This may sound like a rather shameless plug for my book (and, I confess it, in part it is!), but 2013 is proving a rich year for the history of astrology and astronomy, and I wanted to alert readers of this blog of three major studies that have appeared in print since January. These are (in alphabetical order):
- Monica Azzolini, The Duke and the Stars: Astrology and Politics in Renaissance Milan (Harvard University Press, 2013)
- Patrick Boner, Kepler’s Cosmological Synthesis: Astrology, Mechanism and the Soul (Brill, 2013)
- Mary Quinlan-McGrath, Influences: Art, Optics, and Astrology in the Italian Renaissance (Chicago University Press, 2013)
The first book, my own, discusses the many uses of astrology within the ever-changing and often unstable scenario of Italian politics. By tracing the uses of astrology across three generations of Milanese rulers, the book vividly illustrates the services offered by Renaissance astrologers to Italian lords, and the varying degrees to which astrological practices responded to Italian rulers’ interests and personal inclinations. Populated mostly by figures of the middling sort, my book is teeming with historical figures who are now mostly forgotten because they never published much. And yet, the book argues, the influence that these practitioners and their art had on Italian politics was hardly negligible.
The second book, that of historian of science Patrick Boner, represents a nice contrast to mine as it looks anew at one of the towering figures of the history of astronomy, the German mathematician, astronomer and astrologer Johannes Kepler. There is no dearth of scholarship on Kepler, and yet he remains in many ways an elusive figure. In particular, historians have often found it hard to reconcile Kepler’s revolutionary astronomy with his well-known practice as an astrologer. By arguing against the common assumption that Kepler formulated an early version of a mechanistic universe, in this fascinating book Boner harmonises Kepler’s astrology with his astronomy into a cosmology that is primarily vitalistic.
The last book, by art historian Mary Quinlan-McGrath, returns to the concept of astrology as functional to Renaissance lives. It offers a vivid account of how astrological images were much more than pretty pictures used to decorate the ceilings of beautiful palazzi or present intriguing and esoteric concepts within architectural works. By waving the history of astrology into that of Renaissance architecture McGrath offers a compelling view of astrology as part of the social fabric of Renaissance elites.
What all three books have in common is that they provide a richly textured account of how astrology functioned in early modern society. As these works amply illustrate, early modern astrology offered contemporaries both an explanation of the workings of the universe, and an eminently rational view of how the powers of the stars could be channeled to either maximise or minimise their influence. In all three what emerges is a vivid picture of a world system rich in implications for the people who lived in it.