January 24, 2009

The Jewel House, Deborah E. Harkness

Harkness opens with four pages of justification for calling her subjects' studies science; if I understand correctly, the word is used contemporaneously for investigations into the natural world, but "scientist" is not used, and also there's some resistance to calling just-pre-Royal-Society work "science" because they were Natural Philosophers, and not empiricists, etc etc.

But! The strain of this book is that the Royal Society rooted in, even fed off parasitically, a broad and deep community of investigators of all kinds; just not reliably English gentlemen. Cities in the sixteenth century had many immigrants; England called them "Strangers", who could win their way to "denizen". And many of these people were traders in useful or artistic or natural wonders, and exchanged descriptions and specimens with colleagues and relatives across Europe as well as new colleagues in all stations in England. At this stage they're still putting together a pointillist picture of the world, discovering that some accepted truths are fables and others understate the wierdness of reality; plants and insects are brought across continents in what, saddlebags?, it's amazing any of them grew; and even collecting and ordering and copying others' knowledge is hard and useful, since print culture is just getting started.

But London, and traders, are not the strongest power in England, and combinations of courtiership and self-aggrandizement by better-born Englishmen -- sometimes much worse scientists -- shouldered aside the Strangers. From this vantage (I'm exaggerating Harkness' argument considerably), the Royal Society was a step backward, freezing out foreigners and hands-on experimenters in its insistence on making science gentle.

This argument is embodied on pp. 212-213. Hugh Plat was a brewers' son (and a lawyer) and rich but London-y, not courtly; his book Jewell house of art and nature is practical and tested knowledge, gathered from many walks of England; applied science, but how not science? On the other hand, Francis Bacon, son of a courtier (and a lawyer) wrote The New Atlantis, which sets up all science in a gorgeously funded, but centralized and presumably controlled, campus.

But Salomon's House was not a wishful romance. Instead, it was a dressed-up representation of the real world of science in Elizabethan London. The streets of the City already boasted several libraries, James Garret's fantastic tulip garden, James Cole's curiosity cabinet, and Giovan Battista Agnello's elaborate chemical laboratories and furnaces. St. Bartholomew's Hospital, where Clowes and Baker worked alongside other physicians and nurses, was known throughout Europe for its cutting-edge medicine, and John Hester's shop on St. Pauls' Wharf belched out all sorts of aromatic fumes as he made powerful new chemical medicines and herbal concoctions for hs urban clientele. The City's workshops produced delicate clocks and mathematical instruments, as well as perpetual-motion machines and large engineering devices. The City of London was already engaged in the study of nature, and [...] did not need Bacon's encouragement [...]

Much later (p. 250):

Those who commented at all tended to criticize Bacon for his unwillingness to do the work of science, as well as for his lack of appreciation for what was already being done.

Find in a Library: The Jewel House

Or the original The jewel house of art and nature..., if you have academic access.

So wrote clew.

December 19, 2004

The Age of Shakespeare, Frank Kermode

The title is misleading; it seems accurate if compared to Kermode's book on the language of Shakespeare, but the Age is still only a frame in this one, used to situate short comments on the language. The result is brief and tidily laid out, but I would rather have read a whole book on the politics, or the economics, or the poetry.

ISBN: 0679642447

January 12, 2004

Cardano's Cosmos, Anthony Grafton

Subtitle: The Worlds and Works of a Renaissance Astrologer

Speaking of divination: an intellectual biography of the 16th c. astronomer-etc. Girolamo Cardano; or rather an argument about how his intellectual biography should be construed. It isn't exactly my cup of tea, lacking as it does a particular positive virtue and skirting something I consider a positive flaw. I don't think I'm its audience either.

The positive virtue I would have liked is: more of Cardano himself. He wrote incessantly, his peers and competitors likewise, they wrote about themselves and each other as well as politics, astrology, astronomy, understanding reclaimed classical documents, dice-gambling, digestion... anything, in competition or mutual praise, as they moved from court to town and one specialty to another. It was the very ferment of the Renaissance! but Grafton refers to it and rarely quotes. Fair enough, he's writing for historians who are expected to look up what they don't know already. What remains is Grafton's arguments about - I simplify, I probably traduce - how Cardano's astrology should not be regarded as unscientific or un-modern, except when those traits are thought of as positive¹.

Flattening all intellectual endeavor into one category annoys me, especially if it's done by reasoning that seems no sharper than "these two things make us [me] feel the same, so they must in some way be the same". It's a very weak condition of sameness for the things. I would entertain, easily, an argument that Cardano's astrology was in his day indistinguishable from pursuits that are now obviously reliable. I would expect evidence, though, perhaps of engineers as blandly juggling their own data. Tycho Brahe is mentioned in comparison, but not in detail.

I'm not sure Grafton is really arguing Cardano's astrology was science, though. He might even be trying to hedge that claim so as to forestall people who would make it:

Many scholars nowadays use computers to write and fax machines to submit the conference papers in which they unmask all of modern science as a social product, a game like any other. Though they hold that the laws of fluid dynamics are only one way, no more valid than many others, of describing the motion of air over wings, they take airplane trips to participate in the self-congratulatory discussions that ensue. Compared to the sterile credulity of modern arts of analysis, Cardano's arts of prediction look bright, warm and solid enough to explain their appeal to the wide range of readers they attracted and informed.

I don't know if "sterile credulity" is the thrown gauntlet it would be in my daily round of discourse, because I haven't winkled out a clear statement of what Grafton thinks we shouldn't accept about Cardano's work.

For instance, an argument in support of Cardano's rigor is that he writes about mechanical marvels as well as astrological ones, and sometimes assumes that a marvel must have a mechanical explanation (p. 164). That could, it seems to me, also have come from engineering-envy on Cardano's part. Court marvels of hydraulics competed with astrologers for patronage. But I don't know if the engineers and scientists laid claim to knowing secrets that no rules could convey, thanks to a special, divine gift, which is how the astrologers explained their failure to exactly follow what they called the rules of astrology (as well as their failures of prediction).

Grafton's book on the footnote in history describes historians as generally familiar with a collection of sources, so they can signal each other in a pattern of references and omitted references to the 'expected' texts, and given that I have little reason to believe that I know what he's really saying.

All told, I'd call it a good argument for Cardano's parity with Michel de Montaigne, unfortunately weakened by a grudging expectation of attacks on scientific primacy. Better to have flown sublimely over science, and defended Cardano's humanism on humanistic grounds.

...Cardano's art of prediction made possible one of his most remarkable, and most creative, achievements as a writer. By concentrating less on the long-term movement of his career than on the forces which recurred throughout his life, he produced an autobiography which did not make the author's life fit the teleological narrative logic of an adventure or a conversion, but set out to isolate the permanent traits of his character.

And there springs, eventually, the novel, which should be enough glory for a writer; and the arts or sciences of the psyche, to boot.

ISBN: 0-674-09555-3

...Melanchthon also suggests that horoscopes were more than dry, technical data sets produced by mathematically skilled intellectuals to satisfy their curiosity. They were politically challenging documents, directed at powerful clients who were hard to satisfy...

Well, and so were ballistic and hydroengineering projects; who's injecting the opposition between "technical" and "political", between "curiosity" and satisfaction?

September 24, 2003

The Principal Navigations...of the English Nation, v14, America pt. 3, Richard Hakluyt

Hereabout they found two riuers of a reasonable bignesse, vpon the banks whereof grew many vines bearing excellent grapes, and great groues of walnut-trees, and much flaxe like that of Castile: and they shewed our men by signes, that behinde those mountaines there was a riuer about 8. leagues broad, but they could not learne how neere it was: howbeit the Indyans made demonstration that it ran towards the North sea , and that vpon both sides thereof stood many townes of so great bignesse, that in comparison thereof those wherein they dwelt were but small hamlets. [Sidenote: Perhaps this Riuer may fall into the Chesepiouk bay, or into the great lake of Tadoac.]
After he had receiued all this information, the said Captaine returned toward the prouince of Zuni, whither he had sent his said companions: and being arrived there in safety, hauing trauailed vpon a very good way, he found in the same place his 5. companions, and the said father Frier Bernardin Beltran, with the souldiers which were determined to returne, as is aforesaid, but vpon certaine occasions were not as yet departed: whom the inhabitants had most friendly treated, and furnished with all things necessary in abundance as afterward likewise they vsed the Captaine, and those that came with him, comming foorth to meete them with shew of great ioy, and giuing them great store of, victuals to serue them in their iourney homewards, and requesting them to returne againe with speed, and to bring many Castilans with them (for so they call the Spaniards) to whom they promised food sufficient. For the better performance wherof they sowed that yeere more graine and other fruits, then they had done at any time before.

September 04, 2003

The Principal Navigations...of The English Nation, v13. America pt 2, Richard Hakluyt

St. Chrisostome, in his dialogue De dignitate sacerdotali, saieth that the mynisterie is a chardge geven by God to teache withoute armes or force, and that the same is no power to give or to take kingdomes, nor to make lawes for the publique governemente.

Somewhere in Hakluyt's compendium; I don't know the context, because this is another nugget from doing DP, but the same person is against the Papal Line of Demarcation.

November 19, 2002

The Perfect House, Witold Rybczynski

It is excessively refined of this book to have so few illustrations, mostly line-drawings the size of a business card, a few grayscale reproductions of Palladio's own plans.

Since the book is mostly the story of Rybczynski's trips near Venice to visit Palladio's houses, with historical background and some decductions about what makes good architecture, the minimal illustrations are good enough: you probably won't enjoy the book if you don't know a little about late Renaissance and early Enlightenment architecture, or care much about expensive architecture. If you do know a little of the relevant history, Palladio's career will be a nice colored-in detail; he was of humble stoneworking beginnings, near a city subsidiary to Venice, near the beginning of Venice's political subsidence, and despite that his reinvention of classical architecture was so good that it still identifies seats of power and claims thereto. Rybczynski makes some of an argument that Palladio's architecture was influential because he was late and provincial: as an adult, he saw some ancient buildings and early-Renaissance attempts to build in the ancient style, but it was new and fresh to him. Interesting; a comfort for anyone who feels that all the important stuff has been thumbed through; unprovable. I wonder what being a mason did: there is a contemporaneous description of him being cheerful and attentive and teacherly towards the workers. Surely this made the commissions more likely to be finished; possibly, they were more likely to last.

About the houses themselves, Rybczynski notes that the proportions are not as mathematically exact as some people have assumed, but also are usually not far off simple ratios of size. It does occur to me that since most of his floorplans are tidily rectangular, and symmetrical around at least one axis, it would be hard not to have rectangular rooms come out with simple ratios of sizes.

What modern non-architects notice, I gather, is that the designs put impressiveness well ahead of comfort: scant privacy, weird interconnections that send people out onto the porch or down into the basement to get between adjacent rooms, exteriors that look like two enormously tall stories because the practical rooms have been fitted into short inter-stories (which must, I think, be poorly lit, but were originally servant's quarters, so ha! Who would care then?) With this much effort, with their technology, a house could have been built that provided the owners privacy and reliable warmth in winter. One should remember that pre-modern wealth was quite fond of some immaterial luxuries that democracy forgoes. Display, patronage, service, pomp; I don't think it's just the twenty-foot entrance halls that provide this, or the existence of servants to make up for having all the closets in the attic (or in the garden, if counting water-closets). I think the effect was partly made by having no merely comfortable space, nowhere the owner could be imagined slouching or looking after himself. Snout-houses undo their "gracious estate entrances" by having a family-room at all. (I should say that Rybczynski didn't find the Villa Saraceno uncomfortable, although he did not stay there in pomp.)

Somewhere around the - perfectly interesting - history of Palladian architecture's dominance as the powerful building style in Enlightenment England and colonial America, I started wondering if inexpensive Palladian architecture was possible, if it could be used for distributed, rather than civilized, dignity. Rybczynski lightly touches on the matter in his last chapter, on a stay in the Villa Saraceno. He discusses the difference between size and scale, implying that things can be of big and comforting scale without being of big and expensive size; but, alas, on the previous page he mentions that the wonderful windows are all 4.5 by 8.5 feet. I am sure that it isn't merely standardization that makes windows of that size more expensive than the modern standard of, oh, 36" by 54".

Studio loft apartments might be what moderns have instead, and for recognizable reasons: open plans and huge windows that make them stage-sets, displayed not just to guests in them but possibly to everyone in the street below and the building across the way. Minimalism that has no extraneous possessions or comfortable chairs demonstrates a minute devotion to style, which might explain more of its appeal than photographic charm; most houses only demonstrate what the owner has; it takes a difficult house to demonstrate anything about what the owner is.

So wrote clew.