Friday, July 20, 2018

A Failure of Execution

Woodcut showing corpse draped over a table with half of its head removed to expose brainThis poor guy has had half of his head sliced off. It looks like an executioner swung about eight inches wide and missed the neck, but still did the crucial job. But, that is not what is going on here. This is an image from Charles Estienne's De dissectione partium corporis, an anatomy text from 1545 that was meant to rival Andreas Vesalius's famed De humani corporis fabrica of 1543. The image here shows the structure of the brain in rather dramatic fashion.

If you look a little closer, you'll notice an odd square around the top of the head. The effect is more pronounced in other illustrations in the book. You can really see it here:

Woodcut showing female anatomy with clear marking of inserted woodblock
It turns out that Estienne was dissatisfied with the woodblocks for the book, and had portions of them recut to emphasize crucial anatomical detail. The result is a woodcut inside of a woodcut. He clearly saw the original as a failure of execution--on the part of the woodcut artist.

We are lucky enough to have first editions of both of Estienne and Vesalius. To see them ask for Rare QM21.E82 and Rare QM25.V4.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Seeking Perfection from Dross

An alchemical drawing labeled Prima Figura
Well before J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone brought alchemy and Nicolas Flamel back into the public consciousness, this pseuod-scientific pursuit had already enjoyed a milennia-old tradition of serious study and experimentation. Alchemy was hardly a European endeavor, either; the Muslim world, India, and East Asia all have stories and individuals about alchemical discovery and exploration that reach back for thousands of years. Ultimately, in the West, alchemy as a viable science fell by the wayside in the late modern period, when the scientific method won out. Still, a distinction between alchemy and chemistry wasn't established in Europe until the early 1700s, and alchemy experienced a 19th-century rebirth as an occult science.

An alchemical drawing labeled Secunda FiguraHere in Special Collections, we have an interesting manuscript codex of various alchemical and astrological tracts that we believe dates from the 17th century. The volume of collected writings has a note in it stating that the book was removed from the Jesuit library at Naples at the confiscation of their property in 1767. Numerous influential authors related to alchemy or its vilification fill the pages of the book, including Ramón Llull, Thomas Aquinas, and Albertus Magnus. The book is mostly handwritten text but there are some beautiful hand-drawn diagrams and illustrations scattered throughout.

To come explore these mysterious markings and scrawled secrets from the dawn of science, come to Rauner and ask to see Codex 001937.