Prints and the Pursuit of Knowledge

02/01/2012 05:01 pm ET | Updated Apr 02, 2012

Prints and the Pursuit of Knowledge in Early Modern Europe is the catalog from a recent eponymous exhibition at Harvard's Arthur M. Sackler Museum. (The exhibition is currently on view at the Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art at Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois, through April 8, 2012.) Weighing in at a hefty 6.5 pounds and sporting an embossed reproduction of the head of Albrecht Durer's Rhinoceros on the soft-bound cover, this catalog delivers a fascinating look at the scientific technology of the sixteenth century and the celebrated artists who participated in it.

In her introduction, Prints as Instruments, curator Susan Dackerman describes her vision for organizing the exhibition:

"This project emerges from the tradition of Bildwissenschaft, the German branch of visual studies that encompasses images and objects across art-historical hierarchies of subject and media, without a predisposed notion of high and low art forms. Prints and the Pursuit of Knowledge treats images and objects that have been neglected in the art-historical discourse because they were considered in aesthetic terms with little attention to their content, or were relegated to such other fields of study as cartography, astronomy, or the history of medicine - even though most were created by recognized artists who also produced work in genres considered more legitimate by art historians."

In the following video, Dackerman provides further insight into the exhibition:

The flap prints by Heinrich Vogtherr the elder referenced in the video above were undoubtedly the high-tech anatomical representations for their time. To view them in a contemporary context, you can download a free app for your iPad or iPhone. The app lets you tap the image to reveal each of the flaps and provides an English translation for the text. For instance, if you tap on the "Matrix" flap you will learn that "the uterus is a vessel specified by God the Lord, in which the small children are received, nourished, and formed into a human body."

There are prints in the catalog that make you happy you live in the 21st century, such as Hans von Gersdorff and Hans Wechtlin the elder's Instruments for Use in Cranial Surgery, shown below.


Hans von Gersdorff and Hans Wechtlin the elder, Instruments for Use in Cranial Surgery, in Gersdorff, Field manual for the treatment of wounds, Strasbourg: Hans Schott, 1540. Book with woodcuts with hand-coloring. Philadelphia Museum of Art, Purchased with the SmithKline Beckman Corporation Fund, 1949-97-11. Photo: Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Other things haven't changed that much since the 16th century. The Invention of Copperplate Engraving image takes me back to my printmaking classes at Otis, the main difference being the clothing and the absence of women.


Unknown engraver, after Stradanus (Jan van der Straet), Invention of Copperplate Engraving, from Nova reperta (New inventions and discoveries of modern times), c. 1599-1603. Engraving. Sarah Campbell Blaffer Foundation, Houston, BF.1998.9.9. Photo: Sarah Campbell Blaffer Foundation, Houston.

Among the most beautiful of the prints is Albrecht Durer's woodcut Rhinoceros. The following video explains the appearance of the fanciful second horn on the creature's shoulders.

The 442-page catalog contains over 100 reproductions of woodcuts, engravings, and etchings; maps, globe gores, and globes; anatomical flap prints; and paper scientific instruments used for observation and measurement, each with accompanying text. Hours of delight, discovery and illumination are guaranteed.