Meeting 32

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DATE: Tuesday, April 6

TIME: 1 PM Princeton time (EST) / 8 PM Bucharest time (GMT+2)

PANEL: Picturing Wonder – Rendering the Counter-Intuitive Visible in Early Modern Philosophy  

ORGANIZER: Stephanie Koerner (Liverpool School of Architecture, UK)

SPEAKERS: Susanna Cecilia Berger (USC), Glenn W. Most (University of Chicago), Edward Wouk (University of Manchester)


Today there is quite widespread agreement that new insights of the histories of early modern science and philosophy can throw important light on long standing problems in the historical study of art. However, much less attention has been given to possibility that new insights of the cultural convictions that motivated critical innovations in picturing ‘the more than meets the eye’ can help address still outstanding historical and philosophical issues raised but still not directly addressed by extensive rethinking ‘illustrations’ in early modern science and philosophy (e.g., Biagre 1996; Jones and Galison 1998; Doniger et al 2016). For instance, what were the roots of the emphasis that such iconic figures in mainstream accounts of early modern science and philosophy as Galileo, Kepler, Descartes and Newton placed on the indispensable roles of pictures in making discoveries about and demonstrating the plausibility of seemingly counter-intuitive things and processes? This workshop introduces several lines of research, which broach this broad question from perspectives offered by a hypothesis that quite a number of early modern philosophers’ perspectives on the significance of innovations in picturing the ‘more than meets the eye’ (or seemingly counter-intuitive things and processes) may have shared roots with what Dante called “visible speech” in his praise of Giotto’s achievements in art in conceptions of ‘wonder’ in ancient epic poetry and philosophy.  

Martin Kemp’s path breaking book, The Science of Art (1990) provides this workshop with useful points of departure. One comes from the chapter on “Perspective from Albrecht Dürer to Galileo,” and brings together two observations. On the one hand, Kemp (1990: 92) stresses that during Galileo’s times innovations in the production and application of pictorial realist techniques in the arts may have been exceeded by those taking place at the heart of new lines of astronomical, geographic, engineering and philosophical practices. But, “the evidence of the period… indicates that it was only when the painters’ techniques had been thoroughly absorbed into a different functional context and placed on a methodological base” that they became essential to these fields’ development. Put in terms used above, it may not have been until early modern scientists, engineers, producers of atlases of all sorts, and philosophers had “absorbed” the wider relevance of picturing practices that they developed their own convictions concerning and usages of picturing ‘the more than meets the eye’ to investigate things and processes that exceeded ordinary perception (or seemed to be counter-intuitive – even impossible), and to demonstrate the plausibility, for instance, of Galileo’s telescopic astronomy and Descartes’ mechanical philosophy.  

This workshop also picks up on issues raised in the session, “Wonder in Early Modern Philosophy,” in the Princeton-Bucharest Seminar Series (29 September 2020). Emphasis falls upon questions about convictions concerning – and ways of using – pictures in early modern philosophical engagements with ‘wonder’.


Introduction – Seeing the Counter-intuitive in Early Modern Science and Philosophy Anew

Stephanie Koerner (Liverpool School of Architecture, UK)

This introduction uses examples of ‘picturing wonder’ (the counter-intuitive or ‘more than meets the eye’) in ancient Greek visual culture, Aligheri Dante, Giotto di Bondone, Leonardo da Vinci, Galileo Galilei  and Rene Descartes.

Wonder (thauma, θαῦμα) in Ancient Greek Epic Poetry and Philosophy

Glenn W. Most (University of Chicago)

It has long been conventional to attribute roots of associations of wonder with the tasks of philosophy  to Plato and Aristotle. However, numerous significant connotations of wonder had deep roots in early Greek epic, in which words of the family θαῦμα (thauma) occur fairly often to denote a specific variety of joyous, overwhelmed surprise. Derived from θεάομαι (theaomai), a verb that means “to gaze upon” but also “to contemplate, to observe,” these terms indicate a rapturous, astonished admiration: never for an unexpected outcome, or indeed for an event of any sort, but instead always for some entity, a person or an object. Emphasis often falls on attributing this admiration to a sensory perception, originally sight, though with time this is enlarged to include hearing; in most cases, the subjects that feel the surprise are one or more human beings and the single, indeed singular object that provokes it is divine in nature or origin or fabrication– or else monstrous – in any case something that far transcends ordinary humanity. This presentation provides an introductory exploration of something of the diversity of connotations and functions of ‘wonder’ in ancient Greek epic poetry and philosophy.

Printing the Sacred Image in Dominicus Lampsonius’s Picture Theory

Edward Wouk (University of Manchester)

The Bruges-born humanist Dominicus Lampsonius is widely regarded as one of the first historians of Netherlandish art. Yet, his picture theory, developed around the medium of print, has hitherto received little attention. This talk focuses on Lampsonius’s seemingly counter-intuitive theorisation of the printed image– hitherto dismissed for its ephemerality – as “immortal.” It argues that the early introduction of Counter Reformation measures to reform the visual arts opened a space for Lampsonius to reconceive hierarchies among artistic media, practices, and regional traditions. It further situates his concept of “immortality” within a second-wave print revolution implicated in new processes of canon formation.

On the Counter-Intuitive Popularity of Anamorphic Images in Counter-Reformation Circles

Susanna Cecilia Berger (USC)

In late sixteenth-century Italy, the rhetorical foundations of sacred visual art were laid out directly by Gabriele Paleotti (1522–1597), the Bishop of Bologna, who wrote in his famous post-Tridentine treatise that images “are supposed to move the hearts of observers to devotion and the true cult of God”. Given the long-standing elevation of clarity in the West from Aristotle onwards as a rhetorical virtue and the concomitant criticism of obscurity as an obstacle to persuasive discourse, the popularity in Counter-Reformation circles of anamorphic images, which plunge observers into states of perceptual confusion, is somewhat counter-intuitive. This talk argues that the contrast between confusion and clarity evoked by anamorphoses made the experience of distinctness or clear perception without obscurity particularly palpable. I also contend that visual discernment gained through anamorphoses was understood to assist in a movement toward an experience of an inner, spiritual discernment.

Biagre, Brian. S. ed. 1996. Picturing Knowledge: Philosophical Problems Concerning the Use of Art and Science. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
Doniger, Wendy, Galison, Peter and Susan Neiman (eds.) 2016. What Reason Promises. Essays on Reason, Nature and History. Berlin: Degruyter.
Jones, C. and Galison, P. (eds.) 1998. Picturing Science and Producing Art. London: Routledge.
Kemp, Martin 1990. The Science of Art. Optical themes from Brunellischi to Seurat. Yale University Press.

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