Scales of Seeing

Reflecting on my experience from the Nature Lab I was blown away from the level of depth and transformations of material under the microscope that could be achieved. Looking at the fangs of a tarantula I was able to slowly zoom in until I could see past the coarse hair and see a kind of fur underneath with small crystalline structures scattered geometrically through out the appendage. It was impressive in that something that started off looking very ragged ended up resembling a couture fur coat on closer inspection.

I wouldn’t go so far as saying that the use of the microscope was alienating or an abstraction of the original object, at least not the stereomicroscopes that I was using. The slow zoom in from a recognizable magnification of 18x to the maximum point of 300x allowed me a point of understanding of how the objects and specimens were grown or constructed naturally. One particularly interesting specimen was that of a wasp’s nest, being able to see inside the honeycomb structure and really make out the octagonal openings makes me feel I understand the life of a wasp more now.

What I witnessed as peculiarly alienating was the SEM magnifying a few grains of sand to 20,000 times. Something so small and miniscule that can make its way into ones sock, was found to look like terrestrial planets or asteroids inhabiting another universe was truly bizarre. Beyond that, needing a map to navigate something with the surface area of a penny is just mind-boggling.

Thinking back to Hooke’s “Micrographia” I can see how radical the microscope was, while still having a tangible feeling of reality. Upon viewing a fly’s head at around 100X (what I presume was around the capabilities of Hook’s microscope) I could see in detail the individual eyes it possessed instead of just looking like a complex pattern, or make out the tiny hairs it has on its body invisible to the natural eye. In this way I can imagine how exciting these breakthroughs were at the time.

I made glass! I really did!

Over the Spring semester I began experimenting with laser engraving on sand. The process began without any expectations of what would come out of it — I just liked the idea of shooting a laser into a new material. I had a plenty of experience using a laser-cutter, but mainly with thin sheets of wood, mdf, cardboard, and metal. In this case I was putting in much larger, three-dimensional blocks of sand. This meant that I had to teach myself new settings to input into the machine: how do I focus onto a 3D surface? What power and speed do I use? And what will happen to the sand?

After several tests and setting the machine on the highest power and slowest speed, I finally got some results. The laser was melting and fusing the sand, creating a dark, translucent glassy surface. Being a Glass major, and perhaps just by knowing what glass is made of, I should have predicted the result I would achieve. I was still skeptical about the fact that I had made glass, up until our visit to the Nature Lab last week. Seeing samples of this laser-glass under the microscope was a revelation. The images I captured proved to me that I had made glass. Beautiful, sandy glass.

Under the microscope the sample lose context and definition. It is hard to figure out what I am looking at, which may be problematic for my work because so much of the narratives and concepts are based on context with landscapes and memory. However, this new scale of perception opens up new possibilities to work with. My next step: how do I make things that can only be seen under a microscope?

Exaggerating Vesalius

Wrestling with the unmanageable size and considerable weight of De humani corporis fabrica and dealing with the apprehension of handling an object I could never afford to replace proves worth the effort/risk once I open the book and discover the scene unfolding in its frontispiece. Dissection is no longer the dismissed and subordinate labor of barber surgeons – it is the center of a spectacle orchestrated by Vesalius: his right hand maneuvering the uterus of a female cadaver, his left-hand index finger pointing like a manuscript manicule. Spectatorship is also depicted as a full physical endeavor, with the attendants to Vesalius’s demonstration crowded around the corpse, twisting their own bodies to catch a sight of the action (not unlike a Hot Night at the Glass Hot Shop!).

I notice that while they are contemplating Vesalius’ masterful manipulation many spectators are also using their own hands, busy with touching each other, pointing at something, using them as a means of expression, restraining animals or handling carefully depicted instruments. I wonder about the relationship between contemplation and ‘deviated’ labor or manipulation. What happens when the observation of and the reflection upon some sort of craft is accompanied by the undertaking of an unrelated manual labor? Where do both intersect? Does this simultaneity of contemplation and labor matter?

At this point I think that to exaggerate the Vesalius is to read the corporis fabrica as a book about hands, forgetting about the rest of the anatomy. In fact, it doesn’t seem to be such a big exaggeration when I get to Vesalius’ portrait, right after the frontispiece. On a table crowded with writing and dissecting utensils, Vesalius holds the arm of a corpse as the entrypoint to his anatomical study, with his left hand firmly grasping the elbow and his right hand holding the falling veins (I think), which uncannily blurs the limit between the instrumental hand and the studied one. I wonder if this emphasis on the hand is exclusively a Vesalius thing or a common obsession in anatomical books, so I try google and soon find the portrait of the anatomist Giulio Casserio (1561-1616), also stressing his own dexterous manipulation of bodily matter by posing rummaging under the skin of a disembodied hand.

I do some more research and find that, apparently, the flexor-muscle dissection developed into a whole motif, used emblematically in early seventeenth-century anatomy portraits, making the hand agent, instrument and patient of the demonstratio. In this way, the hand became a symbolic unit signifying both the perfection of God’s creation and agency, and the almost divine intervention of the dissector’s hand (Katherine Rowe, ‘Divine Complicity: “God’s Handy Worke” and the Anatomist’s Touch’). Vesalius’ and Casserio’s almost defiant gaze seem to turn the celebration of their craft into an invitation for us readers to involve our own hands in the handling of matter. I use mine to carefully turn the pages and compulsively scan all the hands in the book.

Taken out of context, these hands are not so much passive objects of study as they are extremely busy instruments. Even when their skin, veins, and muscle are collapsing they seem to be actively engaging with the mess – exposing, grabbing, stretching or holding it. Sometimes they point at the blank space in the page. I put them all together and their expressiveness immediately makes me think of some sort of sign language. I find online some early modern texts about systems of representing numbers and words with hand gestures, and their illustrations look strangely similar to my own hand accumulation.

From “Finger Gestures for 1-5,000” (1532) and “The Old System of Finger-Reckoning” (1725)

What message, if any, are the hands of the Fabrica trying to convey? I take them as emissaries of Vesalius’ message, little reminders populating the text with the same defiant and enticing attitude. Are they asking me to engage with this book in the same way they engage with all that crumbling bodily matter? My hands do feel restless as they touch the surface of these black and white pages – they would like to slowly color all these illustrations, or annotate its huge, inviting margins right next to its own printed guiding notes.

And yet this book is also intimidating, its size and luxuriousness able to freeze any hand. I can’t find any handwritten note in this book, so I wonder if past readers did also feel divided between the impulse to manipulate matter and a wondrous restraint. I type some keywords on Google Books and soon find a whole book devoted to the De corporis contemporary readership (The Fabrica of Andreas Vesalius: A Worldwide Descriptive Census, Ownership and Annotations of the 1543 and 1555 editions). It was a luxurious item from the beginning, acquired by the highest echelons of society and wealthy private physicians who did use the book for studying and made some annotations, but mainly focused on the more theoretical aspects of Vesalius’ book while apparently ignoring its dissection description and instructions. Surgeons, less highly ranked on the social ladder, generally acquired the Epitome, a book produced by the same publisher with summary information and only some illustrations, for a lower price. However, if these private physicians were merely interested in musing about the coincidences and disparities between Vesalius and Galen and were not at all concerned with the instructions on how to guide dissection tools along an open corpse, why did this information stay in every edition? I read that some parts of the book were shortened while others were expanded, depending on the interest of their readers. The sections about dissection and its instruments never disappeared from the Fabrica.  

I look at this illustration exhibiting the abundance of dissection instruments and my hand instinctively moves as if ready to grab one of them, but all I have with me is my reading weight. How did physicians, who were not dissectors, react to these instruments and the instructions on how to use them? Did they read these sections with embarrassment, avoiding to annotate their pages in the way they proudly and heavily did annotate the theoretical pages? Did they read them just out of curiosity or did these pages have some other effect on them?

After our last class I read a little bit more about the controversy between Hooke and Cavendish. While the Royal Society privileged sensory experimentation, Cavendish warned that “our exterior senses can go no further than the exterior figures of Creatures, and their exterior actions, but our reason may pierce deeper, and consider their inherent natures and interior actions”. But Cavendish’s use of the metaphor pierce seems to distance her from a rationalist like Hobbes and the way in which he despised experimentalists: “[they] can get Engines made, and apply them to Stars; Recipients made…but they are never more Philosophers…For if you reckon that way, not only Apothecaries and Gardeners, but many other sorts of Workmen, will put in for, and get the Prize”. Is Cavendish’s ‘piercing’ just a metaphorical leap or was she imagining some sort of active contemplation? If I were to continue exploring this reflection based on exaggerating Vesalius I would want to explore further the strange simultaneity of contemplation and labor. What happens when a book on crafts or recipes is not used to replicate them? Does reading about one manual labor help in developing a completely different occupation? What relationship is established with matter when one reads about its handling, or is the spectator of its handling, but never actually manipulates it?

 

 

 

De historia stirpium commentarii insignes, by Leonhart Fuchs

My lack of knowledge in both botany and Latin made me approach De historia stirpium commentarii insignes [Remarkable Commentaries on the History of Plants] by the German author Leonhard Fuchs as a visual, tactile, intuitive but also a very deceptive reader. The copy from 1543 preserved at the John Hay library is heavy, with a soft and white binding –probably leather–, the paper is thick and it is preceded by two ex-libris that, as I open the jacket, make me think about the traces of possession imprinted in this sixteenth-century object. I see that the book once belonged to Gerard van Swieten – I wonder why he chose two dogs and three violins for his ex-libris. I type his name into Google and discover that he was a Dutch physician from the eighteenth century who, according to Wikipedia, fought “against superstition during the Enlightenment, particularly in the case of the vampires, reported from villages in Serbia in the years between 1718 and 1732”.

I imagine how different my approach to the book is going to be from that of a Dutch physician fighting against supernatural forces during the eighteenth century. Then I find a more familiar name, Albert Edgar Lownes, and after that a partially ripped off ex-libris that reads Botanische Museum der K. Universität and the big Brown University label. I think about our body of knowledge regulated by a bibliographical obsession and decide to look into the catalog entry of De historia stirpium commentarii insignes: the Library of Congress subject for this book I am trying to decipher with my mutilated understanding is “Botany Pre-Linnean works”. The idea of Linnaeus creating a dividing line in our understanding of the natural world makes me evoke the Enlightenment and its taxonomic anxiety.

When I finally open Fuchs’ book, I discover he is also very much guided by a taxonomic instinct, but in his case, it seems more alphabetical than scientific which makes me feel closer to Fuchs than to Linnaeus somehow. As I contemplate the plants’ drawings engraved in the book, I see they are totally isolated, floating in the blank space of the page – like those alienating body parts that flood Vesalius’ fabrica. As I try to think about the implications of encapsulating nature in order within the pages of a book, I wonder how Fuchs felt about the paradoxical triangle that the terms nature, artifice and mimesis drew during the Renaissance. And then I look at the ornamented capitals that open each new depiction of a plant and I discover that nature there is no longer pictured in a pristine state, but rather surrounded by crafted artifacts: vases, staircases, musical instruments.

Maybe this human presence in the tiny space of the capitals could be a subtle claim of the artisan’s authority behind this book.

***

At this point, I decided to compensate for my lack of knowledge of Latin, Fuchs, and botany with a quick bibliographical search. Sachiko Kukusawa in her book Picturing the book of Nature: Image, Texts and Argument on Sixteenth Century Human Anatomy and Medical Botany (2012) starts by remarking the unusual portrait of Fuchs that opens the book: “it was a full-length figure with no background, setting, decorative motif, or cue to link him to a traditional format. Instead of a book, he held a sprig of germander speedwell” (107).

Indeed, Fuchs did not depict himself holding a quill but a bunch of flowers. Very much in the fashion of Vesalius, as Kukusawa also states, Fuchs’ emphasis lies on autopsia (107): seeing for oneself seemed to be the key to knowledge. I am very pleased to find translations of the Fuchs’ Preface in Kukusawa’s book:

To the description of each plant we have added pictures [imagines]. These are lifelike [vivas] and modeled after nature [ad naturae aemulationem] and rendered more skillfully, if I may say so, than ever before. This we have done for no other reason than that a picture expresses things more surely and fixes them more deeply in the mind than the bare words of the text … Who, I ask, of a healthy mind would condemn a picture which is agreed to express a thing much more clearly than they can be delineated with any words, even of the most eloquent men? It has indeed been ordained by nature in such a way that we are all captivated by a picture. Those things which are presented and depicted to the eyes on paper and panels adhere to the mind more deeply than those described by bare words. Hence it is obvious that there are many plants which in order to be recognized cannot be described by any words, but being placed before the eyes in picture, can be recognized immediately at first sight. (111-112)

When in the very last page of the book, I see the engravings of the Pictores Operis (the painter and the engraver) and the Sculptor (woodcutter) copying plants placed with care in a vessel, I smile at this ironic turn: the desired unmediated approach to nature that Fuchs seemed to have turned out to be a succession of translations from nature into wood and later into paper.

***

In the first lines of the introduction to Uncreative Writing: Managing Language in the Digital Age (2011), Kenneth Goldsmith proclaimed that “[T]he world is full of texts more or less interesting; I do not wish to add anymore” (1). Later on, he would argue that in the new era of unlimited data everything can be textualized. Following Goldsmith’s idea of the necessity to not create anything new, but just negotiate with the existing finding new ways to write, I decided to betray Fuchs’ blind trust in the pictorial and subvert his images turning them into new forms of text. How would an Aloe drew in the sixteenth century look translated into a twenty-first-century language? A language made out of numbers that my mind, trained in the Humanities, also cannot understand.

Fuchs’ Aloe

Fuchs’ Aloe translated into HTML binary code (using https://www.text-image.com/convert/)

Fuchs’ Aloe translated into ASCII, using http://picascii.com/ [abbreviated from American Standard Code for Information Interchange, is a character encoding standard for electronic communication, Wikipedia].

Asarum (wild gingers) translated into Matrix-like binary code.

Fuchs’ Asarum transformed into an automatic emojis’ collage

Close-up of emojis’ collage.

***

I am very interested in the idea of textualization – how everything can be transformed in a kind of writing artifact (either by these websites that automatically turn images both into a binary code replication and into the new language of emojis, or by the poetic effort of a writer). If I were to take this project further, I would like to keep subverting De historia stirpium commentarii insignes, playing with these translation games, convert Fuchs’ aloes and wild gingers into something like concrete poetry, and explore if these experiments could eventually take me back to Fuchs’ original image.

Ana Garriga

***

Works cited

Goldsmith, Kenneth. Uncreative Writing: Managing Language in the Digital Age, Columbia University Press, 2011.

Kukusawa, Sachiko. Picturing the book of Nature: Image, Texts and Argument on Sixteenth Century Human Anatomy and Medical Botany, The University of Chicago Press, 2012.

 

Rare Book Assignment

The book I have chosen is the Natural Magick by John Baptist della Porta. It was published in 1658 and the etcher of the book is Richard Gaywood. According to the British Museum website Gaywood was “the most prolific etcher of his day.”[1] The book is a collection of many different recipes that are organized into nineteen different catalogues. The recipes are, in my understanding, annotations of ways to comprehend the characteristics of nature’s creation as well as to reveal hidden qualities of materials. In the preface, Porta acclaimed that he aimed towards “labored earnestly to disclose the secrets of Nature.” As he elaborated more in the first chapter “Of the Causes of Wonderful Things ” the word ‘Magick’, some call it ‘Natural Science’ and some call it “the practical part of ‘Natural Philosophy’”, has much to do with the order and phenomenon of Nature. As Porta said “I think that Magick is nothing else but the survey of the whole course of Nature.”[2]

I am really attracted to the idea of his recipes collection functions as a ‘tool’ for scholars to understand the mysteries or the ‘invisibles’ in materials. Process such as distillation is a way of separating seemingly homogenized elements. Essential oil extraction can be a good example—when the oil is in the plant or fruit, one cannot observe the oil in its conventional form. The process of distillation separates the oil from the plant, therefore unveils the invisible characteristic of that plant or fruit. The chapter on the optics also functions similarly but on the understanding and exposing the characteristics of light that cannot be observed by human’s bare eyes. Lenses that distort the images or create rainbows also demonstrate the composition of light and how it travels and bends. My project, inspired by this idea, is to write a recipe on “to make salt from sweat that collected while blowing glass for three hours.” It is a recording of a process that reveals the ‘invisible’ salt in bodily fluid. It is also derived from personal experiences of desire and attempt to measure the amount of heat and labor that had been given into the process of glass blowing. As executing this project, I am very captivated by the relationship between us and the environment we are in as well as the gestures that we come up with in order to understand the environment that surrounds us. This is the idea I derived from studying this specific book briefly and falls into my inquiry on human-environment relationship and dynamics.

 

[1] “Richard Gaywood (Biographical Details).” British Museum. Accessed September 13, 2018. http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/search_the_collection_database/term_details.aspx?bioId=123944.

[2] Porta, Giambattista della, Godfrey Taylor, Godfrey Taylor, Henry Alden Sherwin, G. H Browne, and G. H Browne. Natural Magick. London,: printed for Thomas Young, and Samuel Speed; and are to be sold at the three pigeons, and at the angel in St. Paul’s Church-yard., 1658.Bibliography

 

Bibliography

“Richard Gaywood (Biographical Details).” British Museum. Accessed September 13, 2018. http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/search_the_collection_database/term_details.aspx?bioId=123944.

Porta, Giambattista della, Godfrey Taylor, Godfrey Taylor, Henry Alden Sherwin, G. H Browne, and G. H Browne. Natural Magick. London,: printed for Thomas Young, and Samuel Speed; and are to be sold at the three pigeons, and at the angel in St. Paul’s Church-yard., 1658.

 

To make salt from sweat collected from three hours of blowing glass

Find or become a glass blower. During the middle of the day, work on intensely made objects in the hotshop until you start dripping sweat. As sweat drops run down your face, pause your work and collect the sweat in a glass vessel; preferably clear. Continuously doing it until finished with work. Leave the vessel of sweat expose to the air so water escape; collect the residue.

 

The Queen’s Closet Opened—Not A Lesbian Anthem

The Queen’s Closet Opened is a compendium of “secrets in physick [medicine], chirurgery [surgery], preserving, and candying, etc.” that was supposedly presented to Queen Henrietta Maria (wife of Charles I) and compiled into a book in 1655 (our version is from 1671).  It is not, as many of the people I told of my assignment this weekend, related to the queen coming out.  This phrase ‘out of the closet,’ at least according to Gay New York (Chauncey 1995), has its origins only in the 1960s, so unfortunately, this is not a secret Lesbian anthem from the 1650s.

With that out of the way, The Queen’s Closet Opened is a small book, published by N. Brooke for the specific sale of an individual named Charles Harper whose store(/residence?) was on Fleet Street in London (the description of his location is detailed; no cross-streets, but near a church at the “flower-de-luce”—fleur de lis—presumably a symbol on his store/residence?).  It is especially cool because it has both a table of contents (organized not how we would have with chapters, but by the names of the individuals who donated the recipes and the pages they appear on) and an index of recipes (pictured below).  The book has many recipes on a variety of important things such as several plague cures, breaking up kidney stones, curing ‘melancholy,’ a cure for the “Purples,” a way to “preserve a woman with child from miscarriage and abortion,” and even a recipe for Almond Milk.

Figures 1-4: The Queen’s Closet Opened (clockwise: title page, print of the publisher?, index, table of contents.

The purpose of publication is a little unclear, but the British Library suggests that in the aftermath of the dissolution of the monarchy by Oliver Cromwell, many people were out of a job, and writing/contributing to a book may have been a way to make money, as they were “able to release the secrets hidden in the cabinets of the aristocracy.”  Indeed, the note to the readers (below) seems to suggest that there was interest in what was “above common Repute.”

Figures 5-7: Note to the readers

I thought that I could take this opportunity, given a certain lack in artistic ability, to use the verb ‘replicate’ to approach this work.  Unlike Natural Magick, which had confusing and not always straightforward directions, it seems like there was an attempt to make The Queen’s Closet Opened a work whose recipes could actually be used and replicated by individuals with access to the various ingredients contained in the book (of course, you also had to be able to afford the book itself).  This, I would find, was no simple matter.

I decided it might be fun to make Almond Milk (recipe below), which seemed to make use of a number of ingredients that I was unfamiliar with.  There were three recipes, two of which were easily eliminated because they took several weeks to make.  The last presented an interesting challenge because of particular ingredients, some of which were noted by a name that was either very specific to a certain area in Britain (and presumably unavailable in the US), or very broad (Maidenhair could mean either two types of ferns, two types of berry-bearing shrubs, or a huge number of flowering plants or moss).  Another difficulty was acquiring barley, which I thought would be easy as this weekend I was travelling to Iowa to attend my partner’s cousin’s wedding.  As it turns out, barley is not a crop widely grown in Iowa (mostly soybeans and corn), and none of the grocery stores I went to had any or knew where I could find some.  So much for almond milk.

Figure 8: Almond Milk Recipe

Instead, I decided on a much simpler recipe, the “syrup of Pearmains, good against melancholy.”  Pearmains, a type of apple was not available at the famous Iowa City grocery store Hy Vee, but I was able to substitute for another type of apple.  “Citrons” was a bit harder (did they mean oranges? lemons? What exactly was available to 17th century English upper-class individuals?).  I finally decided on lemons after some cursory research into the use of the word in the 17th century.  The roots and leaves of Borrage were even more difficult; no one I knew in Iowa City (i.e. my partner’s family) had a crop of Borrage and I apparently was supposed to attend the wedding, so my time to search for it was limited.  Eventually I ended up in a local supplement store that had, surprisingly, borrage powder, which the lady at the counter assured me had both the roots and leaves of the plant (making me even less certain about the validity of supplement stores).  Unfortunately, borrage root (or whatever this actually was) is incredibly bitter, and when combined with the other three ingredients (sugar, apples, and lemon), it had a very bitter taste, which was not widely appreciated among my partner’s family (making a good impression!).  That and the realization that the syrup (really more of a bitter applesauce) was a liquid/gel and did not pass the TSA’s regulation for the transport of 17th century medicine made me not want to bring it back to Rhode Island (I decided the taste would not be improved by me putting it into an emptied 3 oz. shampoo container).

Figure 9: Recipe for Pearmain syrup

This study could certainly be translated into a semester-long project (maybe it would take that long to grow some real Borrage—a surprisingly ubiquitous ingredient in the Queen’s Closet Opened) of replication, though I’m not sure what ultimate good this would achieve.  Perhaps more interestingly for me, it would be cool to look into who had access to what ingredients.  Are there records of what plants/ingredients were sold at shops in London in the 17th century?  Could I identify which recipes were full of luxury ingredients and which could be found relatively easily?  Are there records of people actually utilizing the recipes?  Could I find out about who owned our copy and who he was and how much access he had?  I think determining this could lead me to a better sense of whether these recipes were actually as accessible as I thought in the beginning of this post.

A Psalter Printed in Ge’ez (Charlie Steinman)

For this assignment, I’ve chosen to explore the Hay Annmary copy of the first book ever printed in the Ethiopian liturgical language of Ge’ez—containing the Psalms and the Song of Songs.  Ge’ez’s unique script was the fourth alphabet to be adapted to the printing press, only preceded by Latin, Greek, and Hebrew.  This particular book was printed in 1513 in Rome, by the German printer Marcellus Silber.  We will explore the history of this particular book below.

In my exploration, I was driven by the verbs “magnify” and “expand.”  I wanted to find a way to lay bare the complex historical context and the more abstract religious and cultural context of this book—to find a way to negotiate the connections between the Ethiopian manuscript tradition, modern Ethiopian Christianity, European traditions of Sub-Saharan Africa, and print culture in a series of images, or a presentation.  I want to deconstruct the linearity of the book’s historical context, making clear its relevance as a liturgical text for a religious tradition that is very much still alive, while simultaneously understanding the historical context that undergirds the book.

The opening pages of the Hay Annmary copy. On the left is an introduction in Latin, which contextualizes the existence of various Christian liturgical languages in terms of the story of Babel. On the right are the first Ge’ez characters ever printed, as well as a woodcut decoration. We’ll return to the woodcuts later on.

A celebration of Tikmat, the Ethiopian Orthodox version of the Epiphany, at the Fasilides Bath in Gondar, Ethiopia.

The past and present of Christianity in Ethiopia, while far from totally obscure, are not particularly well known.   I find this bizarre, having grown up in Washington, DC, a city with one of the largest populations of Ethiopians outside of Ethiopia.  Growing up, Ethiopian culture existed in a similar bilingual, syncretic space embodied by the psalter.  In my friend’s neighborhood, there is an Ethiopian Evangelical Church that is in a former synagogue, with Jewish iconography on the outside, and signs in English and Amharic.

The International Ethiopian Evangelical church, on Eastern Avenue NW in the Shepherd Park neighborhood of Washington, DC. Notice the menorah-like window decorations at the front of the church. The building was a synagogue until the 1980s; Shepherd Park and the neighboring suburb of Silver Spring (located, quite literally, across the street) still has a large Jewish population. Notice the presence of English and Amharic alongside Jewish architectural traditions.

The psalter sits at an interesting moment of historical contingency, wherein Latin Christians had a uniquely close relationship with the Christians of Ethiopia.  In 1441, a group of Ethiopian monks arrived at the Council of Florence with a Franciscan friar, who accompanied them from the court of Zara Yaqob.  Their mission became a permanent fixture in the Italian peninsula; Pope Sixtus granted them their own church in Rome in 1479—the church of Santo Stefano degli Abbisini.  In the early sixteenth century, Joannes Potken, the provost of the college at Cologne, was invited to Rome to serve at the Papal court, and out of curiosity wandered into the Ethiopian church.  Fascinated, he developed a friendship with the Ethiopian Abbas Thomas Walda Samuel, who eventually taught Potken the Ge’ez language.  Despite his intimate familiarity with Ethiopian Christianity, Potken erroneously calls the language Chaldean, an earlier name for Aramaic.

The church of Santo Stefano degli Abbisini (Saint Stephen of Abyssinia) in Rome. This particular building was built in the 18th century, although the congregation was founded in 1479. Potken entered this building sometime in the early 16th century, becoming fascinated with Ethiopian Christianity, and friendly with its Roman mission.

Beyond this particular historical moment, the book as an object sits at the intersection of various manuscript traditions, both from and about Ethiopia.  Æthiopia was a fairly generic toponym that referred to any and all of Sub-Saharan Africa (and occasionally India), derived from the Greek word for “Land of People with Burnt Skin.”  Ethiopians (read: people with black skin, usually understood to be from Sub-Saharan Africa) turned up periodically in European manuscript art throughout the later Middle Ages.  These traditions varied greatly, as we can see from two fifteenth century manuscripts, both from Germany.  On the left, Ethiopians are depicted as being part of the Antichrist’s army.  On the right, there is a depiction of the Ethiopian Eunuch from the Book of Acts, who converts to Christianity upon meeting Philip the Evangelist.

A mid-15th-century depiction of the coming of the Anti-Christ. Above, a group of blemmyai (one of Pliny’s “monstrous races,” men without necks who are often placed in Ethiopia) and Ethiopians congregate to find the Anti-Christ. Below, an Ethiopian (left), a Jew (center, identified by his pointy hat), and a Saracen(?) (left, a word for Muslims) worship the Anti-Christ.

A 15th-century Dutch manuscript depicting the conversion of the Ethiopian eunuch from the biblical Book of Acts.

Through the 15th and 16th centuries, Ethiopia was explicitly associated with an idealized form of Christianity through the mythical figure of Prester John.  Prester John was said to be a Christian king, descended from one of the Magi, who ruled over a utopian and pious kingdom somewhere in the East.  He was initially placed in Central Asia (numerous Latin missions to the Mongols hoped to find Prester John), but was eventually associated with Ethiopia, especially once the Portuguese started to explore the southern and eastern African coast.  Below, you can see Prester John depicted in East Africa on a 16th-century Spanish portolan chart, as well as an Ortelius Atlas calling East Africa, loosely, “the land of Prester John.”

A 16th-century Spanish portolan chart, depicting Prester John in East Africa.

A map of Africa in the landmark Ortelius series of Atlases, explicitly naming East Africa “The Nation of Emperor Prester John of the Abyssinians.” 

This brings us back to our Psalter, and in particular its woodcut illustrations.   The opening woodcut is a depiction of King David, author of the Psalms, which to me seems to recall the figure of Prester John as well.  I find this particularly likely given the exotic flora that surrounds King David, exoticizing him in a way that is atypical for European portraits of the Psalmist.   

Potken, taking advantage of the exponential growth of print at the turn of the 16th century, decided to share Ethiopian Christianity with the Latin world by printing the Psalms and Song of Songs in Ge’ez.  He commissioned the type to be made by a German printer living in Rome by the name of Marcellus Silber.  The two worked extensively with Ethiopian manuscripts, one of which survives today in the Vatican library.  Below, I’ve included a sampling of Ethiopian manuscripts from the Middle Ages.  I’d like to draw your attention to the interlaced border decoration, which are ubiquitous in Ethiopian (and also Celtic, but that’s a story for another day) manuscript art from the period.  The third of the set is one of the manuscripts that Potken and Silber used to create their work.

A leaf from the Gunda Gunde Gospels, early 16th century.

An image of Christ before Pilate, from a late-15th-century manuscript.

The Vatican manuscript from Ethiopia used by Silber and Potken.

Now, let’s return to the opening Ge’ez page of the psalter, paying particular attention to the woodcut at the header.  It’s interweaving designs, in particular the points and foliate designs on either end, and the circles sprinkled throughout, are very similar to the manuscript designs above.  The work that went into creating the Ge’ez type itself is clear.  But what I find fascinating is that, apparently, Potken and Silber directly engaged with the Ethiopian tradition of manuscript art in creating this particular woodcut.  There has been a lot of scholarship arguing for continuities between European manuscript traditions and early print, particularly in border art.  Here, we see that these continuities were extended to the Ethiopian manuscript tradition as well; as Ge’ez entered the world of print, so did the designs that accompanied it in manuscript.

If I pursue this project further, I think I’d have to do more research on the Ethiopian mission in Rome, and the physical production of the Ge’ez typeface.  I’m very curious about the process of trial and error in creating a psalter like this, and would have to think differently about the material nature of the psalter in order to really shed light on this.  I’m also very curious about how exactly these books were used.  This particular copy has lots of marginal notes that indicate frequent use (even including notes about how loud to sing certain lines!), but I can’t find much about who the annotator is.  Was this purely intellectual? Was it a proselytizing tool? A language learning exercise? These are questions that may be unanswerable, but that I would very much like to pursue.

A handwritten marginal note indicating that a particular Ge’ez word is to be “forte legem” (read strongly/loudly).

The end of the Ge’ez syllabary, which is heavily annotated, as well as printed in a different Latin type than the rest of the book.

William Godfrey

[post by Nasser]

Book title: The Laboratory, or School of Arts
Author: Godfrey Smith
Engravings: James Hulett and Godfrey Smith
Publication: 1740, London

Translated from High Dutch, and printed for J. Hodges, at the Looking Glass on London Bridge; J. James, at Horace’s Head, under the Royal-Exchange; and T. Cooper, at the Globe in Pater-noster Row., M DCC XL.

Call number: T44 .S6 1740

I found this book while searching for books similar to della Porta’s “Natural Magick”. The title stood out as it mentions “School of Arts”, possibly indicating that the secrets in it were useful to individuals who were involved in the creation of art, whether in school or not. While it does not hold as many “secrets” as “Natural Magick”, it did cover similar processes, such as working (and creating) gold, secrets for jewelers, mold making, and making glass. This last example interested me. I have recently been experimenting with a process which involves the creation of glass(?) by melting and fusing sand using a high-powered laser.

The methods of producing glass found in this 18th C text and my 21st C method had some similarities. Both processes include sand as a main ingredient, as well as a sodium-based binder. And naturally, just add heat. Following themes of book ownership/transfer and annotation that were presented in last week’s class, I thought it would be interesting (and humorous) to imagine this text somehow ending up on my desk, and not in a superspecialprecious collection at Brown. How would I react to the information found in this text? And how would I, believing it would one day end up on someone else’s desk, annotate or edit the information to make their lives a little easier? (Disclaimer: No rare books were harmed in this project)

 

In this image, I cross out the existing instructions and add my own, à la Severus Snape in the Half Blood Prince.

I am very interested in learning more about material history, especially related to sand and its cultural and scientific significance. Finding an 18th C use for it was thrilling, and I am sure there is a lot more to be found. This is something that fits into my studio practice and thesis, and I believe it could be developed into a semester long research project for this class.

Giamabattista Della Porta’s Natural Magick

[Post by Richard]

“Natural Magick” by Giambattista Del Porta was the rare book I analyzed in the John Hay Library last class. It was written in 1535 in Latin although the copy I was holding was a 1658 translation into English. The book contained recipes from cooking and perfume to transmuting metals and counterfeiting gold. Certain elements of the text such as the making of perfume, fireworks, and distillation, reminded me of modern day DIY culture, that we might see taking place on youtube or even like the Anarchist Cookbook by William Powell, which contained recipes for drugs such as LSD, explosives, and napalm. Much like Natural Magick I can only conclude that both were primarily written for entertainment. The recipes in the “Anarchist Cookbook” are infamously unreliably while many of the recipes for transmutation in “Natural Magick” are just plain wild, such as feeding a cooked cock to a hen in the hopes of it laying a precious metal instead of an egg.

The lens I was given to analyze this book was the word replicate, which traditionally means to make an exact copy or replica, but when thinking about it in this context I would give it a new definition. To replicate more in the appearance of an object rather than duplicating it’s physical properties. I don’t doubt some of the recipes produced exciting results and a gold like or emerald like object was the fruition of this. I find this very similar in art making, the creation of something artificial with the aim of invoking poetic or allegoric significance. This can be seen in something like Olafur Elaisson’s “Beauty” in which an artificial rainbow is created indoors or even in many Turrell pieces where light is changed into a seemingly physical object. Even though there is a level of trickery I still believe the feelings of sublime and wonder that come with these instances are very real and important. Regardless of the result of the processes in Del Porta’s Natural Magick there is beauty in the writing which is why the book is so valuable and has been maintained for over four hundred years.

If I were to turn this into a semester long project influenced by the themes of replication and “Natural Magick” I would pursue creating a recipe for a meteorite. I believe this would be interesting to work backwards from the thought of reproducing in appearance but not physical property. In this instance I would be creating something similar in physical property, containing mainly iron and a few trace elements, but missing the history of travelling through space and crashing into the Earth.