An Image Interview with Alice Marples

Studies of a Crocodile or the Leviathan in Musaeum Regalis Societatis, 1686.
Studies of a Crocodile or the Leviathan from Nehemiah Grew, Musaeum Regalis Societatis, 1681

Tell us briefly about yourself and your background?

Alice Marples, historian of science and medicine in the 17th and 18th centuries, broadly interested in the social and cultural history of knowledge collection and exchange. My recently completed thesis explored diverse collecting and correspondence practices within medical and natural historical communities in Britain in the early eighteenth century, and examined how the physician and naturalist Hans Sloane influenced the institutionalisation and popularisation of science in Britain. Currently a postdoctoral research associate at the John Rylands Research Institute at the University of Manchester, working on medical education in Manchester between 1750-1850.

Which picture have you chosen, and what does it show?

This is an illustration entitled ‘Studies of a Crocodile or the Leviathan.’ It is a table from the 1686 edition of Musaeum Regalis Societatis, which was the catalogue of the contents of the Royal Society Repository (or Museum) written by its Keeper, Nehemiah Grew, and first published in 1681. It is a three foot, fold-out picture of one of the prize objects of the collection, a fifteen-foot crocodile.

Why have you chosen this image?

Crocodiles might be said to be symbolic of the Renaissance practice of natural history collecting. They were the jewel in most virtuoso’s collections and regularly feature in the visual representations of Cabinets of Curiosity or Kunstkammer, such as in Ferrante Imperato’s Dell’Historia Naturale (1599), which showed the crocodile suspended from the ceiling in his collection displayed at the Palazzo Gravina in Naples. Their ferocious appearance and exotic qualities helped to inspire wonder in the glory of God, his natural world, and those who were able to possess extraordinary pieces of it.

How does this image resonate with you in the context of your work or research?

For me, this image represents the ways in which the Society argued for a new, modern kind of science through the tropes and traditions of earlier forms of inquiry. Grew’s inclusion of the crocodile directly invokes the spectacle of the early modern scholarly Cabinet while simultaneously situating the Society’s Repository as its rational successor, bringing the crocodile down from the ceiling, dissecting, measuring and displaying its interior skeleton for all to see. Grew’s catalogue was a lavishly illustrated folio, one of the first scientific works produced entirely by subscription. It was a luxury commodity designed to popularise the work of the Society within polite circles, and invoke wonder not only in God but in the instruments and methods of ‘the New Science’ in bringing it under control and revealing its inner mysteries. I think that it is particularly pertinent that Grew explicitly includes a reference to the creature as the Leviathan in the Book of Job – a monstrous creature which no man can harness… Except, perhaps, in a company of natural philosophers.

Do you know anything about the making-process of the image? Does knowing how the image was created affect your understanding of the image?

Though it is not clear who made the drawing, the text accompanying it states that the specimen itself was ‘Given to Sir Robert Southwell; to whom it was sent from the East-Indies.’ Objects, drawings and scraps of knowledge were being sent from all over the world to private collectors and scientific societies via extensive and overlapping scholarly and commercial correspondence networks, all of which depended on multiple forms of authority. In the Catalogue, this picture is accompanied by an extensive description, the longest in the work, which includes information from many different accounts of the crocodile from ancient times to the present. It therefore places the Catalogue, and the Royal Society, fully in contemporary context of information exchange and, particularly, the increasing number of natural historical works attempting to compile, compare and systematise this in-flood of information about the world. Representing the skeleton of the crocodile according to scale alongside this text linked these efforts, the material with the historical, and implied that the Royal Society was an integral part of this process of knowledge production. Further, that it represented the sole means of epistemological arbitration.

What significance does the image have for the historical understanding of the relationship between knowledge-making and image-making?

Also on this page are drawings of ‘An Elephant’s Tusk’, ‘A Rattle Snak’s tail’ and ‘The Wessan’ (the windpipe of the crocodile) – all chosen, perhaps, for their similar aesthetic qualities. This helps to remind us that the comparative acts of looking in the physical space of the collection were also mirrored on paper and engineered through texts, and that the material boundaries between objects were liminal. Catalogues reflected, disseminated and imagined physical stocks of knowledge, interacting with published tracts, tacit knowledge and correspondence networks, allowing individuals to work with collections from a distance. The arrangement of similar but diverse objects together was designed, in part, to draw links between them: Grew’s Catalogue extended this comparative reach out from the Repository, to readers in the comfort of their own homes, with their own libraries, collections, reports and borrowed objects.

Do you have any additional thoughts or comments on the image you would like to share?

Grew’s catalogue was so successful at creating an image of power and intellectual authority for the Royal Society – an image which was retained through the Philosophical Transactions and the personal correspondence networks of Fellows – that visitors in the eighteenth century were often appalled by the relatively humble nature of the institution when they went to visit. Zacharias Conrad von Uffenbach, for example, wrote in 1710 of his shock that ‘the finest instruments and other articles (which Grew describes), [lie] not only in no sort of order or tidiness but covered with dust, filth and coal-smoke, and many of them broken and utterly ruined.’ I think this should serve to remind us that the physical possession of objects or knowledge was not necessarily as important as historians have sometimes deemed it, and that there was always a distance between the image and reality of the Royal Society.

Copying Hevelius’s lunar template

By Nydia Pineda De Avila

Hevelius, Figura Primaria Phasium Lunarium in Selenographia, 1665 © Royal Society
Fig. 1: Hevelius, Figura Primaria Phasium Lunarium in Selenographia, 1665 © Royal Society

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 explains the use of this image as an astronomical instrument © Royal Society
Fig. 2: Hevelius explains the use of this image as an astronomical instrument © Royal Society

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).

Hevelius, Transit of Jupiter over the moon 30 September 1671, Royal Society LBO/5/2/1 © Royal Society
Fig. 3: Hevelius, Transit of Jupiter over the moon 30 September 1671, Royal Society LBO/5/2/1 © Royal Society

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.

Pen and ink copy of Figura Primaria. Johann Philipp Wurzelbaur, Lunar Eclipse 25 March 1689, Cl.P 8i 44 © Royal Society
Fig. 6: Pen and ink copy of Figura Primaria. Johann Philipp Wurzelbaur, Lunar Eclipse 25 March 1689, Cl.P 8i 44 © Royal Society

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).

Etched copy of Figura Primaria. Georg Christopher Eimmart, Lunar Eclipse observed at Nuremberg 25 March 1689, Royal Society Cl.P. 8i/ 38 © Royal Society
Fig. 7: Etched copy of Figura Primaria. Georg Christopher Eimmart, Lunar Eclipse observed at Nuremberg 25 March 1689, Royal Society Cl.P. 8i/ 38 © Royal Society

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.

Nydia’s own version of Hevelius’s Fig. T in drypoint and chine collé
Nydia’s own version of Hevelius’s Fig. T in drypoint and chine collé