Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2013.05.42 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.05.42

Vanna Maraglino (ed.), Scienza antica in età moderna: teoria e immagini, Biblioteca della tradizione classica, 1​.   Bari:  Cacucci Editore, 2012.  Pp. 462.  ISBN 9788866111207.  €40.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Valeria Sergueenkova, University of Cincinnati (

Table of Contents

This volume originates from a conference held in May 2011 at the University of Bari under the heading “La tradizione della scienza antica nell’età moderna attraverso l’immagine”. The collection of seventeen papers is loosely focused on the reception of Greek and Roman science in medieval and early modern Europe, as well as on the role visualization has played in the creation of scientific knowledge since classical antiquity. The book inaugurates a new series, “Biblioteca della tradizione classica”, whose goal as described by its editors is to bring together “le voci di ‘letterati’ e ‘scienziati’ ” (9). A laudable and promising proposition but, unfortunately, this first installment is not an entirely auspicious beginning. Below, I discuss the strengths and weaknesses of the volume as a whole, while commenting briefly on several of the more thought-provoking papers.

The great strength of the book is that it casts its net widely. Although the majority of the authors are specialists in classical and humanistic studies, several contributors come from departments such as architecture, medicine and geology. The papers are divided into groups by disciplines (“Military science”, “Geography”, “Medicine”, and “Natural sciences”), and topics within them range admirably. Although there is a clear emphasis on Italian humanism, some of the essays consider other periods and areas.

However, the collection as a whole lacks coherence, and several of the papers seem out of place. For instance, Fabian’s 75 pages on the development of Greek heavy infantry weaponry neither refers to science, ancient or modern, nor to the role of images. Similarly, beyond a superficial acknowledgment of the collection’s theme via some words in the title, Petrocelli’s paper on Thucydides’ interest in the details of military action (“Figure della narrazione”) and Imperio’s contribution, “Immagini del medico nella tradizione comica”, bear no relation to the kind of image-making the rest of the volume seems to aim to explore.

The academic purpose of the project is never discussed in the editor’s introduction -- a total of one page, at the end of which we get the rather bland “Obiectivo di questo volume è verificare, in diversi ambiti di studio … quanto il debito dei moderni verso gli antichi si fondi anche sulle immagini.” (12). Maraglino no more than sketches the problems implicated in the subject of the collection. Thus, after contrasting the usefulness of scientific illustrations (taken for granted: “è senso comune”) with Plato’s well-known reservations toward images as a means of investigating reality, she asserts unproblematically that “l’iconografia” was a “veicolo di conoscenza” in antiquity, especially in scientific and technical contexts, where “il supporto iconografico può garantire una più efficace comunicazione” (11). Perhaps, but we never see the evidence for this conclusion, or for the assumptions behind it.

Turning to the individual contributions, let me highlight some noteworthy papers, especially those which more obviously relate to the collection’s stated focus. Two papers in the section on military science are concerned with the use of military diagrams. In one, Eramo speculates on the source of the diagrams found at the end of Machiavelli’s Arte della guerra (1521); in the other, Breccia explores the origin of Palladio’s spectacular engravings for an edition of Caesar’s Bellum Gallicum (1575) and a never printed edition of Polybius. Medieval manuscripts of classical military manuals occasionally contain illustrations of army formations in various geometric forms with individual soldiers represented by Greek letters. These were apparently the model for Machiavelli’s diagrams (so Eramo, cautiously; Breccia is even more reserved) and for Palladio’s early sketches and doodles of military formations. Breccia presents a narrative of evolutionary development from “simple diagram” to the tridimensional bird’s eye view illustrations of battle scenes set in realistic landscapes. One wonders, however, if there is also a correlation between genre and type of illustration, where diagrams may be appropriate to theoretical treatises, while realistic battle scene illustrations might better suit historical narratives about specific events. The distinction would thus have to do with a different conception of what needs to be illustrated—the typical and the ideal versus the particular and the accidental—a problem explicitly raised earlier in the 16th century in relation to anatomical and botanical illustrations (by Vesalius and Fuchs respectively).

The section on geography is the strongest. Prontera analyzes the twelfth-century St. Jerome maps representing Asia and Palestine in light of the cartographic conventions of classical and late antiquity, while Biffi considers Strabo’s use of analogies to geometrical figures or familiar objects to explain the shapes of larger areas of the inhabited earth. Schiano’s paper on the reconstructions of ancient maps between the 16th and early 20th century is one of the most interesting in the entire volume. It highlights a peculiar problem involved in reconstructing the map of the inhabited world as the ancients imagined it in the context of a suddenly increased (and continuously increasing) knowledge of the inhabited world: what is the proper role of this new knowledge in that enterprise? Must one ‘un-learn’ it in order to avoid anachronistic elements, such as the tip of Madagascar poking from the southern edge in Ortelius’ Aevi veteris typus geographicus of 1590?

The quality of the five papers in the section on medicine is the weakest, but two merit mention. Fortuna offers a meticulous reconstruction of the history of the illustrations in sixteenth and seventeenth-century editions of Galen starting with the famous Nicetas codex. Passarella discusses the illustrations of fetal positions in the manuscripts of the Gynaecia of Muscio (Mustio), a much-copied manual of obstetrics based on Soranus and generally dated to century 500 CE. The images of preternaturally developed fetuses floating like weightless astronauts inside roomy wombs were faithfully reproduced in translations of this text well into the 17th century Passarella asks why, considering that alternative visions of the fetus in the uterus (such as Leonardo’s drawings or those in Vesalius) were in circulation in the 16th century His answer: they suited the didactic purpose of the text meant for midwives, who would prefer the simplified presentation in order to concentrate on the position of the fetus. In addition, the roomy uterus would have alleviated their anxiety about the difficulty of the risky maneuvers required of them. Unfortunately, Passarella’s assumptions and speculations are unsubstantiated by evidence and his use of the notions of ‘didactic function’ and ‘realism’ are misleadingly uncomplicated.

Among the four pieces in the last section on ‘Natural sciences’, Franco Minonzio’s contribution stands out as extremely well-informed about earlier scholarship. In a lengthy and wide-ranging paper, loosely held together by a general focus on the fate of Pliny’s Naturalis Historia)) in the Renaissance, he traces the development of the illustrations in ichthyological treatises in the 16th century .

A few quibbles about technical problems. Apart from the useful indices of names and of manuscripts and papyri, there are few signs of editing.1 There are no cross-references between individual contributions, even when authors treat the same material.2 Finally, for a volume dedicated to the subject of scientific image-making, the illustrations leave something to be desired.3

The greatest disappointment, to this reviewer’s mind, is that an entire cluster of historical and philosophical questions remains unexplored in this book: What is the role of images in the production and dissemination of knowledge on scientific and technical topics? Do illustrations serve an ancillary purpose as demonstrative or pedagogic tools, or do they have a heuristic role? Do roles vary between different disciplines? More generally, what is the connection between thinking and visualizing? And how does the evidence for classical antiquity relate to later practices? For the most part, the authors seem uninterested in offering synthetic conclusions, and the strongest papers succeed as bio- bibliographical essays—solid as far as the description of the evidence is concerned, butunexciting in terms of analytical insights. One also senses a certain lack of sophistication concerning the conceptual framework within which the studies are pursued. This weakness is compounded by an uncomfortably persistent self-referentiality and an occasional failure to take into account scholarship from outside Italy, especially in English.

All this is troubling given the veritable academic industry of text-and-image studies of recent decades. Historians of art and science, for instance, especially since the 1970s, have been studying the relationships between image and text, art and science, visualization and theory with illuminating results.4 Since the 1990s classicists have been exploring various aspects of these problems with ever increasing intensity and sophistication.5 Despite common themes in a lot of this work—particularly the reaction against the tyranny of text and that tyranny’s implications about intellectual and cognitive hierarchies—relatively little cross-pollination is evident between the work produced by classicists on the one hand, and that of historians of art and science on the other.6 The interdisciplinary ambitions behind the volume under review place it in an ideal position to benefit from the combined insights and approaches formulated in the context of several academic disciplines; it is unfortunate that this opportunity is largely wasted. At the end, the reader is informed -- yet frustratingly unenlightened. ​


1.   I noticed typographical errors of various kinds: μασκάλη for μασχάλη (201), σκολοπενδρώσης for σκολοπενδρώδης (202), a stray period mid-sentence (243), wast for vast (281 n. 7), Sntorini for Santorini (366), analitical for analytical (417, n. 40); in addition, two long paragraphs appear to be erroneously formatted (377-9) and, worst, an entire paragraph is printed twice, on either side of an illustration (151-153).
2.   The only exception: Schiano refers the reader to Valerio’s discussion of medieval maps (236, n. 5) but not to Prontera’s paper; when we are alerted to a telling detail in Aujac’s reconstruction of Strabo’s oikoumene (261), we get a bibliographical reference but no indication that the map is actually reproduced in Biffi’s paper (208). Furthermore, an illustration from Machiavelli’s Arte della guerra appears twice: in Eramo’s paper (56) and in Breccia’s (145), where, however, it is rotated 90 degrees to the right without explanation.
3.   Some of the reproductions of medieval maps are impossible to use (especially those on 218-220), while several of the line-drawings accompanying Biffi’s contribution are awkwardly pixelated (209-214). I was confused by Fig. 17 (214) which shows, unusually, south on top. Figs. 13a-b (212) illustrating Strabo’s notion of how Mesopotamia resembles a galley are incomprehensible, not least because the map reproduced does not include some of the key geographical points Strabo refers to. The statue of Asclepius gratuitously pictured on p. 300 looks dumpy in a comical (and unrealistic) way.
4.   For the sake of example, consistently at the forefront have been Martin Kemp (art history, e.g. his 1992 The Science of Art: Optical Themes in Western Art from Brunelleschi to Seurat)) and Martin Rudwick (history of science, e.g. his widely cited 1976 article “The Emergence of a Visual Language for Geological Science”, History of Science 14, 149-95). For the sociology of science perspective, see B. Latour’s “Visualization and Cognition: Thinking with Eyes and Hands”, Knowledge and Society: Studies in the Sociology of Culture Past and Present 6 (1986), 1-40. For a range of more recent contributions see S. Kusukawa and I. Maclean, eds. Transmitting Knowledge: Words, Images, and Instruments in Early Modern Europe, 2006).
5.   In the wake of the Cambridge volumes Art and Text in Greek Culture (S. Goldhill and R. Osborne, eds., 1994) and Art and Text in Roman Culture (J. Elsner, ed., 1996), later followed by Art and Inscriptions in the Ancient World (Newby and Leader-Newby, eds., 2007).
6.   Even within classics, those working on ancient science remain outside of mainstream image-and-text scholarship: e.g. although controversial among historians of ancient mathematics and science, Netz’s thesis (The Shaping of Deduction, 1999) that geometrical diagrams are absolutely inseparable from, in fact “metonyms” for, the propositions we conventionally think of them as “illustrating” deserves to be taken into account by classicists interested in visual and textual culture more generally.

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