JF Ptak Science Books Post 1668
Images hold selective secrets for different people of divergent interests. Sitting through a motion picture, for example, shows a series of still images flashed before us—in a single scene people bring to bear their own ways of experience and observation. A forensic pathologist will see things shown within their specialty different from someone with a chemical explosives background who will see a bomb differently from an ER doc who would respond to an emergency room differently from a bookseller who might notice in the scene that the paperback edition of a Tree Grows in Brooklyn being read by an American G.I. in 1944 didn’t exist yet, and so on. A single image can hold a tremendous variety of depth and interpretation depending on the observers’ perspective.
Most of the time when I look at prints now I am looking at the extraneous “stuff” that is used as filler to the print’s purpose. I’ve written about this a few times earlier in this blog under the (bad) general title of Prints—Looking HARD at…), and I find the uncommitted art just fascinating, sort of like “loose”, unnecessary snapshots of common life, everyday life, of people walking by.
The two prints today that I stumbled upon have a particular interest—they depict semi-hidden children in the foreground-filling detritus of the architectural marvel that is the subject of the artwork. Children really don’t appear too terribly often in art from 1500-1850, so it is especially interesting to look really hard at these prints and pick out the kids and what they were doing.
Of course this begs the question of “why?”—why would the artist bother with such detail in the foreground, let alone bring children into the picture?
The first image is the gorgeous Cambridgeshire Medieval cathedral at Ely. This is an engraving showing the north west view of the cathedral, and it is of course grand and imposing. The curious foreground shows a somewhat dilapidated-looking cemetery, and looking further still we see two men digging a grave, and to the right of them, a small child, seemingly pointing and reading a gravestone. What an unusual detail this is, what with it occupying less than 1% of the area of the image in general.
The second image (above) shows the façade of the Town Hall at Cologne. Of the twenty or so people in the street in front of the building, four are children (there’s also a pair of fighting/playing dogs). One of the miniatures scenes seems to show a boy in a “pick me up” pose. To the right of this is another, odder, scene, showing a woman—possibly a street food peddler—with her two boys(?), the children kneeling in front of a gentleman who is in turn leaning against a pillar of the Town Hall. What the boys are doing is a mystery, as is the intention of the artist in including them.
Unfortunately these "microscope" studies reveal only the basic forms of the semi-hidden, and really don’t ever seem to offer us a reason as to why they were preserved. Presently I’m happy enough to just recognize them and appreciate their small saved existence.