“Nova Reperta”: the discoveries that forged the modern world | The theater of history

“Nova Reperta”: the discoveries that forged the modern world | The theater of history
“Nova Reperta”: the discoveries that forged the modern world | The theater of history

Engraving called “Nova Reperta” (1600), by Jan Galle, inspired by the work of Jan van der Straet. The image is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Photo: Jan van der Straet

Next week I will probably change my mind and find a better option, but if today I have to choose a single image that can account for the complexity of the European Renaissance, I would say that this engraving entitled Nova Reperta (New Discoveries), is the most close to a painting of the modern world. This is the frontispiece of a series of engravings with designs by the Flemish painter Johannes Stradanus (1523-1605), printed by the engraver Jan Galle in Antwerp at the end of the 16th century. The images present great human achievements, inventions and discoveries, many of them recent and which, without a doubt, were part of the configuration of the modern world.

This first image, which serves as a presentation of a series of 20 engravings, selects nine discoveries listed in the following order: (1) America, (2) the compass, (3) gunpowder, (4) the printing press, (5) the mechanical clock, (6) Guaiacum—an American wood used in the treatment of syphilis—, (7) distillation, (8) the cultivation of silkworms, and (9) horse harnesses. In addition to these nine themes announced on the cover, the series includes engravings on modern crafts and artifacts such as water and windmills, olive oil and sugar production, oil painting, glasses, weapons and armor. metal, astrolabe and engraving.

Stradanus was one of the artists of the Medici court, and the images were initially produced in Florence and then sent to Antwerp for printing. So it is not a surprise that the themes chosen were part of the political, commercial and cultural life of one of the most notable centers of art and science of the 16th century. The series of prints is a celebration of the innovative spirit of Renaissance Europe, of a moment of rupture with the past.

However, this first image and the other engravings that accompany it are a clear expression of a new world that is expanding beyond the confines of the Mediterranean.

Nova Reperta represents a new Europe that is being consolidated as the direct result of an accelerated process of commercial expansion. Whether or not the artist’s intention, the Gabads presented a modernity that was much more global and diverse than the traditional idea of ​​the modern world centered on Protestant Europe. Most of the great discoveries highlighted here have their origin in the Iberian world or outside Europe. The astrolabe and astronomy at the service of navigation are heritages of the Arab world; The printing press, the compass, the cultivation of silk and gunpowder are, as we know, of oriental origin. Guaiacum is a remedy of American origin.

Let’s see what the image tells us. As an insignia of the Christian conquest of other worlds, in the middle of the title stands a cross at the ends of which are four stars, the southern cross, an emblem of the feat of the navigators who conquered the south of the terrestrial sphere. At the top there are two human figures, on the left you can see a young woman arriving and on the right you can see an older man leaving the scene. The two have in their hand a snake that bites its tail, (Ouroboros) an emblem of destiny and time, which in this case invites us to think about the rebirth and future of a world that changes constantly. It is striking that it is a female figure that represents the future, which also points to a future far from Europe on the map of the New World, while on the opposite side, the past is embodied by an older male figure who seems to turn his back on the new times.

Below the title and in the center of the image appear the printing press and some pages of paper in the drying process. Due to the enormous impact on the arts and sciences of the mechanical multiplication of texts and images, it is no accident that the printing press is right at the center of all other inventions (see entry in this series on the printing press, next installment).

Just below the map of the New World appears a mechanical clock, which although its manufacture predates the 16th century, there is no doubt that these time machines had a greater impact on the modern world. Not only because of its effect on the everyday notion of time and the uses for natural sciences of standardized ways of measuring it, but because mechanical clocks were the perfect analogy to see in the natural world the rational design of an architect of the universe and think about the nature in mechanical terms. To the left of the clock is a silkworm farm, an industry made possible by trade ties with the Far East. Associated with the conquest of the New World and its natural riches, in the lower right there are some pieces of wood that are the source of a medicine against the symptoms of syphilis. Guaiacum, also known as “palo santo”, is an example of the European fascination with medicinal plants from the New World, such as coca or cinchona, which became objects of a lucrative pharmaceutical industry.

Although Guaiacum used to be sold for various therapeutic purposes, it is interesting to comment on the importance of this remedy associated with an illness such as syphilis. A widely spread disease and not only with terrible physical symptoms, but with a moral burden because it is a sexually transmitted disease. Syphilis was an evil associated with divine punishment of the sinner and often described as a disease of “foreign” origin, to some known as the “French disease” and to others the “Spanish disease.” In the 17th century the idea that it was an ailment of American origin was widely accepted. Related to the manufacture of medicines and the human benefit of natural powers, under the compass appear utensils that alchemists used for distillation. The cannon and gunpowder at the bottom recall military power, another invention associated with Europe’s technological superiority that made the invasion of other continents possible. These developments allow us to see a European Renaissance at the center of broad global connections, a modernity inseparable from imperial expansion.

Each of these inventions deserves a more generous comment, in fact, the engraving about the discovery of America, which is part of the Nova Reperta series, was the image with which we opened this series of the “Theater of History”, others such as the printing press, the clock and the astrolabe will come later. For now, the Stradanus frontispiece allows us to recognize a society that celebrates a particular break with the past. Francis Bacon, in his Great Restoration of 1620, stated that three inventions unknown to the ancients were changing the face of the world and the conditions of human life: the printing press, the compass, and gunpowder. In the image there are no portraits of great thinkers or allusions to philosophical ideas or theological issues. Like the work of the English philosopher, Nova Reperta seeks to praise the novelty of empirical knowledge, knowledge and artisanal crafts related to human power over nature.

Recommended readings:

About this series of prints I suggest the book “Renaissance Invention”, edited by Lia Markey and published in 2020.

 
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