The palimpsest, and broken hive.


While other Millions were employ’d

To see their Handy-works destroy’d…


When he first composed his Fable of the Bees in 1705, Bernard Mandeville had centuries of precedent to harvest. Indeed, book IV (1-285) of Virgil’s Georgics consists of an extended meditation on bees. In dactylic hexameters, he discussed the best places for their apiary (away from pastures with flowers squashed by flocks of sheep, lizards, Bee-eaters and chimney swallows, far from yew trees and the smoke of roasted red land-crabs), epic and fanciful battles between swarms, their social hierarchy, and the proper ways to safely gather honey. And he mentioned Aristaeus, mythical inventor of beekeeping, who found his bees dead and their honeycombs broken after the death of Eurydice (who had tripped over a serpent in the deep grass of a river-bank as she fled from his approach). Fate had destroyed his hive of bees.

Above is Csg 1394, from the Benedictine Abbey in St. Gall, Switzerland; this is the right-hand section of p.39. Look below the late 12th-century script, and you should see the rusticated sepia-colored capitals of an edition of Virgil’s Georgics, probably produced in Northern Italy in the late Fifth century, which fades into the scraped oblivion of the palimpsest the manuscript became. The top line has a fairly obvious capital AR, from narrabat inanem/Vulcani Martisque dolos et dulcia furta. Just below is the LCIA from dulcia. (Georgics 4.345-46). Can you see them, below the spiky rubricated canticle? Of course, the text of Virgil is most stable, and the manuscripts of the Georgics are numerous compared to other Roman authors. But still, we hesitate and think.

A multifoliate rose of visual rhetoric.

Disquisitiones Mathematicae

After the Jesuit astronomer Christoph Scheiner made his first observations of sunspots from Ingolstadt in 1611, but long before he depicted the Duke of Bracchiano surrounded by a beaded circle of roses and identically mottled suns in the lavish Rosa Ursina of 1630, the Disquisitiones Mathematicae was released. Supposedly based on theses defended by Scheiner’s obscure pupil Johannes Georg Lochner, this slender treatise illustrated both sunspots and solar faculae in woodcut diagrams far clumsier than the elegant sunspot-maps and honeycombed bears of the Rosa Ursina. Although page 65/I2 of this shows the maculate sun rising from a cloud in the east, the anti-Copernican diagram earlier in the book is my favorite by far. It combines both mathematics and a round of visual rhetoric drawn from Aristotle and supposed common sense, radiating outward in an unbroken circle of examples.

If the earth rotates about the center (marked with a barely visible C) along the polar axis ν/λ, an object dropped from point ν to the left would descend in a strait line; beaded like an abacus, the upper axis marked A depicts an object descending toward B in an invisible equatorial spiral, while the diagonals and dashed zig-zag at the right depict the conical spiraling fall of an object let slip from upsilon (Y). Physical illustrations occupy the remaining two-thirds of the disc. A crow (D) attempts to drop an unconvincing-looking snail (E) on a rock (F), which would surely disappear from beneath the snail (limax) as the earth rotated? Another bird (P) finds its nest on terra firma, instead of continents away; and another (which looks like a stork, although the Latin texts calls it gavia, which suggests a loon), dives for the water. Perhaps it might be a kingfisher, or something. In any case, raindrops fall from a cloud (H), a plummet fails to flagpole, smoke (K) ascends from a chimney (L), rockets are fired from things that look like the pitching mound from Peanuts, cannonballs fly in other directions than sideways. All of this (of course) was merrily pounced upon by Salviati and Sagredo on the Second Day.

Regardless, the multiplicity of arguments embedded in the circle creates a unique rhythm, and both reinforces and challenges our acquired notion of a directional page.

Joseph Scaliger, reading the architecture of night.

Scaliger Vitruvius

Just past the oak-leaves of the historiated capital N, Joseph Scaliger quietly corrected accents in brownish ink, and wrote corrections in the margins of his 1552 edition of Vitruvius, De architectura libri decem, which is now Universiteitsbibliotheek Utrecht ex. AA qu 39. There are more interesting annotations, but I would like to set up a rather strained allusion about not having posted anything new in several months. The underlined (provindemiam, majorem) surfaces in the note to Astronomicon I, 318 from Scaliger’s second edition of Manilius.

After he described the seven-starred Plough (which the Greeks called ἄρκτος or ἑλίκη) swimming in the sky with its custodian behind, Vitruvius mentioned the nearby constellation Virgo, with Provindemia Major (προτρύγετος), an especially brilliant and colorful star, on its right shoulder. But ε-Virginis is really nothing that remarkable: at a distance of approximately 109.6 light-years from Earth, it has an apparent magnitude of only +2.826 (compare +0.98 for Spica), and a G8 III spectral type that shines with a yellowish-white light not unlike the color of the Sun.

Now known as Vindemiatrix, the heliacal rising of Provindemia occurred just before the vintage, when grapes were gathered from the vines. When he returned to this passage with his pen, Scaliger dropped the comma (in his commentary, he would drop majorem), corrected the Greek, and combined the two sentences, to properly end at Arcturus dicitur. For all of this, Scaliger confessed: Totus locus hodie mendosissime legitur, ne ab interprete quidem doctissimo intellectus. Ultimately, a line might be drawn from Arcturus to Spica just as easily, and the sapphire-blue Spica is far brighter, but nowhere near the right shoulder of Virgo. In any case, somebody else is probably thinking of Scaliger’s marginalia at the moment (this book was uploaded for a reason), but his annotations are beautiful enough to make note of. And I needed to post something. They made me keeper of vineyards, but mine own vineyard have I not kept. There. That’s the last time I’ll quote something I don’t believe in. But it still makes good literature, and an apt metaphor for the act of not keeping up with a blog.

…there when the wave has gone by.


Common knowledge: John Conduitt recorded a memo on the last day of August in 1726 that mentioned a common glass prism purchased from Stourbridge Fair (a short walk along the Cam from Trinity to a broad green summer meadow in 1665, presumably worn to tan earth from the passage of crowds). We can easily link this to the tremulous prism and eye on fol.122r of the Questiones quaedam Philosophiae, and proceed from there. Now, we also know that Robert Boyle used a glass prism less systematically in his Experiments and Considerations touching Colour, and that Isaac Vossius mentioned prisms in his De lucis natura et proprietate (Amsterdam, 1662) beginning on page 67. So did Jean-Baptiste du Hamel in his Astronomia Physica (Paris, 1650), p.55: Non enim ut dictum est, commodius alibi quam in Iride seriem colorem intueri licet, in qua lux sincera, puros itidem colores efficit; cumque in Iride, quae per trigonum crystallinum efformatur, flavus color supremum teneat locum, cui rubens succedit, ac caeruleus tandem infimo loco subsidit; manifestum est rubeum colorem essa flavo debiliorem, ac minus lucis obtinere: quemadmodum rubeus est caeruleo vegetior. And before this? The image from Descartes above (Leiden, 1637). We shall not imagine the arc of ideas that led from Hugo Sempilius, and his citations of Witelo, Giambattista della Porta, and the Jesuit Claudius Richardus, to the first publications on broken sunlight in 1672.

Instead, we will walk across ice and gray asphalt on cloudy winter days, while wind blown oak leaves gather in the vestibules of life, and cubic salt bleaches the hallways we will enter later, under the icy pallor of white fluorescent tubes. At five the clouds will darken, and the Brooklyn Bridge will stretch across the misty East River from the cold windows of the crowded Q, and the distant waters of the harbor will be dark. Home to silence and four identical burners on the stove, pyramidal bags of Earl Grey tea, a Le Creuset kettle, and the sudden impossible blue sunflower of fire reminds us that color once existed in the world, and these lines of woodcut ink were once linked to visible spectra, miniature rainbows that range from 390-700nm/430-790 THz, symbols of a broken covenant in a January world now flooded with gray.

Reading the geometrical point.

Although my first few thoughts on the visual representation of the geometrical point have been lost beneath the layered digital strata of more recent posts, I thought that I might examine a single faint fragment of marginal Greek from folio 3r of ljs194, which is a XIIcentury Austrian edition of the Isagoge Geometriae of Gerbert of Aurillac (938-1003). Long before he was elected Pope Sylvester II, Gerbert encountered Arabic mathematical texts during his stay at a Benedictine monastery high in the Pyrenees of Catalonia, on the northern border of Al-Andalus. While at Rheims, Gerbert disseminated this curious geometrical pastiche, principally derived from Boethius; as the thorny transitional Gothic script isn’t that challenging, we can easily read the following passage on the very bottom of the page: Itaque, ut singula iuxta praedictam rationem definiam: punctum est parvissimum [et] indivisibile signum: quod Graece simion dicitur. Just in case, a German edition of Capelli Lexicon Abbreviaturarum is available online at the Universitäts- und Stadtbibliothek Köln.

What I find interesting is the strange Latin transliteration of the Greek word σημειóν as simion; it effectively means nota, or a marginal mark or sign, which involves (I suspect) the etymological derivation of semiotics, perhaps from Porphyry, De Abstinentia 2.49, which filtered into English in the 1670s (I have a two-volume OED at home, but it’s far too heavy to carry about), and was obviously popularized by John Locke. Anyway, a late fifteenth-century humanist annotated this particular manuscript, most noticeably with several outrageously pointy manicules which approach the length of those used by Guillaume Budé, marked this word, and wrote the equivalent in Greek orthography in the bottom corner of the page. On a final note, I apologize for not posting anything for the past week or so: I was otherwise occupied by watching the migration of geese.

Ole Worm and the copperplate lemming.

Among descriptions of Ethiopian manuscripts and Mesoamerican glyphs, the collected narwhal tusks, tortoise shells and fossils of the renowned wunderkammer of Ole Worm (1588-1654) we find this engraving in the posthumous catalog of his collection, the Museum Wormianum, seu Historia Rarum Rariorum (Amstelodami, 1655) on page 325. It’s a well-known topic, for anyone who has skimmed Wikipedia, or played Lemmings on their Macintosh LCIII, or watched the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation exposé of Disney filmmakers casting lemmings from a bluff above the Bow River in Calgary, or even remembers the lost pet lemming Ursula from the Thomas Pynchon novel Gravity’s Rainbow. But it’s worth posting, as the engraved image offers a potent visual counterpoint to a contemporary argument that lemmings were products of spontaneous generation.

In his Exotericarum excercitationum liber XV (1557) against the Subtilitate Reum of Giorlamo Cardano, Julius Caesar Scaliger compared voracious swarms of lemmings to locusts: Loscustarum simillima pestis ea, quae in Nortuegia frequenter incumbit é nubibus putridis (92.3, p.626); Worm took exception to this notion that the rodents could drop en masse from grotty clouds to the tundra below, without being swept from the glacial crags of their habitat by violent winds (326-329). After all, he had examined specimens of the mammals himself, and his credit was reinforced by the image above. Although the old Aristotelean idea (cf. Historia Animalium 5.1) had persisted through the centuries, it was slowly eroded by the attentiveness of naturalists like Worm and John Ray. On a final note, I think that the engraved lemming above is one of the more hilarious-looking things I’ve seen all week. It looks like a Paleolithic Totoro.

Euphrasy and rue.

We might imagine Darwin’s first quick sketch of the tree of life from 1837 in his tiny (17x 9.7cm) Notebook B. Or we could picture the luxuriously illuminated branches and nodes which connected the Ottoman Sultan Suleiman II (1642-1691) with Adam, composed after his life was spent confined in the lapis lazuli and cerulean-tiled kafes in Topkapi Palace, with its solitary view to the filled pool below the courtyard, and the box-elder garden beyond, screening the distant Bosphorus with a wall of deep green leaves. The Arbor Sapientiae and inkwork trees of consanguinity remain untouched in the autumnal vellum leaves of many codices, and need to be discussed, along with graphs of every sort that branch.

But sometimes, the branching illustration merely shows the stems and blossoms of something that once grew wild on the lower alpine slopes of Trentino or Südtirol. The image above is from folio 9v of an herbal manuscript composed in Northern Italy (perhaps the Veneto), over the course of several decades in the fifteenth century (University of Pennsylvania, ljs 419). Although the flowering plant was not identified in the bibliographic notice, it is obviously Euphrasia rostkoviana, or Eyebright: even if the manuscript marks a transition between pictorial models offered by Medieval precedents like Ps.-Apuleius and a more naturalistic mode of illustration, the delicate gold-and-white blossoms are quite visible. From my perspective, they are superior to the monochromatic woodcuts of Hans Weiditz, and those that appear in the monumental Historia Stirpium comentarii insignes of Leonhard Fuchs (compare p.245 of the 1542 Basel edition). But woodcuts could be colored by hand. And still, we have much to see.

Ab Jove Principium

The coral-colored incipit on folio 6r of this manuscript ( 1741), which was composed in Heidelberg c.1450-1500, might claim incipit fabularia supra XII libros metamorphoses, but the text has less to do with Ovid than with the late-antique mythographer Fabius Planciades Fulgentius, as the opening reference to Diophantus of Sparta makes clear. In any case, the genealogies of gods could be quite confusing, and the image above (fol.4r) attempts to correct matters with a tree diagram, centered on a large circular node representing Jupiter. One branch leads to Athena (this is more of a twig), another, to the nine muses arrayed like a dandelion in the upper left. Aeolus has a number of subsidiaries, although Sisyphus is placed in two distinct circles. The diagram is based on a model with a highly complex manuscript tradition, which generates some contradictions, but it remains a remarkable example of creative visualization. Notice that the very human characters Antigone and Phaedra occupy the edges, linked to myth through lines. In fact, the central vertical line which bisects the page ultimately leads to Demogorgon, and reveals the misreadings of Giovanni Boccaccio. But still, I’m reminded of the basic rules of a directed acylic graph, and of the the brilliant idea to use simple components like this to depict complex hierarchical relationships, with vertices and nodes. In a way, this is an early example of the railway timetables, data maps, and whiteboard UX illustrations that flood our modern lives.

Tempus edax rerum

Long before Conrad Dasypodius began work on the clock in Strasbourg Cathedral, the topic of time had crossed his mind. In 1558 he inscribed an interleaved edition of the Liber Emblemata of Andreas Alciato, which a certain Phillipus Anshelm had made into an album amicorum (Den Haag KB:133 M142, 172r); among the hasty quill-stroke heraldry, horoscopes, and platitudes of other young humanists, Dasypodius wrote Tempus omnia consumit below an equivalent statement in Greek. This, of course, is a variant of the sentiment expressed in Ovid, Metamorphoses XV, 234-6: tempus edax rerum, tuque, invidiosa vetustas, omnia destruitis vitiataque dentibus aevi, paulatim lenta consumitis omnia morte. Time devours all things, as we find in the so-called Latin Anthology, and the Χρóνος οξυς οδóντας of Simonides, via Stobaeus (unfortunately, I’ve left my Oxford reprint of Martin West’s Iambi et Elegi Graeci at home, otherwise I might be able to cough up more). Although I’m uncertain whether Dasypodius read this somewhere, or simply used his Latin, we can find the exact language in the commentary of Huldrych Zwingli on Luke 11:45: Quid ergo gloriamur imaginibus, stemmatis, insigniis? …edax tempus omnia consumit, senium omnia obliterat (Zürich, 1539, p.257).

After they signed the album amicorum, the humanists seem to have dispersed (Jeremias Jahn turned up in Dresden in March, 1585, when he wrote the Lutheran theologian Paul Jenisch); most are hopelessly obscure. For the moment, this also includes Phillipus Anshelm. I’ve never heard the name before. To be sure, I’ve heard of the printer Thomas Anshelm (c.1470-1523), I know that Phillipus Melanchthon worked as a corrector for Anshelm at Tübingen from 1514, and I might make something of a name given to a son. But this would be guesswork. For me, a more definite answer would take some directed research, and at the moment, I’m not sure whether Phillipus Anshelm can be identified, or whether his name is lost to time.

Clockwork, print, and the passage of time.

On New Year’s Eve, the pine-boughs through the window were white with snow, and the afternoon landscape was perfectly silent, save for the distant sound of crows. Before I left home for the evening, I thought of the passage of time, and the frontispiece to the little treatise on mechanics, and encomium on Hero of Alexandria that Conrad Dasypodius (1532-1600) printed in Strasbourg in 1580. Six years before, working together with David Wolkenstein, the Halbrechts, and the Swiss painter Tobias Stimmer, Dasypodius had completed the great astronomical clock in the south transept of the Strasbourg Cathedral. On leaf F1r of the Heron Mechanicus, Dasypodius began an elaborate description of his clock, in sections that correspond to the Arabic numerals printed on the image. Although the celestial globe at the center is unnumbered in the diagram, (2) and (3) refer to the mechanisms for representing solar and lunar eclipses for the next 32 years; (4) a perpetual calendar which could keep the Dominical letters and intercalary years for the next century; (5-6) paintings of Apollo and Diana, and the Four Monarchies from Daniel 8:22; (7) a dial which divided the hour into four parts, and (as Dasypodius claimed) paritum minuta monstrantur; (9-10) depicted an orrery and dial for phases of the moon; (11-12) showed a carillon which would chime while a statue of death would appear like the cuckoo in a cuckoo clock (it seems); above all (14) marked an automaton rooster that crowed thrice at noon. By 1788 the clock had stopped working, decayed by rust and verdigris: it was replaced by Jean-Baptiste Schwilgué in 1842.

The woodcut clockwork on the page cannot move, but it still presents a quasi-schematic overview of both the mechanism and the text.