Almost a month has passed since our 2013 Crawford Lecture, a month full of exam marking, as May is the most intense period of the exam diet here in Edinburgh. But the sun now shines, both literally and metaphorically, students are enjoying some well deserved break, and I can now look forward to a summer of research. I hope to post soon something about astrological talismans and potions, but before doing that I’d like to announce that the podcast of Professor Sven Dupré‘s magnificent lecture is now available (here), and offer some general considerations.
I thoroughly enjoyed the lecture. It nicely encapsulated the best interdisciplinary research that is now conducted in the history of science. It was about Galileo, but not on Galileo. It was about his intellectual, social, and cultural context, not just about the Renaissance genius. Yes, because I have always felt uncomfortable around geniuses in history (I have yet to meet one in person!). Geniuses strike me as sad figures: alone, towering above everybody else, more than exceptional in what they do. But there is more to it than that. How useful is this category to help us understand historical figures? What are the merits of singling out historical characters for consideration? What are the pitfalls? Is Leonardo a genius? Galileo, too? What about Steve Jobs, then? (we will leave Albert Einstein aside). The merit of labelling these people geniuses is that they receive attention, both in the scholarship and in popular culture. The downside is that, quite often, the context is lost, or worst, their merits to fame exaggerated. They become pop-cults, myths. And yet, were we to offer a lecture on a rather obscure Renaissance philosopher who published little, we would have little or no audience to whom to talk. In an era where academics have to justify their existence, universities encourage knowledge transfer, and governments rate scholarship on the basis of ‘impact’ discussing geniuses seems the wisest option. But is it so? The pitfalls are multiple, not least that of betraying the golden rules of one’s craft, those very principles that were inculcated into our heads during all those years of training while writing our doctoral dissertations. For many of us, context is now vital; simple, coherent, linear narratives of progress rather dubious. The history of science is no longer studded with famous minds in a long path that conveniently leads to modernity. That path is much more rugged and tortuous, it is made up of known and less known characters, of blind alleys and what we now regard as superstitious beliefs, of trials and errors (or just errors!). It is made up of social interactions, oral conversations, material objects, workshops where knowledge was shared, contexts were knowledge is kept secret, patronage and censorship, fortuitous intuitions and lucky occurrences, blind spots and unfortunate mistakes.
Dupré’s lecture has many merits, but for me at least the most important one is that it used Galileo as a prism through which to explore a wider set of scientific and artisanal practices that are little known and studied, but that–as he demonstrates beautifully–are vital for our understanding not only of the period, but of Galileo himself. Galileo’s contacts with the culture of the glass workshop in Venice and Florence, Dupré argued, provided Galileo with much more than just the lenses he used for his telescope. The artisanal knowledge of glassmakers at the court of the Medici in Florence offered a vibrant artisanal context and ample opportunities for reflection on the nature of light as it hits different surfaces.
By observing the behaviour of light in these different contexts and looking up to the skies, Galileo found confirmation that the Moon was not the perfect, and this, together with Galileo’s earlier training at the Accademia del Disegno, allowed him to postulate that the Moon was not perfectly spherical, but rugged. Galileo’s drawings of the Moon remain among the most beautiful representation of that celestial body we have today.
Another engaging lecture by Professor Dupré, entitled “Vitreous Pursuits” and connected with some of the themes addressed in his Crawford Lecture, can be found here.
Eileen Reeves, Painting the Heavens: Art and Science in the Age of Galileo (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999)
—Galileo’s Glasswork: The Telescope and the Mirror (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008)