On the 16 of November 2016, the Genius Before Romanticism project, and our own Making Visible team joined forces in organising a day-long workshop around “Scribal Ingenuity“. Since the art of writing was such an important part of early modern culture, and it involves skill, and expertise, our workshop was divided between a theoretical and a practical part. The morning consisted of papers about early modern scribes and their ingenious and beautiful ways of writing, as well as the way in which writing was used to organise knowledge, and to engage with information. In the afternoon we visited the Pepys Library at Magdalene College, Cambridge, looking especially at Pepys’s collections of samples of hand-writings and pen-drawings. And in between papers and library visit we had the pleasure of welcoming professional scribe Paul Antonio, who gave a demonstration of the art of scribal practices. You can watch the full demonstration on our event page, and below I will highlight several moments from the study session.
Let’s start with learning how to cut a quill. Always thought that part of scribal practice was straightforward…?
Paul showed us how logical early modern letter forms are. Once you understand the maths, you might be able to try it yourself. To make it easier for his audience to see what he is doing, Paul showed us the formation of letters on a big piece of paper attached to the wall. And to demonstrate the effect of a pointed flexible nib, the nib commonly found on quills and modern-day fountain pens, Paul used a device invented by Bill Hildebrandt, which imitates this pointed flexible nib.
In preparation to of the study session, Paul was asked by the organisers how a book like Richard Gething’s Calligraphotechnica (London 1619) was produced. Richard Gething (1585?–1652?) was a writing-master from Herefordshire, who lived in London most of his adult live. His Calligraphotechnia, a copybook with examples of handwritings and letter flourishes, was first published in 1616 as A Coppie Book of the Usuall Hands Written. The first thing we have to realise with looking at the published versions of this writing manuals, is that they were printed from engravings, and therefore the handwriting had been cut into copperplates. In the case of Gething, we do not know who was the engraver, who had prepared the publication by transmitting a written manuscript onto copper plates. You can leave through the full book here. In the full version of the video you can hear how Paul explains the clear remnant of the use of a quill in the printed version (see the video at 1:06:48).
Subsequently Paul demonstrated how a letterform could have been made by Richard Gething taking the following image as his model.
Paul Antonio will be travelling to Texas, USA in May, to give several workshops and demonstrations. If you happen to be in that part of the world, don’t hesitate to sign up for some of his workshops here.
And again, for the full recording of the 80 minute demonstration, see our event page, or click here.
As the start of the respective second and third years of our research projects, the Making Visible post-docs and the Genius before Romanticism team visited the Making and Knowing project last week at Columbia University in New York. The Making and Knowing project, led by Professor Pamela Smith, has the aim to reconstruct the sixteenth-century artisanal workshop as to understand more about the practice of making and knowing in the early modern period.
Based around an anonymous manuscript (BNF Ms. Fr. 640) the project transcribes and translates the manuscript and then reproduces the recipes and experiments as described by the author-compiler. The final outcome of the project will be a fully annotated and translated online edition of the manuscript. To do all this, the project’s director, the project manager, and three post-docs work closely together with a large group of experts (from the digital humanities to expert makers), while the reproducing of recipes mainly happens in a learning environment. The latter means that the research group offers graduate courses to students at Columbia University in which the students work with the manuscript, and re-create the described recipes.
Since the theme of our current (second) year of the project is ‘expertise’, especially how expertise could be gained by the fellows of the Royal Society, and how expertise would help and influence their visual practices, a visit to the laboratory of the Making and Knowing project has been very insightful.
Every semester, the Making and Knowing project runs a graduate seminar where students from different fields can learn about early modern artisanal practices through hands-on participation in the lab. But, like any craft process it is hard to fully grasp without doing it yourself, so we donned our lab coats and joined the class for a day. The day we were observers, the subject under investigation was making and casting from bread moulds.
The day began with a seminar-style discussion of assigned readings; then the students discussed the various trials and tribulations of their attempts to bake bread from early modern recipes, which they completed ahead of time at home. Students followed various recipes, but unlike modern instructions, most did not include specific amounts, times, or temperatures leaving students to follow their best judgement (or guess) on how to proceed. A few students experienced with bread baking followed their instincts, but the rest had to wrestle with recipes that assumed a high degree of tacit knowledge. After baking, the students made moulds from the bread by impressing small objects (a key, a toy, a magnet) into the warm bread. As the bread dried out, they formed the the hardened mold which will later be filled.
After lunch we headed to the lab, where, after safety instructions and donning the appropriate gear, we were ready to get casting. The Making and Knowing lab uses the early modern materials described in BNF Ms Fr. 640 (bread, beeswax, cuttlefish bone), but modern equipment (hot plates for heating; fume hoods for safety). Over the next few hours, students slowly melted down the beeswax and sulfur (in the fume hood), and created a steady surface by cutting a flat surface into their bread or securing them with clamps or sand.
Once ready, they poured the molten sulfur or beeswax into their moulds. The pouring needed to happen quickly enough that the substance did not begin to harden, but slow enough that it did not splash out (as happened to Katie).
After filling, the moulds were left to set and harden. After fully setting, the bread was removed to reveal the finished cast object. The finished objects revealed that, as promised in the manuscript, bread was a surprisingly good medium to take an impression. In our excitement, we realised that we failed to take a picture of a final object from the bread moulding experiment, but the entire process was probably more interesting and important than the final product!
The second day of our visit to the Making and Knowing team consisted of an afternoon seminar in which all present participants of the three projects, presented on their work and experiences as researchers on these collaborative and interdisciplinary projects. The discussion was wide ranging, but over the course of the afternoon several themes and key questions arose. We talked about the knowledge that could be gained only be doing – knowledge of materials and processes that the Making and Knowing team learned over the course of their recreations.
However, how do we, as historians, study and communicate our ideas about what Pamela Smith calls ‘experiential knowledge’, if words are insufficient to explain or encompass this type of knowledge? It was interesting to hear from one of the new Making and Knowing postdocs, Tianna Uchacz, that she also found gaps or tacit knowledge in the descriptions of recipes by students. She experienced this by following their essays on the making of bread to bake her own bread for the bread moulding experiment. Would there be other ways to communicate and report our experiences? Not just verbally, but also through videos, drawings, and informal forms of writing? It is clear that these new forms of historical investigation might also call for new or alternative ways of communication.
One of the other major points discussed was the importance of failure. The importance of failure to learn and understand a process but also the reporting about failure to be able to understand and keep open the possibility of re-tracing one’s steps. Unfortunately many mistakes and failures are not written down and are therefore forgotten as essential steps in the process of knowledge creation.
Another part of the discussion centred on the value, and problems, with historical recreation. The Making and Knowing lab has gone to impressive lengths to obtain early modern materials, but they use modern heating, lighting, and laboratory equipment. Thus, how faithful can we consider the outcomes of their experiments to what might have happened in the past? This discussion resonated with us in relation to the slow start of our own intaglio project. We are using early modern engraving tools, but we are undertaking the project and learning to engrave in a very modern context. If we can’t devote the time and resources to truly becoming early modern engravers (which we can’t, we’re already historians) then is the whole endeavour pointless or can learning this skill, even in a modern way, still inform how we look on and understand the printed images we study?
Our visit to the Making and Knowing lab allowed us to reflect on and discuss these issues, and we thank Pamela Smith and all of her team for the invitation and for allowing us to join the lab for a day!
The word selenographia, a Latinized Greek noun derived from Selene (the moon), and graphia (from the verb graphein, to scratch, draw, write, represent, describe) was coined in the seventeenth-century to refer to textual and visual lunar description made from telescopic observations. From the 1640s, the word designates a map of the features of the satellite. In the production of these images, astronomers and artists engaged in graphical experimentation for the efficient translation of fragmentary views (it was impossible to see an image of the full moon at once through a seventeenth-century lens) into a detailed representation of the entire lunar disc. A gallery of seventeenth-century selenographies can be found here.
This image (Fig. 1) is perhaps the most abstract selenography of its time. The lunar features are not inscribed within a circle representing the limits of the disc but are floating on the blank page. The moon is not intended to look naturalistic: there is no expression of volume or tone as in the phases engraved by Claude Mellan under the direction of Pierre Gassendi and Nicholas Fabri de Peiresc or in the full moon drawn and engraved by Jean Patigny under Jean-Dominique Cassini. Here the depressions and elevations of the surface are reduced to irregular shapes engraved with a single line. A rhomboid grid marks an imaginary centre of the disc that was intended to orientate the user of the telescope. This is not a moonscape but a two-dimensional representation of the topography of the moon. Johannes Hevelius published the image in his lunar treatise, the Selenographia sive lunae descriptio, published in Gdansk in 1646.
Hevelius used this template to reconstruct more detailed maps of the full moon and the forty phases that illustrate the Selenographia. The template itself, called Figura Primaria Phasium et Lunationum (called Fig. T and its variant Tt) was inserted in chapter 44 of the book; and in many cases copies of the figures were bound at the end of the volume. Hevelius explained this picture as a synthesis of observations taken across a period of four years. He presented the image as an astronomical instrument that would serve the recording of lunar eclipses, the occultation of celestial bodies, and the calculation of terrestrial longitude. The astronomer could shade or mark lines over the image to show the progress of a lunar eclipse or the places of the conjunction of a planet. The author’s intention was for his map to be transferred on to copper plates so that it could be easily reproduced and used across the world. However, the template was perhaps not as helpful as Hevelius would have liked (Fig. 2).
Though engraving and etching was increasingly valued and practiced by amateurs throughout the seventeenth century, the reproduction of Hevelius’s template would have required not only knowledge of the craft and access to a roller press (or, these lacking, to an engraver) but also a real motivation. My survey of copies of this image in the archives of the Royal Society indicates that astronomers did not use Hevelius’s recording aid. Thus far, evidence suggests that they preferred to record lunar phenomena in tables and text rather than through illustration.
Hevelius’s correspondence and the copies of his papers do not frequently convey the results of observations through a visualisation: the earliest example of a communication accompanied by a lunar template representing the transit of Jupiter over the moon in September 1671 is found within the series now called Letter Book Original that gathers a selection of copies of autograph letters indexed by Richard Waller in 1689 (Fig. 3). This template is much smaller than the one printed in the Selenographia. The image was most likely sent with the intention of being published, for it was printed in the Philosophical Transactions to illustrate Hevelius’s communication.
Fig. 4: Lunar eclipse observed in Gdansk, 1 January 1676, Royal Society EL/H2/39
In the volume holding Hevelius’s correspondence with Henry Oldenburg, only three observations, all pertaining to the later part of Hevelius’s life, are illustrated with this reduced version of the Figura Primaria: two lunar eclipses of 1676 and 1682, and an occultation of Jupiter of 1686. These are also appended to tables and texts. Arguably, Hevelius also sent these papers aiming for them to be published. It seems that he used these templates not as instruments but as visualisations to communicate observations effectively to an interested yet not specialised readership (Figs 4 & 5).
Remarkably, the lunar template is also scarce in observations sent to the Royal Society by other astronomers. Etched or pen and ink copies of Hevelius’s Figura Primaria are found in recordings of lunar eclipses taken between 1689 and 1690, which were sent by astronomers of the observatory of Nuremberg, Georg Christoph Eimmart and his collaborator Johann Philipp Wurzelbaur (Fig. 6). Notably, these astronomers also represented lunar observations with Hevelius’s template in self-published pamphlets promoting their work in Nuremberg in 1685 and in the periodical the Acta Eruditorum of 1686. Eimmart was an astronomer as well as an accomplished engraver but the fact that he was capable of making copies of Hevelius’s template does not explain why he and his friend decided to convey their results in this way (Fig. 7). I would like to understand if Eimmart and Wurzelbaur adopted Hevelius’s graphics in order to promote their work at the observatory of Nuremberg within his scientific legacy.
This example helps me continue my reflection about the purpose of lunar maps in the seventeenth century. The case of Hevelius’s Figura Primaria adds to a number of instances in which the motivation for producing maps of the moon is not purely astronomical. Thus far, I think that although the process of making selenographies is related to the desire to test technology and to further understand the topography of the satellite through observation and drawing, the publication of these images obeys the desire to promote a scientific identity.
As my archaic dagger gets stuck, then skips along the piece of shiny copper, I wonder ‘how is this helping me as a historian?’
The sharp object in my hand is a burin, a carving tool used for copper plate engraving. At the moment I am trying my hand (unsuccessfully) at the technique of intaglio engraving, an early modern printing method.
Intaglio printing (which includes the techniques of engraving and etching) refers to the technique where the line incised into the plate (either with burin, dry point needle, or acid) is what will eventually appear dark when the plate is printed. This is in contrast to relief printing (like woodcuts) where what you carve away are actually the spaces that remain blank or un-inked during printing. All three of these techniques were used in the 17th century, although engraving and etching were most commonly used in the images created for the Royal Society’s publications like the Philosophical Transactions and Robert Hooke’s Micrographia.
Thus, my colleague Sietske and I are attempting to learn the technique of engraving in hopes that it will help us further understand the relationship between graphic skill and image creation.
Our ‘intaglio project’ is in its early days, and over the next several months we will post here about how we are progressing and our reflections on what we have learned in the process. So far, we have started at the very beginning. How to hold a burin, how to apply pressure to incise the copper, and how to clip off the curly ‘spur’ created if you do it all correctly.
Here are a few things I learned so far:
Engraving is difficult. I knew this, but like any skill one takes a go at, I have a new appreciation for the long training and apprenticeships necessary to learn to deploy such a craft, let alone with a high degree of finesse or skill.
Engraving is a completely different skill than drawing. The fine lines of engraved images almost make us think they were drawn with a pen, when in fact engraving is really a form of carving. The burin is not held like a pencil or quill with the fingers, but instead is grasped in the palm of the hand and driven along the plate. Instead of moving your wrist to make curves (as you would in painting or drawing) the burin always moves forward in a straight line and it is the plate that is moved to create a curved line.
Engraving is a complicated and multi-step process. I have also developed a new appreciation for the numerous steps involved in preparing a plate, engraving, cleaning, inking, and printing before a finished image is produced. With the burin and engraver carves lines that, after many more steps, are filled with ink and ultimately create the marks on the page. However, there are many more steps between wielding your burin and the final printed imaged. For instance, since engraving is a form of carving, you have to recon with the material carved away. In the case of burin engraving, this manifests as a thing curly copper ‘spur’ at the end of every line you engrave. These spurs need to be gently clipped off from the plate’s surface to get them out of your way, but also so they do not impact the shape of the line when the plate is printed.
Thus far my dilettante attempts at this 17th-century technique have yielded little more than a few scratched lines on a plate. I am working on making my lines consistent, and regulating pressure to varying their thickness, before I move onto the next challenge – curved lines. Check back here in the coming months as Sietske and I will be documenting the trials and tribulations of our intaglio project, as well as how it is making us reflect upon and think differently about the images that we study and the processes involved in making them.
David Landau and Peter Parshall, The Renaissance Print: 1470-1550 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994).
Pamela Smith and Tonny Beentjes, “Nature and Art, Making and Knowing: Reconstructing Sixteenth-Century Life-Casting Techniques,” Renaissance Quarterly 63, 1, (2010), pp.128-179.
Ad Stijnman, Engraving and Etching 1400-2000. A History of the Development of Manual Intaglio Printmaking Processes (Amsterdam: HES & De Graaf, 2012).