.

It is a standing joke, much to the annoyance of Belgians, that it is difficult to name great descendants of their proud kingdom in Western Europe. Mentions of Tintin and Poirot (fictional characters) or Jean Claude Van Damme (The muscles from Brussels) may just accentuate their irritancy. However, one of their greatest sons, one Andreas Van Wiesel, who would adopt the more impressive Latinised name of Vesalius, changed anatomy and medicine forever and he really did know about muscles. His magnum opus De Humani Corporis Fabrica, published in 1543, was both a paradigm shift for the study of human anatomy and also a work of the finest aesthetic beauty.

An image shows a bearded man in rich Renaissance clothing holding the arm of a flayed corpse and demonstrating the muscelature.
Andreas Vesalius, a portrait included in "De Humani Corporis Fabrica"

 Vesalius chooses his parents well and is born into a family of physicians in 1514 in Brussels, then part of the Holy Roman Empire. Initially studying at the University of Louvain, he completes his doctorate in Padua in 1537 and becomes the chair of anatomy and surgery at the tender age of 23; however, this was not considered an especially important branch of medicine compared to the more exciting emerging areas of lotions and potions.

His big break comes when a local judge, impressed with his work, permits use of corpses of executed criminals thus enabling him to perform comparative dissection of the human form. Such opportunity was denied to the great Galen of the second century who despite being physician to the stars such as the gladiators and emperors, only ever worked on animals due to the religious dogma of the time.

Vesalius quickly realised that Galen had simply extrapolated his findings to humans and consequently had made a huge number of glaringly embarrassing assumptions and errors.

Most notably Galen thought that blood was made in the liver and then used for fuelling muscles, and he also thought there were holes in the septum, allowing blood flow from one side of the heart to the other. Galen incorrectly described the human jawbone as being made of two bones, like that of a canine and he was completely wrong about the shape of the human liver. Vesalius was also able to demonstrate that males and females have identical numbers of ribs, the biblical orthodoxy was that men had one less because God made Eve from Adam’s rib.

The frontispiece of "Fabric of the Human Body", showing Vesalius dissecting a corpse in a classical theatre surrounded by a large group of allegorical figures.
The frontispiece of the book, showing Vesalius dissecting a body in allegorical surroundings


Vesalius then pulls another masterstroke as he goes about publishing this great work, which is essentially the human anatomy in seven books. He employs an artist out of the school of Titian to do the illustrations. These stunningly beautiful drawings of figures striking theatrical poses in classical landscapes grab the limelight, and they will be for ever be known as the muscle men. Vesalius stock rises and he becomes physician at the imperial court of Charles V and later to his son Philip II of Spain. Vesalius is aged 29 and at the height of his powers, 1543 is his annus mirabilis.

An anatomical illustration showing a flayed man from the side, facing the left, in front of a picturesque landscape with ruins. His left arm is raised and his right arm held out and downwards.
One of the "muscle man" images from the book

The frontispiece of De Fabrica shows Vesalius performing a dissection, centre stage playing to a packed house; it is literally standing room only and an entirely allegorical scene. Three large robed figures loom imposingly at the front, surely a nod to the ancient wisdom of Galen, Socrates and Hippocrates. Right at the epicentre stands Vesalius one hand on the corpse and the other pointing towards the heavens, a good move to be acknowledging God is on his team also.

Then in 1564, he has his annus horribilis and for the man with the surgical Midas touch, it all appears to go wrong. One story suggests he dissected a corpse who wasn’t quite as dead as he might have been and possibly as a form of penance he was advised to do a tour of the Holy Land; a journey from which he would never return. A second possibility is that he fell foul of the Inquisition, causing this empirical man of science to find making the pilgrimage a good idea.

He dies in the same year aged 50 in mysterious circumstances on the Greek island of Zakynthos, his burial site and grave remain unknown. Unlike his working life, which is referenced with earth shattering evidence based medicine; his final year is shrouded in mystery. No monument or memorial depicts his final resting place. Perhaps the only epitaph needed is de humani corporis fabrica. Anatomy and medicine changed forever, his legacy lives even if his name and accomplishments have been lost to most.

By Matt Hunt, Head of Research User Services