The Measurers:
a Flemish Image of Mathematics in the Sixteenth Century

The Collectors

The activities of connoisseurs and patrons form a link between the historical period relevant to the exhibition and the more recent collections which have shaped the resources available for display today. The Habsburg rulers of the Netherlands in the sixteenth century were, to varying degrees, patrons and collectors. Mercator, for example, made a large number of mathematical instruments for the Emperor Charles V, who also commissioned Mercator's first globe in 1541. Charles was a patron of Gemma and he brought the Spanish mathematician and astrolabe designer Juan de Rojas to the Netherlands, where he studied under Gemma at Louvain. Charles was also a patron of Peter Apian and Apian's lavish book Astronomicum Cęsareum, which might as easily be called an instrument in the form of a book, was dedicated to Charles and his brother Emperor Ferdinand I.

The heirs of both the 'Caesars' of Apian's title became patrons of the arts and sciences. Charles's son, Philip II of Spain, was an avid collector: his activities are well known for laying the foundation of the collections in the Prado Museum, but he was also fascinated by maps and mathematical instruments. He is said to have owned 137 astrolabes and watches (Parker, p. 48). In Ferdinand's son Emperor Maximilian II, extended patronage from his court in Vienna and his own son, Albert VII, Archduke of Austria, continued this spirit in the Netherlands. He became Governor of the Spanish Netherlands in 1595 and joint sovereign through his marriage to Philip II's daughter, Isabella Clara Eugenia, in 1599. Coignet's manuscript account of his pantometric rules (see figures 7 and 8) is dedicated to Albert and an astronomical rings in the exhibition (see figure 48) was made for Albert and Isabella.

Collecting was not confined to the ruling class. Prosperous Flemish burghers joined the vogue and the paintings they commissioned to record their collections, in the popular genre of cabinets d'amateurs, depict globes and mathematical instruments along with paintings, natural history specimens, musical instruments and all manner of curiosities and exotica. One such painting, by Jan Brueghel the Elder and Frans Francken II, includes Albert and Isabella as though visiting a collection but perhaps included as a symbol of the nobility of patronage (see Michel, p. 89).

If we turn to those whose taste and judgment have had a more immediate effect on our exhibition and whose collections are cited in the catalogue entries, Lewis Evans was the most influential. Not without reason was the Museum of the History of Science originally called the Lewis Evans Collection. His particular interest was in mathematical instruments, especially astrolabes and sundials, and as a careful, knowledgeable and discerning buyer from dealers and sale rooms, he built up an outstanding collection. Through its presentation to the University of Oxford in 1924, his collection came to have a considerable influence on the history of science and the study of mathematical instruments. Many of the books on display are also from his collection.

A second notable benefaction to the Museum, represented in the provenances of the instruments on display, was that of the merchant shipper Jack Billmeir, who presented his collection in 1957. He had formerly acquired many of the instruments of Henri Michel, the Belgian collector and historian of scientific instruments, so that a good part of Michel's collection is preserved in Oxford. Michel was inclined to add to his instruments (see catalogue numbers 32 and 44) and to commission or to make pieces which he felt represented gaps in his collection.

If Michel stands for the collector-scholar, a final collector type represented in the exhibition is the collector-dealer. Gertrude Hamilton wrote a pioneering, but unpublished, book on Old Scientific Instruments and published a catalogue of what she called 'The Mercator Collection', but she came to scientific instruments through her work as a dealer. Her shop in Paris, which at first stocked early maps and atlases, extended its range into scientific instruments and was named after the great Flemish cartographer and instrument maker.

See catalogue numbers 41 to 47

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