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Ellen Pater MA

PhD candidate


Area(s) of interest: Art History, History & Philosophy of Science and Technology, History of Knowledge

Cohort/Start PhD: 2021-2022

Preliminary title: Exchanging the Unknown: Visualizing and Communicating Microscopic Research in the Seventeenth-Century Dutch Republic, England and Italy

Leiden University/Huygens KNAW
Supervisor(s): Prof. dr. Eric Jorink, Dr. Sietske Fransen
Overarching project: NWO Project Visualizing the Unknown.

Starting date: 1 November 2021

What do you see when looking through a microscope? How can you tell others about what you are seeing. Is it necessary to visualize what you see, to be able to tell others about your microscopic research? If so, how do you translate the strange shapes and textures of the microworld into a coherent visual language? Especially when there are no examples, nor anyone who has done it before, as was the challenge for seventeenth-century microscopists such as Jan Swammerdam (1637-1680), Marcello Malpighi (1628-1694), Nicolaas Hartsoeker (1656-1725) and Francesco Redi (1626-1697).

Early modern Microscopes revealed an unknown world: a world filled with forms and  structures, never before seen. To communicate about their findings, seventeenth-century microscopists wrote letters and published treatises. But texts were not self-sufficient, as they had to be supported by images to make sense.

It is easy to take such images for granted. Especially as many of these images were made in a visual idiom similar to images used in the life sciences today. But upon closer inspection, seventeenth-century representations of the micro-world are not straightforward at all, because they are the result of a process. A process of: having well grinded lenses; making preparations; arranging preparations beneath or in front of the lens; having good lightning conditions; sketching; choosing materials and media to visualize the microworld and composing the elements of the representation on the page. Eventually this well thought through drawing was translated into an etching for publication.

To explore the complexity behind these seventeenth-century representations, I will analyze primary materials as well as engage in drawing and making preparations with microscopes myself. In addition, I will look at the exchange of information on discoveries made with microscopes and intersecting interests between the Dutch Republic, Italy (Specifically Florence and Rome) and England with its Royal Society. Lastly I will put the visual idiom developed by seventeenth-century microscopists and the sudden interest in the tiny and the minuscule in a larger cultural and scientific context.