Scientific Observation, Representation, and Communication in 17th-century Science and Society
What is Visualizing the Unknown?
How do scientists represent the previously invisible? How do they convince their peers, and communicate their observations with microscopes to a larger audience? Here, images are of crucial importance. A well-constructed scientific illustration could say more than a thousand words.
This project (2021-2027) explores the genesis of visual representations of the micro-world in the seventeenth century. Observing strange and unknown structures through microscopes, pioneers such as Robert Hooke, Johannes Swammerdam, Marcello Malpighi and Antoni van Leeuwenhoek faced unprecedented challenges. They had to find ways to correspond about the unknown world of insect-anatomy, bodily fluids and bacteria. To do so, they developed new visual idioms to analyse, interpret and shape their observations.
In the same decades, a novel medium increased the prominence of the image: the scientific journal, starting with the Philosophical Transactions in 1664. Images included in publications had a powerful impact on readers. Becoming crucial for the dissemination, discussion and confirmation of new knowledge.
To many, the scientific image seems an unproblematic, transparent agent. However, the process of observation, perception, representation and communication was not – and still is not – self-evident. Can images, and their scientific claims, be trusted? How can people be convinced that previously unthinkable creatures really exist? How are images constructed and manipulated to convey a message?
This project aims at unravelling the trajectory from microscopic observation to the dissemination of visual reports in the seventeenth century. We will not only study now-famous microscopists, but we will put their work in the international context of lesser known scientists, artists, institutions and publishers. Our hypothesis is that the practices developed in the seventeenth century, are still of great relevance today.
Background image, top: Johannes Swammerdam, Observation drawing of a bee’s eye in Icones operis Bibliae naturae, c. 1677. Detail from fol. 31v. Cat. nr. BPL 126 B. Leiden University Library
Imaging the Microworld
Here we present images from our research, including: photos from the MicroLabs and of original microscopes, as well as original drawings and prints. For captions and credits hover with the mouse on the image. For more information on image rights and copyrights please scroll down at our About page. And for more on our MicroLabs, you may visit the MicroLabs page on our website.
Dissecting a silkworm during MicroLab2 at Rijksmuseum Boerhaave
Athanasius Kircher, A simple microscope in Ars Magna Lucis et Umbræ, 1671
Woodcut, page 730. Cat. nr. Z 13049 (II D 88). Rijksmuseum Boerhaave
This six-year project is financed by NWO (the Dutch Research Council), grant nr 406.20.FR.012. Institutional embedding and support is provided by the Huygens Institute (KNAW-Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Science, Amsterdam); the Bibliotheca Hertziana–Max Planck Institute for Art History (Rome) and Rijksmuseum Boerhaave (Leiden). Additional partners are Leiden University, the Royal Society (London), the Rijksmuseum (Amsterdam) and the Hamilton Kerr Institute, Fitzwilliam Museum (University of Cambridge).
Now on show: Crawly Creatures. Curator Jan de Hond shows us one of the highlights of the exhibition. This table ornament features all kind of crawly creatures. They are life casts, casts of real animals! 🐍🐢🦎