Prints and the pursuit of Knowledge

Prints and the pursuit of Knowledge in Early Modern Europe” is an exhibition now able in the Harvard Art Museums (Cambridge, MA, USA). This exhibition (it will be open until December 10, 2011) examines the relationship between print-making and scientific instruments, looking at both the producers and their production. Because making instruments and prints called on shared knowledge and skills, some makers practiced both professions.

Constructing a brass instrument in the early modern period entailed cutting sheets of the metal, meticulously incising the polished surface with accurate marks, and blackening those incisions for legebility. Preparing a copperplate for printing on paper required a comparable set of skills and tools.

A maker who had the expertise to fabricate engraved brass instruments would have found it applicable to the softer, more malleable copper. A copperplate would have been cut, polished, and engraved with a sharp tool, just as the brass of an instrument would have been. Also similarly, ink then would have been rolled over its surface, forced into the incised lines, and finally wiped off of its face, leaving the incisions blackened.

Likewise, the makers of woodcuts and wooden instruments shared skills, as demonstrated by the output of the instrument- and print-maker Erhard Etzlaub. In the early years of the sixteenth century, he produced sundials and woodcut maps (both forms requiring precision woodcarving skills) that were intended to be used in combination. One of the things this exhibition uncovers is the dynamic exchange between printed images and scientific instruments, not only in their production, but also in their function.

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