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Sackler Honors the Scientific Artists of the Renaissance

Renaissance artists’ prints and instruments are reunited in “Prints and the Pursuit of Knowledge”

Leonardo da Vinci famously mastered both art and science, blending them in some of his greatest innovations—but he was far from the only thinker of his day to do so, according to Susan M. Dackerman. Dackerman, the Carl A. Weyerhaeuser Curator of Prints for the Harvard Art Museums, is the curator of this fall’s newest exhibit at the Arthur M. Sackler Museum: “Prints and the Pursuit of Knowledge in Early Modern Europe.” On display until December 10, this is the first special exhibit Harvard Art Museums has launched since the Fogg Museum closed for renovations in 2008.

Renaissance-era artists across Europe created scientific prints and instruments that wedded functionality with aesthetic finesse. The new exhibit draws together maps, charts, and scientific tools created by artists like German printmakers Albrecht Dürer and Hans Holbein, emphasizing the interdisciplinary sensibilities of northern European Renaissance artists and their contributions to science.  “I think ultimately what I wanted was for students to think about the role of artists differently,” Dackerman says.

Artists’ skillful renderings helped Renaissance scientists visualize discoveries and share ideas, as evidenced in this exhibit’s anatomical diagrams, printed maps, astrological charts, and hypothetical geometric figures. But the artists were not merely hired illustrators, Dackerman noted—they were knowledgeable and even innovative collaborators in science themselves. Through pieces like Augustin Hirschvogel’s map “Moscovia” and Dürer’s human proportion studies, the exhibit reveals that these artists shared a preoccupation with understanding and advancing the scientific discoveries of their contemporaries. “You think of artists as individuals working from imagination or observation, but in the 16th  century, [the arts and sciences] were overlapping spheres of knowledge,” Dackerman says.

While designing the exhibit’s catalogue with the help of an interdisciplinary seminar at the Mahindra Humanities Center, Dackerman also sought to reunite Renaissance artists’ prints with the scientific instruments they had designed and used. Artists’ instruments are often parceled off to different museums than their prints, Dackerman explained, and art history students who have studied Erhard Etzlaub’s map, “This Is the Way To Rome” may know nothing of his compasses. This exhibit features both in order to present a more complete portrait of Etzlaub’s expertise.  “In the way that [academics] codify knowledge and segregate it, we had artificially taken things apart that had naturally been together,” Dackerman says. “What this exhibition hopes to do is bring all of that together, so that the overlapping spheres of knowledge make sense again.”

The exhibit highlights the functionality of its pieces and the technological possibilities of printing, featuring designs for fold-up paper compasses and sundials alongside their finished counterparts. It also includes side-by-side globe “gores”—printed strips of paper bearing the globe’s geographical or astrological representations—and the finished globes themselves.

Yet the exhibit does not ignore the artistry of these pieces in favor of their technological functionality. Particular attention is paid to artistic depictions of scientific phenomenon like constellations and symbolic illustrations of scientific disciplines. Take Dutch artist Jan Saenredam’s globe design: according to Chris Barrett, a graduate student in the English department who worked on the exhibit, the globe’s dynamic astrological characters and nationalistic nuances spurred a “new visual language” for drawing constellations.

In the process of opening “Prints and Pursuits of Knowledge,” Dackerman and History of Science professor Katharine Park—who co-chaired the Mahindra Center seminar that developed the exhibit—kept their monthly discussions open to the public and to students and faculty of all disciplines. They drew members from departments such as History of Art and Architecture, History of Science, and English—and Dackerman noted that the exhibit grew as these members shared research and ideas for further study.

“[Our exhibit’s development] links to the way scholars in the period we were researching also worked. Knowledge then was also a collaborative effort,” says History of Art and Architecture graduate student Jasper C. van Putten. Dackerman says most exhibits today develop as the work of a single academic. “At a university museum, it should be different. It should be a pedagogic opportunity. It should be a more open process,” Dackerman says.

Interdisciplinary collaboration has made the exhibit richer, Dackerman says. “I think it is ultimately more fruitful ... What is in the exhibition represents many different people’s interests.”

Dackerman chose some of the exhibit pieces for seminar students to research, but frequently, she said, objects that her seminar students found and suggested themselves made it into the final collection. Her students also wrote the exhibit catalogue entries for every piece. For many graduate students, research for the exhibit built upon their studies for their degrees, and several—among them van Putten—even altered their dissertations in response.

“I’m grateful to Susan for her effort and enthusiasm to bring students into the project,” van Putten says. “She offers them the opportunity to work on objects, and she trusts that students will do that well.”

Professors in History of Art and Architecture, History of Science, Music, and the sciences have expressed interest in tying the exhibit into their curricula, Dackerman says. Exhibit programming also features events open to the public and the entire Harvard community, including numerous upcoming lectures, discussion groups, and musical performances.

As the Fogg Museum’s 2013 reopening draws near, “Prints and the Pursuit of Knowledge” acts as a model for exhibits that will be shown in the renovated museum, said Thomas W. Lentz, the Elizabeth and John Moors Cabot Director of the Harvard Art Museums. Lentz says he hopes to see this exhibit’s collaborative development, depth of inquiry, and teaching potential in every Fogg exhibition.

“An art museum should work both ways,” Lentz says. “We should be able to help the rest of the university create different kinds of teaching and learning experiences through our exhibitions, and in return, we love being able to work with a very hardworking, bright student body and faculty.”

“I actually sent a copy of the [exhibit] catalogue to [University President] Drew [G.] Faust the other day,” Lentz said. As he described the note he included with Faust’s catalogue, his excitement was clear: “I wrote that this is the kind of level and quality we aspire to in our new building,” he says.

—Staff writer Austin Siegmund-Broka can be reached at asiegemund-broka@college.harvard.edu.

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