JF Ptak Science Books Post 1480
In the structured and orderly world of Renaissance painting and illustration I find the semi-wild, stringy, lonely, unruly strands of this and that, the minor elements of an artistic composition, to sometimes be most interesting. This is so mainly because they could be considered ephemeral pieces of the work, minor additions to a developed scene, not particularly necessary to the whole. But they there are, and sometimes they are highly unusual. In the larger scheme of things these elements can be background or foreground figures, sometimes added for the purposes of scale in what is supposed to be an architectural study--but there are times when these small figures, sometimes occupying perhaps a tenth of a percent of the illustrated scene or less, are given vast and vivid lives by what may have been an engraver desperate for a little artistic freedom. And so that's why we see unusual aspects of the population peopling-up a city square scene, showing off a town hall or cathedral.
For example in the engraving Veduta della Piazza della SS Nunziata Statua Equeftre di Ferdinando Primo, Fonti, e Loggie Laterall by Giuseppe Zocchi (1711-1767) it would’ve been easier certainly to leave the plaza empty, but Zocchi doesn’t, filling in the empty spaces with several dozen people, most of whom are really rather busy. In addition to royal coaches and animated discussions, we can find a number of unusual images. There is a very curious sub-scene of a women with three children, one of whom seems to be falling, or leaping, the woman holding her hand straight out in front of her. Directly above them we can see a man pulling a small carriage with another person in it. Is this person a child? Are they elderly? Infirmed? And what about the (probably elderly) figure who we can half see, leaning their back against the equestrian statue, holding a staff? Why bother adding half of figure (from the rear)? Why on earth did Zocchi choose to add
characters like these when it would be substantially easier to show a gent walking with a stick? Is the artist expressing a little semi-invisible artistic freedom, or just using his powers of observation to make the commissioned part of the art more interesting? Or perhaps Zocchi has nothing whatsoever to do with these tiny figures—perhaps it is all the work of the engraver, who was responsible for translating Zocchi’s paintings into metal, adding these figures as he went?
I think it is fascinating! Perhaps what the story is here is that these were really just simple street scene, common street life, and the artist simply included them in the work? That would make them 18th century snapshots of common life in Florence, something that wasn’t ordinarily captured by very many artists at all.
What I'd like to look at today seems even more ephemeral than found people in town squares--it is, quite literally, the smallest bits of the artwork: the dissected tendons, the hair on the remaining skull of Death, the stubble on the chin of a rhinoceros, and to look at the great liberty and beauty with which these fragments are represented, particularly if they are lonesome, segregated things of high simplicity. Lean, articulated, severe, lonely, small elements.
The first example comes from Charles Estienne's De dissectione partium corporis ("On the dissection of the parts of the human body"), which was printed in 1545 and which was very nearly the first truly extraordinary anatomy book, almost beating Vesalius to the punch, had it not been for some printing foibles. One of the illustrations that I'm focusing on is his dissection of nerves, the spindly, flowing ones being cutaneous nerves that supply skin sensation (thanks to Alex Baker for the correction!) , which look for all the world to be beautiful dendritical elements being blown by a breeze, maypole wrappings come undone, celebratory flags...something beyond tendons. I know that the artist and designer are simply trying to show the reader their structure and so it makes sense to display them like that, but they have a certain classical beauty in their representation that seems far beyond what might be considered necessary for the task at hand.
This is completely different from sparse and the orderly control of empty space; nothing at all like, say, the Sistine Chapel 'before", with its ceiling beautifully and lightly decorated with stars (I guess gold on a sea of deep blue?):
I have found a number of examples of little bits of hair dancing on the top of its head (or skull) as though the few strands were luxirant manes floating in oil like a halo around the lucky owner--but no, our artist (below) depicted one of Death's mortal victories in vestigial Homer Simpson-like lonely hairs.
The full image (below) is called "Imago Mortis" (the World of Death) and appears in Hartmann Schedel's Liber chronicum (more commonly known as the Nuremberg Chronicles), one of the greatest illustrated (or certainly the most lavishly illustrated) books of the 15th century. Printed by Anton Koberger in Nuremberg on 12 July 1493, the Liber chronicum was basically just that, a walk through the known and imagined knowledge of the mid-Renaissance with the great humanist Schedel acting in the role of conductor. There's certainly much of interest and disinterest in this book; Schedel was not afraid to make a guess (and even a wild one) when facts didn't fit or were unavailable. (For example, he famously re-used the same view of a city to illustrate different cities.) But for my lowly interests, its the hair of Death that interests me.
Albrecht Durer does manage to come into play here, if not for some of his trees or the bits of string that he renders holding other bits aloft, but for his famous if not-terribly-original rhinoceros, which he had never seen though which he had seen images of, and for which he had taken the trouble to include the beast's chin hairs:
And another example, this times for trees, in Carpaccio's Mediations on the Dead Christ (Berlin), where we see the sparse and gangly dendrical-like bits on the trees on the hill in the background, as well as on the dead branch of the half-dead tree in the foreground: