Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘art’

08 FEBRUARY, 2012

Da Vinci’s Ghost: How The Vitruvian Man Came To Be

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Fifteen centuries of combinatorial creativity, or what Leonardo’s to-do list has to do with ancient Rome.

In the first century B.C., at the dawn of the Roman imperial age, the architect and thinker Vitruvius proposed that the human body could fit inside a circle, symbolic of the divine, and a square, associated with the earthly and secular — an idea that later became known as the theory of the microcosm, and came to power European religious, scientific, and artistic ideologies for centuries. Some fifteen hundred years later, in 1487, Leonardo da Vinci rediscovered Vitruvius’s theories and put them into form. Thus, the Vitruvian Man was born — one of humanity’s most powerful, iconic, and enduring images, and a cornerstone of mapping the body, dominating visual culture in everything from books to billboards. Yet its story is far more complex than that, and its enigma far richer than a handful of historical factoids. This is exactly what Toby Lester unravels in Da Vinci’s Ghost: Genius, Obsession, and How Leonardo Created the World in His Own Image — a fascinating century-wide saga that explores how Leonardo set out to expand the metaphysical horizons of his art by studying the proportions and anatomy of the human body and its relationship with the cosmos, and ultimately created a visceral impression of Renaissance thought itself in the process.

Lester observes:

At a superficial level, [Vitruvian Man] is simply a study of individual proportions. But it’s also something far more subtle and complex. It’s a profound act of philosophical speculation. It’s an idealized portrait in which Leonardo, stripped down to his essence, takes his own measure and, in doing so, embodies a timeless human hope: that we just might have the power of mind to figure out how we fit into the grand scheme of things.”

The story, spanning a wealth of disciplines, cultures, and eras, unfolds through two parallel threads — one tracing Leonardo’s individual journey, and one weaving together the collective narrative of the people and ideas who filled and filtered the fifteen centuries between Vitruvius and Da Vinci. Among them are ancient Greek sculptors, early Christian and Muslim philosophers, Renaissance architects and anatomists, and Poggio Bracciolini, the book-hunter credited with starting the Renaissance.

Leonardo was also a voracious information omnivore, a quality so fundamental to the very networked knowledge and combinatorial creativity that no doubt enabled him to create the Vitruvian Man. He always carried a notebook with him and was known to have owned at least 45. Lester writes of the journals:

These notes reveal Leonardo in his perpetually ravenous information-gathering mode. Benedictine monks, obscure medieval treatises, university professors, popular guidebooks, accountants, itinerant merchants, foreign diplomats, artillerymen, military engineers, waterworks experts: all are fair game to him as he hunts for information about subjects that interest him.”

To complement Robert Krulwich’s NPR story about the book, my supremely talented friend Wendy MacNaughton (remember her?) drew this lovely illustrated to-do list based on a page from one of Da Vinci’s notebooks circa the 1490s:

More than a treasure trove of historical ephemera — though it certainly is that, with its generous selection of rare archival images that capture the evolution of Vitruvian Man — Da Vinci’s Ghost is also a profound reflection on humanity’s timeless obsession with untangling the intricate relationship between the physical and the metaphysical in our quest to better understand what we are and where we belong in the universe.

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07 FEBRUARY, 2012

Cartographies of Time: A Visual History of the Timeline

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A chronology of one of our most inescapable metaphors, or what Macbeth has to do with Galileo.

I was recently asked to select my all-time favorite books for the lovely Ideal Bookshelf project by The Paris Review’s Thessaly la Force and artist Jane Mount. Despite the near-impossible task of shrinking my boundless bibliophilia to a modest list of dozen or so titles, I was eventually able to do it, and the selection included Cartographies of Time: A History of the Timeline by Daniel Rosenberg and Anthony Grafton — among both my 7 favorite books on maps and my 7 favorite books on time, this lavish collection of illustrated timelines traces the history of graphic representations of time in Europe and the United States from 1450 to the present, featuring everything from medieval manuscripts to websites to a chronological board game developed by Mark Twain.

The first chapter, Time in Print, begins with a context for these images:

While historical texts have long been subject to critical analysis, the formal and historical problems posed by graphic representations of time have largely been ignored. This is no small matter: graphic representation is among our most important tools for organizing information.* Yet, little has been written about historical charts and diagrams. And, for all of the excellent work that has been recently published on the history and theory of cartography, we have few examples of work in the area Eviatar Zerubavel has called time maps. This book is an attempt to address that gap.”

* Cue in Visual Storytelling and graphic designer Francesco Franchi on representation vs. interpretation.

The Morning News has a wonderful slideshow of images from the book this week. A few favorites:

The Histomap by John Sparks, 1931.

In this universal history Johannes Buno, 1672, each millennium before the birth of Christ is depicted by an image of a large allegorical being. This dragon represents the fourth millennium B.C.

In the 1860s, French engineer Charles Joseph Minard pioneered several new infographic techniques. Published in 1869, this endures as his most famous graphic, featuring two diagrams that depict the size and attrition of the armies of Hannibal in his expedition across the Alps during the Punic wars and of Napoleon during his assault on Russia. The faded-red color band indicates the army’s strength of numbers, with one millimeter in thickness representing ten thousand men. The chart of Napoleon's march also includes a measure of temperature.

While mapping the body, the mind, and the heavens might be traced back to antiquity, mapping time, Rosenberg and Grafton remind us, is a fairly nascent enterprise:

The timeline seems among the most inescapable metaphors we have. And yet, in its modern form, with a single axis and a regular, measured distribution of dates, it is a relatively recent invention. Understood in this strict sense, the timeline is not even 250 years old. How this could be possible, what alternatives existed before, and what competing possibilities for representing historical chronology are still with us, is the subject of this book.”

A 'synchronous chart' from Meteorographica (1863) by Francis Galton, pioneer of the study and mapping of weather. The chart represents weather conditions, barometric pressure, and wind direction at a single moment in time across the geographic space of Europe.

Discus chronologicus by German engraver Christoph Weigel, published in the early 1720s, is a paper chart with a pivoting central arm. Rings represent kingdoms, radial wedges represent centuries, and the names of kingdoms are printed on the moveable arm.

From literature to art history to technology, Cartographies of Time offers a fascinating and dimensional lens on what it means to peer from a single moment of time outward into all other moments that came before and will come after, and inward into our own palpable yet subjective perception of permanence and its opposite.

Images courtesy of Princeton Architectural Press / The Morning News

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03 FEBRUARY, 2012

The Art of Medicine: Mapping the Body in 2,000 Years of Images and Imagination

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From ancient etchings to electron microscopes, or what aspirin has to do with visualizing consciousness.

Since time immemorial, humanity has been turning its gaze outward, ordering the heavens, and inward, mapping the mind, in an effort to better understand who we are and where we belong. The human body itself has always been a fascinating frontier of inquiry as we’ve bridged art and science to visualize the living fabric of our shared existence. The Art of Medicine: Over 2,000 Years of Images and Imagination offers a remarkable and unprecedented visual journey into our collective corporal curiosity with a breathtaking selection of rare paintings, drawings, prints, sculptures, artifacts, manuscripts, manuals and digital art culled from London’s formidable Wellcome Collection. Contextualized by medical historian Julie Anderson and science writers Emm Barnes and Emma Shackleton, these magnificent ephemera span cultures and eras as diverse as Ancient Persia and Renaissance Europe to paint a powerful, visceral portrait of our civilization’s evolving ideas about health, illness, and the body.

Organ Man, with Arteries, the Stomach and Internal Organs, artist unknown, from The Apocalypse, c. 1420–1430

ink and watercolor

Image courtesy of Wellcome Library, London

Nude Female Anatomical Figure, artist unknown, from Arzneibuch, 1524–c. 1550

color wash and ink

Image courtesy of Wellcome Images, London

Charles Williams (1798–c.1830), 25 June 1813

etching with watercolor

Image courtesy of Wellcome Library, London

El hombre como palacio industrial (Man as a Palace of Industry), Fritz Kahn 1888–1968, 1930

lithograph

color-enhanced scanning electron micrograph

Image courtesy of Wellcome Images, London

(For a related treat, see this 2009 student animation based on Kahn’s iconic infographic.)

Artist Anthony Gormley writes in the foreword:

The body is the root of all our experience, through it all our impressions of the world come and from it all we have to share with the world is expressed. A collection such as Wellcome’s is an extraordinary resource for thinking about the body, both as a thing, a metaphor, and the place where we all live and on which our consciousness depends.

We live in and with the body, yet as many of the images here show, we need to constantly re-imagine it. Wellcome’s collection, open to the convergence of the forensic and the imaginative, allows for the mind of the curious to recognize the body as a time machine headed on an ultimately entropic journey.”

Aspirin Crystals, Annie Cavanagh and David McCarthy, 2006

color enhanced scanning electron micrograph

color-enhanced scanning electron micrograph

Image courtesy of Annie Cavanagh and David McCarthy, Wellcome Images, London

Quinidine Crystals, Spike Walker, 2006

polarised light micrograph

Image courtesy of Spike Walker, Wellcome Images, London

Day 711, The Daily Stream of Consciousness, Bobby Baker, 2008

watercolour and pencil

etching with watercolor

Image courtesy of Bobby Baker, Wellcome Images, London

(You might recall Baker’s Drawing Mental Illness, superb in its entirety, from pickings past.)

Equal parts fascinating and fanciful, The Art of Medicine is a magnificent almanac of the body’s timeless mystery and its visual vocabulary.

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