Making true and lively figures: Early modern natural history images and the transformations of nature
Kiser, April M.
MetadataShow full item record
This dissertation examines the ways naturalists used images to study, understand, order, describe and discuss nature in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. Pictures facilitated encounters with natural objects and aided in organizing and prioritizing individual details. Focusing on descriptions of animals from printed natural histories, this dissertation argues that images played an important role in forging new understandings of nature during the Scientific Revolution and encouraged learning about nature through looking, physical inspection and interaction. Images encapsulated the practices and values that bound together communities and practitioners. Thus, pictures worked as guides for the study of nature, yet they proved flexible in their encounters with natural objects. This made pictures especially useful in the seventeenth century as Europeans collected natural objects and massive amounts of information about nature and struggled to make what they acquired significant. This dissertation also argues that pictures functioned as more than mere copies of natural objects. Instead, pictures transformed nature into objects that were meaningful in European collections and useful to the new science. Contributing to the literature on the visual culture of science and the history of nature, this work demonstrates the ways conceptions of nature and the techniques for seeing and learning about nature changed during the Scientific Revolution. Edward Topsell's History of Four-footed Beasts (1607), the first case, exhibits animals rich with meanings and interconnections. By the middle of the same century, John Ray distanced his work from Topsell's dense entries. He considered them filled with morals and stories that he considered distractions from proper natural history. This dissertation charts the ways images remained useful as ideas about nature changed. Naturalists were critical consumers of images. They used them to sharpen their skills of inspecting objects and were prepared to correct pictures when necessary. Consequently, pictures proved important in the experimental context of the Royal Society of London, which privileged the manual manipulation of nature. Naturalists carefully implemented pictures and remained cautious of their power to describe and order nature as well as to mislead or distract students of nature.