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The 1999 Student Exhibition

Spring, 1999

WITH the closure this year of the building to the public, students on the Museum graduate course were faced with a problem: how to stage the annual student exhibition. Early on it was suggested that a ‘virtual exhibition’ mounted on the Museum’s website might take the place of the usual gallery exhibition, but it was unclear what such a virtual exhibition would look like. In the past, Museum students and staff had translated actual gallery installations for presentation on the Internet. An entirely virtual exhibition – conceived and carried out as such – was something of an unknown.

It was quickly agreed that this year’s student exhibition should not try to mimic these earlier exhibitions. Instead, a purpose-built website would explore the potentialities of an entirely virtual exhibition. Rather than seeing the circumstances as unfortunate and a virtual exhibition as a poor substitute for a real exhibition, the advantages that the medium of the Internet presents would be exploited to the full.

Aside from the huge audiences that can be reached on the much-publicized ‘information superhighway’, several other opportunities were offered by the Internet, including opportunities specific to museum exhibitions. First, unlike a real exhibition that must fill a gallery space with a multiplicity of artifacts, display cases, carpentry, panels, and so forth, an on-line exhibition allows a single object to be displayed and interpreted in great detail.

Whereas gallery exhibitions can present only one view of a particular object and can give that object only limited space and attention, a virtual exhibition presents the opportunity to explore the complexity of a single object, to turn it around, to look at it from different sides and in different lights, to view its underside and insides as well as its surfaces.

Moreover, the virtual medium allows for the display of a different kind of artifact. Benefiting this year from an abundance of bibliographical expertise amongst the students, it was recognized that the Internet presents unique opportunities for the display of historic scientific texts. The Internet enables individual books to be displayed in a manner completely impossible in a gallery exhibition.

Aside from the subject matter of their text, books command a remarkable narrative richness simply as objects of display. Much of this richness stems from the diversity of their use as didactic tools, status symbols, decorations and advertisements. Books also possess a considerable material complexity in the variety of their bindings, papers and inks.

Perhaps most important, however, is the complexity inherent in a book’s plurality of pages. Compared to most objects, which exhibit only a front, back, top and bottom, the many pages of a book present a vast array of opportunities for display. Indeed, each page of a book presents its own narrative. A book can only be fully exhibited if the complexity of its pages is also fully exhibited. Exhibiting the versatility of the book and this complexity of materials and pages in a museum display has always been a problem. Under glass in a display case, a book inevitably shows only one page, appearing as a static and uni-faceted object.

Virtual exhibitions go a long way toward solving these display problems. The Internet allows the visiting public much greater access to the insides of a book. Each page may be ‘turned’ and viewed. Individual woodcuts, typefaces and engravings may be highlighted and interpreted. Covers and bindings may be displayed as well. Audiences can move through the book according to their whim and leisure, much as they would if they had taken it from their own bookshelf. In an on-line exhibition these least static of objects can finally be liberated from the impossibly fixed setting of the glass display case.

For these reasons it seemed that an historic scientific text – especially a Renaissance practical mathematics text that could already be regarded as ‘interactive’ in its own right – might make the perfect object for this year’s online student exhibition.

In 1533 a new book appeared on European markets. This new edition of Petrus Apianus’s Cosmographia, edited and enlarged by the Louvain mathematician and physician Gemma Frisius, saw instant and long-lasting commercial success. Although neither particularly innovative in its mathematics nor elegant in its construction, Cosmographia was published in dozens of editions during the sixteenth century and was one of the most popular books of its day.

What was Cosmographia and why was it so popular? Petrus Apianus was a German mathematician and instrument maker. The first edition of Cosmographia appeared in 1524 to moderate success. Essentially a mathematical treatise, Cosmographia provided a layman’s introduction to such subjects as astronomy, geography, cartography, surveying, navigation and mathematical instruments. Revised and enlarged by Gemma Frisius over the next ten years, it became an early ‘best-seller’ in the first century of printed publishing.

The title Cosmographia indicates the now somewhat unfamiliar discipline of cosmography. Until modern times, the study of the universe was split between cosmology on one hand and cosmography on the other. As their names suggest, both subjects were universal in scope. However, where cosmology sought to explain philosophically how the universe works, cosmography aimed only to describe how the universe is laid out. Cosmography thus mapped mathematically the entire universe: stars, planets, sun, moon, oceans, continents and countryside. This ambitious mapping programme involved the conjunction of several seemingly disparate mathematical disciplines including astronomy and astrology, cartography, navigation, surveying, dialling, architecture and instrument making.

Despite this apparent diversity, a reader of Cosmographia in the sixteenth century would have considered these subjects together. In practice, they employed the same people and used similar instruments and techniques. To the Renaissance mind these disciplines could be conjoined because each was concerned with the application of mathematics to measurement. Charting planetary motions, establishing positions in navigation and surveying, mapping the globe, even telling the time – all of the things which Cosmographia tried to explain – were considered simply as the geometrical description of the cosmos.

Information about all areas of cosmography is included in the text of Cosmographia. Aside from mathematical instruments, perhaps the most prominent discipline is cartography. Cartography was intimately tied to other cosmographical disciplines such as astronomy, navigation and especially instrument making. That Gerard Mercator was so famously successful in cartography often obscures the fact that he was also, and in no small way, an instrument maker. This connection between cartography and instrument making, and their mutual places in cosmography, is highlighted by Apianus and Gemma in Cosmographia.

However, in many ways the unity of cosmography is best demonstrated in the mathematical instrument makers’ trade, which used the techniques of, employed the practitioners of, and provided the instruments for each of the branches of cosmography. The fact that individual instrument makers could produce instruments for the wide range of cosmographical disciplines indicates that the techniques and instruments involved in each branch, and in instrument making itself, were very much alike. That people involved in the instrument making trade like Gemma were able to play central roles in other areas of cosmography – such as geography and cartography – provides an even more convincing example of the unity of these disciplines. Indeed, Gemma’s success as co-author of Cosmographia attests to the centrality of instrument making in cosmography.

Instruments play an important role in Cosmographia itself. Throughout the book are descriptions of instruments and instructions for their use. The text is even equipped with working paper instruments, such as the universal astronomical instrument illustrated below, a metal manifestation of which is also present in the Museum’s collections, on the back of an astrolabe by Aegidius Coignet.

Paper volvelles provide the reader of Cosmographia with the opportunity to test the techniques described in the book and the skills learnt without needing to own an expensive brass instrument. However, not surprisingly, the instruments illustrated by Apianus in Cosmographia would have been available in the instrument-making workshop associated with Gemma. In this we can perhaps identify one of Gemma’s motivations for publishing the text.

It is obvious that Cosmographia would have been a likely purchase for a sixteenth-century mathematician, cartographer or instrument maker; the reasons for its popular success are not so obvious. Nevertheless, one reason for the popularity of Cosmographia can be readily located in Renaissance perceptions of mathematics and of cosmography.

During the Renaissance, cosmography was not counted among the disciplines of the academic university curriculum. Instead, like other mathematical sciences it was considered a practical and useful art. Such evidence as the record of instrument orders from sea trading companies for use in navigation and the establishment of astronomical observatories by members of the ruling classes demonstrate that important commercial and political entities saw cosmography as useful.

As it happens, their faith in cosmography as a means of solving practical problems was not at all misplaced. When a solution to the problem of determining longitude at sea was finally achieved in the eighteenth century, it was based upon techniques first suggested by Apianus and Gemma. One method (the measuring of lunar distances) was introduced by Apianus in Cosmographia. Another (using portable clocks to determine differences in local time) was put forward by Gemma in a later publication.

Related to the perceived utility of mathematics was the rhetorical role played by instruments in Renaissance society. Viewed in the context of real world utility, mathematical instruments suggested action, learning and power. Many of the expensive and ornate mathematical instruments that survive in museum collections today were purchased by important and wealthy persons to serve just these rhetorical purposes. These palpable symbols of utility and education conferred prestige upon the patron who could afford, possess, use and understand them.

The success of mathematics in solving real-world problems, its utility in such important areas as navigation, war and commerce, and the prestige associated with this utility conferred upon cosmography a great measure of confidence and popularity. Here we can locate an important reason for the popular success of Cosmographia. To own Cosmographia was to proclaim an association with the prestige and power of Renaissance cosmography.

The 1999 Student Exhibition is entitled ‘Cosmographia: A Close Encounter’. The virtual exhibition illustrates the issues discussed above in three main sections. One section concerns the bibliographical and publishing history of Cosmographia. Cosmographia went through no fewer than forty-five editions, was published in four languages, and was manufactured in seven cities by at least eighteen publisher printers. This section presents the publishing history in detail, discussing possible sources, the many versions that evolved over the history of Cosmographia and the places in which it was manufactured. A source for more information is offered as well as a new table of all known editions of the book.

Another section considers cartography in Cosmographia in the wider context of its rapid development in sixteenth-century Europe. The sixteenth century was a period of transition in the history of cartography. When the century began, the recent discovery of the New World had already altered forever maps of the globe. When it ended, the first atlases were being produced.

Although Cosmographia deals in various ways with many cartographic issues, it is not an atlas nor a collection of maps. Cartographic problems such as the size and shape of the earth, explanations of longitude and latitude, map projections and measurement are all part of the discipline of cosmography, and are integrated into the text. The book presents very elementary concepts, such as an introduction to the names of landforms and the arrangement of the parallels of latitude (illustrated above with south at the top), as well as more sophisticated problems such as making map projections.

A further section of the virtual exhibition concerns the mathematical instruments illustrated by Apianus and Gemma and attempts to place them in an historical context, linking them to artifacts in the Museum’s collections. Cosmographia is a rich source for illustrations of instruments and contains instructions for their use. In addition to illustrations and descriptions of wooden, brass and ivory instruments, it contains full-page, working paper instruments. These instruments are often made up of paper volvelles attached by string to the pages of the book; they can be rotated to perform calculations for solving problems of the calendar or the positions of the sun and the moon in the zodiac.

In many respects it was the instruments that confirmed Cosmographia as the perfect choice for a virtual exhibition. At its heart, Cosmographia is a text that is meant to be put to use: its tables and illustrations are there to be used in a practical context and its instruments operated. It was a text for students and a book that an interested public could own and enjoy. In its original historical context, unlike Apianus’s Astronomicum Caesareum for example, it was never intended as a precious book, nor one that would only languish in a fine case.

An actual exhibition would unavoidably place Cosmographia in just these circumstances, rendering it static, unapproachable and under glass. ‘Cosmographia: A Close Encounter’, in its presentation as a virtual exhibition, attempts to prove the point that Cosmographia was a book that was intended to be opened and explored. In so doing it is hoped that it will go some way to restoring Cosmographia to its original purpose.

Class of ’99