" 'This is Also How We Are Accustomed to Depict the Heavens and the Four Elements in a Plane': Early Printed Images of the Eye, 1482-1543"
In recent years early modern scholarship on both diagrams in the mathematical sciences as well as illustrations in works related to medicine and natural history has become increasingly sophisticated. Distinct frameworks for understanding how to read images in these two domains —which we might call, respectively, the diagrammatic and the pictorial—have been developed. But the study of these two visual traditions has been siloed. Both art historians and historians of science have argued that diagrams in astronomical works, for example, played a far different role compared to the illustrations found in anatomy, botany, and medicine. Images, it is said, figured differently in the Vesalian and the Copernican revolutions.
Depictions of the eye have received little attention, but their history lies at the intersection of the anatomical and the mathematical, the pictorial and the diagrammatic. This talk offers an overview of images of the eye from the first printed edition of John Peckham’s Perspectiva communis in 1482/3 in Milan up through those found in the 1542 Nuremberg edition of Pecham’s Perspectiva and Vesalius’s 1543 Fabrica. In Vesalius, I argue, we find the first printed image of the eye, claiming to be based on knowledge gathered via autopsia, that aims to accurately depict metrical properties of parts of the eye. This set the stage for later image-based critiques within anatomy, a practice that spread to other fields as well. In the 1542 edition of Peckham we find an incursion of anatomical knowledge that is at odds with the geometrical eye found in the tradition of mathematical optics; earlier geometrical diagrams are thus displaced, and a schematic depiction of the eye borrowed from a non-mathematical visual tradition is used instead. Some implications of this for the histories of early modern optics and visual culture in the sciences generally will be discussed.
Tawrin is a Visiting Assistant Professor in the Program of Liberal Studies.
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