Making and Knowing: Early Modern Geometries | Newberry

Making and Knowing: Early Modern Geometries

Apian, Cosmographiæ, 1533, t.p.v and 1r. Newberry Ayer 7 .A7 1533b.

Apian, Cosmographiæ, f. 1r, 1533, f.1r.

A History of the Book Symposium
Thursday, October 29, 2015Friday, October 30, 2015

Thursday: 5 to 7 pm at Northwestern University. Friday: 9:30 am to 3:30 pm at the Newberry.

Organized by J. B. Shank, University of Minnesota; Claudia Swan, Northwestern University; and Rebecca Zorach, Northwestern University
Center for Renaissance Studies Programs
History of the Book Program

Twitter hashtag for the symposium: #NLHOB15


Thursday, October 29 at Northwestern University, Harris Hall 108, 5 to 7 pm


Moderator: Claudia Swan, Northwestern University


“Mathematics in the Mind, on Paper and at the Lathe: Ivory Turning as Geometry”


J. B. Shank, University of Minnesota


“Of Spiders and Snowflakes: Natural and Artificial Geometries in Early Modern Europe”


Rebecca Zorach, Northwestern University


Download a PDF flyer of the October 29 program, to post and distribute.


Friday, October 30, at the Newberry, Ruggles Hall, 9:30 am to 3:30 pm


9 am Coffee and continental breakfast


9:30 - 10:40 Session 1


“Reading and Making the Geometry of Vision: From Alberti to Descartes”


Raz Chen Morris, Hebrew University of Jerusalem


“Reading Euclid Backwards”


William West, Northwestern University


10:40 - 10:50 Break


10:50 - 12 Session 2


“Huge Tracts of Land: Books and Renaissance Surveying Culture”


Suzanne Karr Schmidt, Art Institute of Chicago


“Graphic Making, Actuarial Knowing: Frederic Edwin Church’s South American Drawings”


Matthew Hunter, McGill University


12 - 1 Catered lunch for all registered participants


1 - 2:10 Session 3


“Designing the Horse: Geometrical Proportions and Breeders in Early Modern Europe”


Dániel Margócsy, Hunter College


“Paleography as Topography: Architects and Their Letters”


Carolyn Yerkes, Princeton University


2:30 - 3:30 Special session with rare books in the reading room


Download a PDF flyer of the October 30 program, to post and distribute.


About the symposium


This two-part symposium consists of two lectures at Northwestern University on Thursday evening, followed by a day-long History of the Book program at the Newberry Library on Friday. The events are designed to encourage participation by a broad audience of undergraduate and graduate students, faculty members, local scholars, and the interested general public.


The program will introduce participants to:


  • the extraordinary array of relevant research materials in the collection of the Newberry
  • the range of exemplary texts and their respective audiences
  • the analysis of illustrated texts, intertextual references, and image traditions and conventions, and
  • a novel paradigm for understanding early modern mathematical practices and geometry.

Early modern geometry at its core encompasses an endlessly fascinating and productive tension between a practical and material dimension on the one hand (geometry as literally the “measuring of the earth”), and an abstract and theoretical dimension on the other (geometry as a branch of mathematical speculation). If geometry allowed artists to raise their practice to the status of a liberal art in early modern Europe, nevertheless the visual arts—grounded in artisanal practice—again and again show geometry to be material. Renaissance geometers invariably represented material practitioners of geometric handiwork, not abstract thinkers demonstrating rational truths. Other than print editions of Euclid, none of the early geometric treatises offered rational, deductive demonstrations from first principles. Instead, they offered rule-bound algorithms for making and doing. Yet it was in this context that Euclid was revived and updated through new editions of his works, considered by book historians as early masterpieces of print. The challenge of printing Euclid lay in producing diagrams, and, as recent scholarship demonstrates, constructing the diagram was essential to geometrical demonstration, not a mere illustration. From this perspective, an engraver who made a diagram for a bookplate of Euclid was doing geometry, not merely portraying it.


Leon Battista Alberti wrote to artefici, not philosophers: he treated lines and points as material objects and did not worry about Platonic epistemological conundrums. Dürer did the same. For him a line was a string and a point was a mark on a page. Neither worried about rational demonstration. And yet the advent of perspective or Dürer’s use of geometry are claimed by modernist historians as an awakening of abstract rationality and theory, separate from and master over the hand and the mechanical. Among other issues, this symposium will call attention to this anachronism and begin to reconstruct artisanal mathematical epistemologies developed and deployed by the likes of Dürer and Alberti, as well as Leonardo, Piero della Francesca, and Luca Pacioli.


Cosponsored with the Department of Art History and the Alice Kaplan Institute for the Humanities, both at Northwestern University.


Faculty and graduate students of Center for Renaissance Studies consortium institutions may be eligible to apply for travel funds to attend CRS programs or to do research at the Newberry. Each member university sets its own policies and deadlines; contact your Representative Council member in advance for details.

Cost and Registration Information 

Registration for this event has closed.