Quiescit anima libris. The spirit finds rest in books (and in museum objects, archival photographs, and garden sculpture). This is a Dumbarton Oaks project. For more about Dumbarton Oaks, visit

“A Smell that is Not Good”: Ferns in Early Modern Medicine

by doconversationsblog

This post is provided by Anne Marie Creighton, who joins us this year as a research fellow in the Dumbarton Oaks Library.

Although flowers predominate in most early books of medicine printed in Europe, ferns have long been used alongside them. While many books about the development of botany and medicine do mention ferns, they have received little attention as a distinct category. This post highlights a selection of ferns that appear in medicinal plant books published in the fifteenth, sixteenth, and eighteenth centuries.

Jacob Meydenbach, Ortus sanitatis, chapter CC.

Jacob Meydenbach, Ortus sanitatis, chapter CC.

This fern, which the text describes as a plant that “has neither a trunk, nor a flower, nor fruit” and “has a smell that is not good,” comes from the oldest book in Dumbarton Oaks’ Rare Book Collection. The Ortus sanitatis, or “Garden of Health,” was an herbal published in 1491 as a reference work for doctors and apothecaries. Among the uses the text claims for this fern is that, when dried and ground and made into a poultice, it would cure congestion. The numerous “manicules”, or little hands pointing to important passages in the section on each plant’s use, show that this was a working copy.

In this herbal, the images of plants are stylized and conventionalized. The fern above is leafy and generic, with no root and no venation—the image does look like a fern, but we need the label contained in the text to confirm our identification. Although the fern woodcut does not repeat, some of the other entries in the Ortus sanitatis even share the same image for different plant species. Paying someone to create new illustrations was expensive, so plants that looked similar enough could share the same image.

Antoine Du Pinet, Historia plantarum, 630-631.

Antoine Du Pinet, Historia plantarum, 630-631.

Antoine Du Pinet’s pocket herbal (1567), published nearly 80 years later than Meydenbach’s book, and heavily indebted to Pietro Andrea Mattioli’s Commentary on Dioscorides, shows ferns that display increased botanical specificity. Both ferns in the image have root systems, unlike that in the Ortus, and the leaves are more distinctly rendered. The fern on the recto has numerous small blades, while the fern on the verso has larger and more rounded blades, with the sporangia visible. (‘Sporangia’ are the structures that enclose ferns’ spores.) While the leaves are rendered in broad strokes, this herbal accounts for more than one species of fern.

Giovanni Battista Morandi, Historia botanica practica, plate 4.

Giovanni Battista Morandi, Historia botanica practica, plate 4.

The illustrations’ specificity increases again in a third book about plants’ medical uses, Morandi’s Historia botanica practica (1744). While Meydenbach’s herbal made it possible to tell that the image was of a fern and Du Pinet’s book made a few distinctions between the ferns included, Morandi’s four ferns multiply the differences between the species pictured. More attention is now given to leaf shapes, root forms, venation, and sporangia than in the two earlier works, making it increasingly easy to use the images to identify a fern specimen.

Du Pinet, Antoine. Historia plantarum. Lyon: the widow of Gabriel Coterius, 1567.

Meydenbach, Jacob. Ortus sanitatis. Mainz: 1491.

Morandi, Giovanni Battista. Historia botanica practica. Milan: Petrus Franciscus Malatesta, 1744.

Hearts and Flowers

by sarahkburke

"Quae cordis specimen referunt plantae" from Giambattista della Porta's Phytognomonica (1588)

“Quae cordis specimen referunt plantae” from Giambattista della Porta’s Phytognomonica (1588)

Giambattista della Porta (1535?-1615) was the polymath founder of the Academia Secretorum Naturae, the forerunner of the Accademia dei Lincei.  Phytognomonica perpetuates the “doctrine of signatures,” the idea that the shape of a plant can tell us about its medical uses.

In this image, we can see fruits and roots in the shape of hearts, along with an image of the organ itself.  Perhaps a bouquet of Valeriana–make sure to include the ostensibly cordiform roots–would be a suitable gift for someone suffering from heartache this Valentine’s Day?

Depicting ferns

by sarahkburke

A nature print by Henry Bradbury in Thomas Moore's The Ferns of Great Britain and Ireland (1855)

A nature print by Henry Bradbury in Thomas Moore’s The Ferns of Great Britain and Ireland (1855)

Ferns are relatively flat, making them particularly amenable to a variety of illustration techniques and decorative uses. Of course ferns have been depicted primarily using the standard illustration processes of a given period, specifically engravings and chromolithographs when we look at the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. But their format has led to a striking variety of documentary technologies. Ferns are (metaphorically, if not biologically) fruitful sites for experimentation with illustration techniques.

Anna Atkins, "Title page of British Ferns'" (1852)  © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Anna Atkins, “Title page of British Ferns'” (1852) © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Perhaps the best-known examples of fern illustration are the cyanotypes produced by Anna Atkins, who used this early photographic method to document seaweeds and ferns. The cyanotype process is familiar to us today from architectural blueprints—and is widely available for both children’s art projects and home crafters. The technique entails placing objects on sensitized paper, exposing it to light, and then washing the paper to fix the negative image on a dark blue background. The cyanotype process is a type of photogram, a general term for creating a negative image on light-sensitive paper, no camera required. Dumbarton Oaks holds three photograms of ferns, all nineteenth-century French, and therefore of the same period as Atkins and fern mania.

One of three French photograms at Dumbarton Oaks

One of three French photograms at Dumbarton Oaks

The Victorian fad for ferns also led to experiments with using ferns as stencils for paint or for smoke, using soot from candle smoke to produce negative images of ferns on blank paper. Ferns appeared in a wide variety of decorative arts, including ceramics and architectural details. For more on this trend, see a previous post on this blog.

Another experimental type of image often associated with ferns is the nature print. While photograms make a negative image of an item against a darker background, nature printing most often uses the physical specimen to make an impression on a printing plate.

The two most familiar names in the history of this technique are Alois Auer, of Vienna’s Imperial Printing Office, and Henry Bradbury, who produced the illustrations for Thomas Moore’s The ferns of Great Britain and Ireland (1855). These illustrations make use of the softness of lead plates. Ferns were placed between a plate of lead and a plate of steel, exposed to pressure, and then removed; the lead would retain an impression of the specimen, and could be used to produce an electrotype plate for printing. It is obvious that Bradbury’s plates were created from specimens—one can see the flaws and characteristics of the specific plants. The plates do an excellent job of depicting fronds and stems, including veins and other minutiae. In many cases the roots are reduced to a blur. In some instances the locations of sporangia have been added by hand—a creative attempt to compensate for something left out in the process of creating the nature print.

Nature printing described in the preface to Thomas Moore's The ferns of Great Britain and Ireland (1855)

Nature printing described in the preface to Thomas Moore’s The ferns of Great Britain and Ireland (1855)


Both Auer and Bradbury were active in the 1850s, and each developed methods that entailed using a plant to create a plate. Over the centuries, there have also been many examples of printing directly from a plant. One fifteenth-century example, which includes a fern, is now found in the Universitätsbibliothek Salzburg.

A new acquisition to the Dumbarton Oaks collection is Johann Hieronymus Kniphof’s 1733 “herbarium vivum.” He continued this effort in several subsequent publications, but this was his first, and it is a fascinating example of experiments in capturing the likeness of a plant. Scientifically, many of the illustrations lack important details; the more useful parts of many illustrations have been added after the fact, by hand. But there is something particularly compelling about the desire to document a specimen with such fidelity.

Staghorn fern from Johann Kniphof's book of nature prints (1733)

Staghorn fern from Johann Kniphof’s book of nature prints (1733)

For comparison, here is the same print without the hand coloring, from ULB Sachsen-Anhalt.

Staghorn fern from Johann Kniphof's book of nature prints (1733), without hand coloring

Staghorn fern from Johann Kniphof’s book of nature prints (1733), without hand coloring

Photograms and nature prints were for the most part superseded by advances in photographic reproduction in the late nineteenth century. Much has been written about the meaning of changing modes of botanical representation—a quick nod to Daston and Gallison’s Objectivity will have to suffice for now—but it should be said that although there may be a general trajectory by which one can track changing trends, there are always interesting experiments occurring around the periphery.

“Ferns will grow where flowering plants would perish”

by sarahkburke

From Francis George Heath's The Fern Paradise: A Plea for the Culture of Ferns.

From Francis George Heath’s The Fern Paradise: A Plea for the Culture of Ferns.

1850s London, as described by Charles Dickens in Bleak House: “Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snow-flakes — gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun.” The soot, the mud, the heavy London fog are used by Dickens to introduce the confusion and corruption of London’s High Court of Chancery, but the description also captures a very real environmental phenomenon in London. Fifty years later, Claude Monet’s paintings of Parliament documented the same heavy smog, the result of coal smoke and gas lamps.

There were early innovators, such as Benjamin Thompson (1753-1814) and Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790), who developed “smoke-free” stoves to remove smoke from within the home. But this smoke could only go so far, and it became the key ingredient of the pea soupy miasma of industrial cities.

This smog killed people. It is also worth noting that the increased use of coal, beginning in the eighteenth century, was predicated on awful working conditions for miners and their families. In this context, it may not seem particularly tragic that the smog could make it difficult to maintain a tasteful garden! But it is fascinating to tease out how technologies (and people) adapt to changing circumstances. The introduction of the Wardian Case, invented by and named for Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward (1791-1868), is an excellent example.

From N. B. Ward's On the Growth of Plants in Closely Glazed Cases.

From N. B. Ward’s On the Growth of Plants in Closely Glazed Cases.

This case, akin to a terrarium, became popular very quickly because it could foster the growth of delicate plants in a sealed system. This protection was necessary because of the aforementioned air pollution, as well as the increasing interest in delicate plants such as ferns. It became so commonplace that in 1856 Shirley Hibberd asked, “Who would live contentedly, or consider a sitting-room furnished, without either a Ward’s Case or an Aquarium?”; the cases were popular among the middle class audience reached by authors like Hibberd and J. C. Loudoun. They were costly enough to be status symbols but less prohibitively expensive once English excise duties on glass were lifted in 1845. They created climates that suited the exotic plants imported and sold by nurseries such as that run by the Loddiges family. The cases compounded their own utility by being used onboard ships to transport fragile plants from overseas. And, as indicated by Hibberd, their design suited the Victorian taste for features like aviaries and aquariums.

From Shirley Hibberd's The Fern Garden.

From Shirley Hibberd’s The Fern Garden.

Wardian cases could support flowers, moss, and ivy. But Ward’s initial goal had been to develop a safe environment for his ferns. The Wardian case was one of the many manifestations of the Victorian fern craze, along with the cultivation of rockeries, the collection of pressed specimens, the creation of cyanotypes and nature prints (about which I will write further in an upcoming post), and other manifestations in decorative art. The cases, unlike some of these other technologies, could host living ferns and could remain on display as part of the furniture of a tasteful drawing room. Ferns were suited to the era’s fascination with the delicate, the intricate, and (to return to Hibberd) there are those who argued that it required excellent discernment to appreciate ferns, precisely because they were not gaudy with flowers.

What is coal? It is, ironically, the product of ferns. Over 300 million years ago, our earth was inhabited by giant insects and ferns the height of trees. When those ferns died, they sank into the swampy ground and compressed, first into peat and later into coal. This fossil fuel, when burnt, filled cities with smog and necessitated new technologies to protect fashionable plants.

From John Lindley's The Treasury of Botany.

Tree ferns in Java, from John Lindley’s The Treasury of Botany.

Allen, David Elliston. The Victorian Fern Craze: A History of Pteridomania. London: Hutchinson, 1969.

Heath, Francis George. The Fern Paradise: A Plea for the Culture of Ferns. Sixth edition. London: Sampson Low, Marston, Searle, and Rivington, 1880.

Hibberd, Shirley. Rustic Adornments for Homes of Taste: And Recreations for Town Folk, in the Study and Imitation of Nature. London: Groombridge and Sons, 1856.

Hibberd, Shirley. The Fern Garden, How to Make, Keep, and Enjoy It, Or, Fern Culture Made Easy. 2d. ed. London: Groombridge and Sons, 1869.

Lindley, John. The Treasury of Botany: A Popular Dictionary of the Vegetable Kingdom. New edition. London: Longmans, Green, and co, 1873.

Ward, N. B. On the Growth of Plants in Closely Glazed Cases. 2nd. ed. London: John Van Voorst, 1852.

Ottoman History, in Rhyme

by doconversationsblog

This post is provided by Anne Marie Creighton, who joins us this year as a research fellow in the Dumbarton Oaks Library.

The first full-scale depiction of Ottoman history in English was Richard Knolles’ The Generall Historie of the Turkes, which he published in 1603. Because this book proved very popular, it was reprinted numerous times in the seventeenth century, usually with updates to keep the text current. The 1687 edition at Dumbarton Oaks names Sir Paul Rycaut as the author of the new material.

Before I picked up the Generall Historie last week, I had done some background research. I was informed that this history was told through the lives of each Ottoman sultan, so that the history becomes a series of biographies, from Osman I in the early fourteenth century to Mehmed IV in the late seventeenth. When I started looking at the text, I thought I knew what I would find. One facet surprised me, however: the poetry.

At the beginning of each new chapter of the Generall Historie, on the page where the next sultan ascends the throne, the reader encounters both a portrait of the sultan and two poems about him. In volume 1, which Knolles wrote, the author composed a poem in Latin and a poem in English summarizing the life of each sultan he described. (Volume 2, which covers the additional period between 1603 and 1687, also has English poems, but they are mostly not so inspired as Knolles’.)

Here are my favorite five of the English poems from Knolles’ original work, in chronological order. One theme I enjoyed throughout is Knolles’ existential moralizing on how fast, even for famous sultans and kings, human greatness and other “sublunary gloryes” fade away. Because the text is small, I include my transcriptions of the English poems after the images.

Osman I, p. 91

Whilest weltring in it’s gore proud Asia lay,
To Saracens, and Tartars made a Prey,
While Christian Swords wounded each others breast,
And Greece with mad Sedition was distrest,
Bold Ottoman the dire Advantage takes,
And a new road for Desolation makes.
A barbarous Empire his Ambition founds,
His cruel scepter staind with bloud, and wounds.

Murad I, p. 131

Sterne Amurath new thoughts resolves upon,
With armes divided Greece to overrun;
And wholly bent to’enlarge his narrow bounds,
Europe invades, and all he meets confounds:
The too too timorous Thracians stand amaz’d,
To find his Scepter in their bowells plac’d,
The fierce Bulgarians, did his fury quell,
And at his feet their noble Despot fell:
At last the ponyard [knife] of a little Slave
Taught him, what Short liv’d pleasures Tyrants have.

Mehmed II, or Mehmed the Conqueror, p. 229

I who to kingdomes, Cities, brought their fate,
The terrour of the trembling world, of late,
Yield to the greater Monarch Death, but am
Yet proud to think of my immortal fame.
Greater than Alexander, once was I,
Or him that Camps of Romans did destroy:
I vanquist the victorious Greeks, and I
Destroyd Epyrus, and fierce Tartary,
From mighty Me th’Hungarians had their doome,
And the report reacht ye proud walls of Rome.
The Assyrian, and Arabian felt my hand,
Nor could the Persian my dread power withstand.
Ore Rhodes, and Italy I designed to ride,
But fate the progress of my aimes denyd,
Ai me,’ grim Death, and one unlucky houre,
Has baffled all my thoughts, and boundless power.
So haughty man, and all his hopes decay,
And so all sublunary gloryes pass away.

Selim I, p. 339

Lo Selymus, the vilest of the Othoman brood,
Embru’d his hands in Father’s, Brothers bloud.
Persian, Egyptian, Syrian, and Moore
Submit their Scepters to his insolent pow’r;
But when the Christians Realms he vainly thought
To speedy desolation to have brought,
A mortall ulcer seized him, to make knowne
The great Messiah can protect his owne.

Murad III, p. 651

Valiant I was not, none deserve that name
But those, whose generous minds bespeake their fame.
Fortune advanc’d me high, and fickle Shee
Still found a Soule, bravely prepard in me,
Soft in my tender years tho’ I became,
Yet still I priz’d the glory of my name:
I sent abroad my Ministers of State,
To doe the Slavish drugery of my fate.

Osman, Ferhates, Sinan, Mustapha
The terrors of the World, did me obey.
I broke the Medes, and the Armenian Powers,
And batterd downe the proud Taurisian Towers.
Yet what’s all this to my ill gott renowne,
Since greatest things are soonest tumbled down,
We’re robb’d of all we have, in one short houre,
And quickly we, and ours shall be no more.

Imagining Delos

by doconversationsblog

This post is provided by Anne Marie Creighton, who joins us this year as a research fellow in the Dumbarton Oaks Library.

“‘Delos, would you want to be the abode of my son,
Phoibos Apollon, and to house him in a lavish temple?
For it cannot escape you that no other will touch you
since I think you shall never be rich in oxen or sheep
and shall never produce vintage nor grow an abundance of plants.
If you have a temple for Apollon who shoots from afar,
…you shall feed your dwellers
from the hand of strangers, since your soil is barren.’”

“Homeric Hymn to Apollo,” 51.60, in The Homeric Hymns, ed. and trans. Apostolos N. Athanassakis.

A scrappy bit of rock set in the waters of the eastern Mediterranean, the island of Delos overcame its barren soil and its size (less than 2 square miles!) to become one of the most important cult sites in classical antiquity. It was sacred to Apollo, the legend goes, because it sheltered his mother, Leto, when she needed to give birth. When Leto became pregnant with Zeus’s twins, Zeus’s wife Hera cursed her to be turned away from all the lands of the world. Luckily for Leto, Delos was a floating island and didn’t count as “land,” so she was able to give birth to her twins, Apollo and Artemis, upon it. Later, according to the Aeneid, its wandering stopped when “blessed Apollo chained it to Gyaros and the steep coast of Mykonos, and gave it to stable cultivation, and to spurn the winds” (3.75-77, translation mine). As a religious site, Delos flourished, both independently and under the control of Athens, from the 5th to the 1st centuries BCE.

In the first century BCE, however, the island’s fortunes turned. After a devastating raid during the First Mithradatic War in 88, followed by another blow by pirates in 69, Delos diminished to a shadow of its former glory. Although some inhabitants held on for a while, the island was deserted by the middle of the first millennium. The once-rich site lay abandoned for centuries.

Mt. Kynthos, the highest point on Delos, today. Photo by Deb Brown, the Librarian for Byzantine Studies. (July 2000)

Mt. Kynthos, the highest point on Delos, today. Photo by Deb Brown, the Librarian for Byzantine Studies. (July 2000)

In the seventeenth century CE, European travelers found this abandonment very convenient. Paired with the prominence of Delos in Greek and Roman myths and poetry, this convenience helped kindle their interest in the site. Beginning in the early 1600s, as I have been seeing in my work, an increasing number of western Christian travelers started making a point to stop in ancient Greek lands as they went about their business in the eastern Mediterranean. These travelers liked to collect antiquities, whether coins, statues, or pieces of architecture, taking them back home as souvenirs. As David Noy put it, generally, “the main problem lay in removing antiquities in the teeth of opposition from Ottoman authorities and local Greek populations” (375). These obstacles, however, “did not exist on uninhabited Delos” (Ibid.). In the seventeenth century, therefore, Delos provided a particularly attractive opportunity for acquiring ancient Greek objects, so it drew a disproportionate number of travelers with antiquarian interests.

Not everyone, however, could go to Delos. It was a long and expensive trip, beset with the risk of shipwreck or piracy. A market existed, however, to see Delos (and other Greek islands) from afar, which brings me to the images I wish to share with you.

The title page of Olfert Dapper's Description exacte des isles de l'archipel, et de quelques autres adjacentes, an encyclopedic treatment of many islands in the eastern Mediterranean, including Delos

The title page of the French translation of Olfert Dapper’s Naukerige Beschryving der Eilanden in de Archipel, an encyclopedic treatment of many islands in the eastern Mediterranean. Aphrodite and Poseidon are in the foreground, while the figure on the right represents the Colossus of Rhodes. The figure on the left may represent Apollo, to whom Delos was sacred.

To help their readers imagine the far-flung locales through which they passed, early modern travel writers, like travel writers today, would usually include some illustrations. As the circulation of printed books expanded, it had never been easier for European readers to get a glimpse of life elsewhere. At the same time, these images were often fantastical or exaggerated, and to make things more difficult, we often don’t know where they come from. Sometimes artists traveled abroad, like Guillame-Joseph Grelot or Cornelis de Bruijn, whose accounts were illustrated with engravings based on drawings they themselves had made, or an author could hire an artist to journey with them. Even in these cases, the quality of images could vary, if the artist was in a hurry, or was poorly trained, or if he saw just what he wanted to see. In other cases, however, the artist behind a travelogue’s engravings was himself an armchair artist, relying on some combination of imagination, text, and previously published images, which he might just copy. If the artist did copy an earlier image, it wasn’t common to attribute it, so we often can’t tell an image’s original source.

Olfert Dapper’s voluminous Naukeurige Beschryving der Eilanden in de Archipel der Middelantsche Zee, a 1688 Dutch encylcopedia of the Mediterranean islands, was among those books whose information and illustrations were both compiled from secondary sources. Dapper (1636-1689) was born in Amsterdam and never traveled farther from it than Utrecht. C. Decker, the engraver whose name appears on Dapper’s two images of Delos, also seems unlikely to have visited the Greek islands. It was an expensive trip! So where did Decker get his images of Delos? Nobody has studied where Dapper got his images from in this volume, but the sources of Decker’s two engravings of Delos, at least, are clear. An 1893 article revealed the source of Dapper’s second illustration of the island, while last week, I discovered the source of the first.

The statue of Apollo on Delos, at p. 368 of the translation of Dapper’s work into French. Corresponds with the engraving at p. 174 in the Dutch original. (The Dutch pagination restarts several times.) See Decker’s name in one of the stones on the bottom left.

The statue of Apollo on Delos, at p. 368 of the translation of Dapper’s work into French. Corresponds with the engraving at p. 174 in the Dutch original. (The Dutch pagination restarts several times.) See Decker’s name in one of the stones on the bottom left.

This strikingly beautiful image from Dapper’s Description exacte des isles de l’archipel, et de quelques autres adjacentes, the 1703 French translation of his Naukeurige Beschryving der Eilanden that shares all the same images in order, down to the artist’s name on the plates, may not be very accurate. (I’ve been working with the French translation because that’s the copy available at Dumbarton Oaks.)

Dapper’s source, as identified by Salomon Reinach in 1893, seems to have been the image below, which was created in the seventeenth century by an “unknown artist” (129). Unfortunately, I have not been able to track this image any earlier than Reinach’s article, since all the bibliographic information he gives about it is that he found it in the “Bibliothèque Impériale de Vienne” in 1891. (This is now the the Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, or the Austrian National Library.)

Reinach, 652, Plates V and VI. The upper plate is the image in question.

Reinach, 652, Plates V and VI. The upper plate is the image in question.

Without a precise date for this engraving, it could have been taken from Decker’s work, or Decker could have copied it. Although both of images exaggerate the height of Mt. Kynthos (see Deb’s photo for comparison), Reinach believed that Decker’s had more “fantastical details,” like “the kind of out-of-place contruction [on the right],” and that the anonymous engraving was therefore Decker’s source (139-140). I am inclined to agree with Reinach, although it could go either way.

Dapper’s Kynthos, p. 372 of the French edition and p. 167 of the original Dutch.

Dapper’s Kynthos, p. 372 of the French edition and p. 167 of the original Dutch.

As I was turning the pages of Dapper’s book and came upon this image, I stopped, because I knew that I had seen it before. It came from Wheler’s A Journey into Greece, I thought, which had come out in 1682. After looking up the page number in my earlier notes, I was able to turn to Wheler’s rendering of Mt. Kynthos, which follows.

Wheler's Kynthos, p. 58

Wheler’s Kynthos, p. 58

George Wheler and Jacob Spon traveled together in the eastern Mediterranean in the mid 1670s, and Wheler published his account of the journey in 1682. (Spon published a travelogue in 1676, but it did not share this image). Decker’s engraving is dated from 1684, as you can see on the bottom left, so it was based on an image published just two years earlier! While Dapper may not have traveled himself, this image shows that his work draws on the latest contemporary sources. We don’t know what all of Dapper’s sources were, but we now know one more than we did last week.

The two images, side by side.

The two images, side by side


Bruneau, Philippe, and Jean Ducat. Guide de Délos. Third edition. Paris: École Française d’Athènes, 1983.

Dapper, Olfert. Description exacte des isles de l’archipel, et de quelques autres adjacentes. Translation. Amsterdam: G. Gallet, 1703.

Dapper, Olfert. Naukeurige beschryving der eilanden, in de archipel der Middelantsche zee. Amsterdam: Voor Wolfgangh, Waesbergen, Boom, Someren en Goethals, 1688.

The Homeric Hymns. Edited and translated by Apostolos N. Athanassakis. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004.

Noy, David. “Dreams inspired by Phoebus: Western visitors to Delos from the seventeenth to the nineteenth century.” International Journal of the Classical Tradition 18, no. 3 (2011): 372-392.

Reinach, Salomon. “Le colosse d’Apollon à Délos.” Bulletin de correspondance hellénique 17 (1893): 129-144.

Vergil. Bucolics, Aeneid, and Georgics of Vergil. Edited by J. B. Greenough. Boston: Ginn & Co. 1900.

Wills, Jr., John E. “Author, Publisher, Patron, World: A Case Study of Old Books and Global Consciousness.” Journal of Early Modern History 13, no. 5 (2009): 375-433.

Engravings and their Makers

by doconversationsblog

This post is provided by Anne Marie Creighton, who joins us this year as a research fellow in the Dumbarton Oaks Library.

For the past month, I have been leafing through centuries-old books. My task? To take notes on those rare books at Dumbarton Oaks that pertain to the Byzantine heritage of Ottoman Constantinople, recording my summaries of their illustrations, condition, and contents. So far, I have gone through between three and five thousand pages, depending on how you count them, in a dozen books in English, French, Spanish, Italian, Dutch, and Latin. I am approaching this project in chronological order, so to date I have worked with books published between 1545 and 1700. Among these books, I have been dismayed to learn how easily the leather of a cracking spine can leave red dust marks on my gloves, and I have gotten to know the delight of discovering passages and illustrations that surprise and charm, like the two engravings I’m sharing here today.

As an aside, I need to emphasize that I am not reading all of these books—I don’t even know all the languages in which they’re written. I have sometimes ended up doing a lot of reading to figure out books that proved particularly challenging, but, in general, the combination of a book’s table of contents, some light skimming, and modern studies of the book does the trick. I cannot emphasize enough what a wonderful advance the table of contents forms in the history of communication. Indexes, too.

My current shelf of books to work on

My current shelf of books to work on

The impetus for this post, however, comes from the Pre-Columbian Studies program in Dumbarton Oaks’ rare book collections—when our last shipment of books for digitization returned from Harvard, Bridget Gazzo, the Librarian for Pre-Columbian Studies, pointed out a fabulous pair of images to me that now lie at the end of this post. These images, an engraving of an astronomer and the original pencil drawing on which the engraving was based, got me thinking about the process of printing images. After that, I found an image from a book in my Byzantine work that also, I thought, brought home the humanity of the people who made the volume, even so many centuries later. The two books also make a good match because their authors—Charles du Fresne, sieur du Cange, a Byzantinist, and Charles-Marie de La Condamine, an astronomer—were both titans in their respective fields. I suppose it is also a testament to the culture of scholarship in early modern France that these two men were experts in topics as varied as Byzantine studies and astronomy!

A page of coins. Charles du Fresne du Cange,

A page of coins. Charles du Fresne du Cange, Historia Byzantina, before p. 1 [2nd set].

This engraving is from the Historia Byzantina of Charles du Cange, which is one of the foundational modern texts for the study of Byzantine history. Du Cange was a French nobleman in the seventeenth century with deep interests in medieval and classical studies. He has the rare honor of being called the father of two academic fields—both Byzantine and medieval Latin studies. Byzantine numismatics was among Du Cange’s many interests, so the thousand-odd page Historia includes about fifty pages of illustrations of coins, like this one. After seeing so many coins, I was starting to pay a little less attention, until we discovered the page above.

Printing an early modern engraving was a tricky business. In the period of this book, ink had to be made carefully, by hand, and often, so that it would stay fresh. Applying the ink to a carved wood block or an engraved metal plate that would create the image was another task, as was properly dampening the page. Ink would leave only a faint image on a page that was too dry; a page that was too wet, meanwhile, would cause the ink to smudge, or the paper itself to crease.

Sometimes, accustomed to modern books, I forget how much human labor was required to make books like this one. This error—whether the plate was printed upside down or whether, once printed, it was bound into the book incorrectly—makes the process of making these books seem more vivid to me.

An astronomer makes observations. Charles-Marie de La Condamine, Mesure des trois premiers degrés du méridien dans l’hémisphere austral, 105.

An astronomer makes observations. Charles-Marie de La Condamine, Mesure des trois premiers degrés du méridien dans l’hémisphere austral, 105.

This image, which Bridget pointed out to me, is the reason I started thinking about engravings this week in the first place. It comes from a title that records one of the most important eighteenth-century scientific expeditions in South America, one that set out to get south of the equator so that the members of the expedition could measure the shape of the earth. On the title page for La Condamine’s work about this effort, therefore, an engraving shows an astronomer taking measurements at night, hard at work by candlelight.

Printing an image like this almost always required the artistic services of both an artist – in this case P. Clavareau – and an engraver. By happy circumstance, Dumbarton Oaks has both Clavareau’s drawing and the engraver’s rendering of it.

"astronome par observation" (?) Pencil drawing by P. Clavareau. See the end of this post for bibliographic information.

“astronome par observation” (?) Pencil drawing by P. Clavareau. See the end of this post for bibliographic information.

You can see how differently textures work in graphite, even graphite done to preview an engraving, and in a print like this one. Graphite is soft, and can create flat shaded surfaces, uniformly gray, while the engraving requires that black be created through narrow lines, which even in the deepest shadows alternate white and dark.

Here are the two images side by side. Notice that they are the same size, and mirror images of each other. These are both characteristic of the way engravings like these were printed. To see more about this book, don’t neglect to look at the fully digitized copy!

A comparison of the two images of the astronomer

A comparison of the two images of the astronomer


Charles du Fresne du Cange, Historia Byzantina duplici commentario illustrata (Lutetiae Parisiorum: Apud Ludovicium Billaine, 1680), [HOLLIS].

Charles-Marie de La Condamine, Mesure des trois premiers degrés du méridien dans l’hémisphere austral, (Paris: De l’Imprimerie royale, 1751) [HOLLIS]. The HOLLIS record also includes further information about the drawing. The digitized version of this book is available here.

Happy Halloween!

by doconversationsblog


“The head of St. John the Baptist, which is cut off and honored in the cathedral church of Ambianens”

Charles du Fresne du Cange, Historia Byzantina duplici commentario illustrata (Lutetiae Parisiorum: Apud Ludovicium Billaine, 1680), 101 [3rd set].

Before the Rosetta Stone

by doconversationsblog

This post is provided by Anne Marie Creighton, who joins us this year as a research fellow in the Dumbarton Oaks Library.

Something about ancient Egypt sets people’s curiosity alight, making them wonder about its temples and kings, its writing and history. Ever since the proverbial sightseers from classical Greece, writing tourist graffiti on monuments already ancient in 500 B.C., the great pyramids by the Nile have been attracting both travelers and outlandish speculation. Today’s blog post is about both of these things as they appear in the work of George Sandys, an Englishman who visited Egypt in the seventeenth century and whose book included, among other things, his theories about how hieroglyphs worked.

"The entrance in to the Groat Pyramis" - "So that always stooping, and sometimes  creeping, by reason of the rubbidge, we descended (not by stairs, but as down the steep of a hill) a hundred feet, where the place for a little circuit enlarged"

“So that always stooping, and sometimes creeping, by reason of the rubbidge, we descended…” —  Sandys and his companions enter a pyramid (101)

Between the fourth or fifth century A.D., when the use of Egyptian hieroglyphs died out, and the beginning of modern Egyptology in the wake of Napoleon’s expedition there, nobody in the west could read hieroglyphs. That did not stop European travelers and thinkers, however, from trying. Before the discovery of the Rosetta Stone in 1799, most European attempts to read them were based on the premise that hieroglyphs were a symbolic system, where each symbol represented an idea. A hieroglyph of a fish, for instance, might represent a fish, or perhaps the ocean, or the idea of “hatred,” as we’ll see below. If they could just figure out the correspondences for each hieroglyph, they thought, they would unlock the writing system.

The key to understanding hieroglyphs, however, is that they are not a purely symbolic system. It’s true that many hieroglyphs are symbols that represent an idea or a word rather than a sound, like Chinese characters do. However, Egyptian hieroglyphs also include phonetic sounds (n is “n”) and determinative characters that provide information like gender or size. These two other types of character threw off European attempts to decode Egyptian hieroglyphs until the Rosetta Stone helped scholars figure it out.

When George Sandys traveled to Egypt, however, it was still two centuries before that discovery, so nobody had any handle on hieroglyphs. Sandys was a translator, traveler, and colonist, who lived from 1578 to 1644. He has one of those rare biographies that connects to both Dumbarton Oaks’ Byzantine and Pre-Columbian Studies programs, actually; he both spent a few years living in the Virginia Colony and published an account of his travels to Ottoman Turkey, Palestine, and Egypt in 1615. (While he was in Virginia, in the 1620s, he tangled with the local American Indians. That encounter went poorly for the English.) In Egypt, Sandys made sure to visit the ruins of the great pyramids, as we saw above, getting a tour inside one by torchlight. Fascinated by ancient Egyptian culture, Sandys also provided a rendering of some hieroglyphs he had seen—whether in person or reproduced in another book about Egypt—a passage “said to be pourtraicted within the Porch of Minerva’s Temple in the City of Sai.”

"Hieroglyphicks" (82)

“Hieroglyphicks” (82)

Sandys explained hieroglyphs as follows:

Their Letters were invented by Mercury, who writ from the right hand to the left, as do all the Africans. But in holy things especially they expressed their conceits by Hieroglyphicks, which consist of significant figures: whereof there are yet many to be seen, though hardly to be interpreted.

His attempted translation of the hieroglyphs above was:

The Infant signifieth those that enter into the World, and the Old man those that go out of it, the Falcon, God; the Fish, hatred, because they hated fish that bred in the Sea, which symbolized Typhon; and by the River-horse, murder, impudence, and injustice: for they say that he killeth his Sire, and ravisheth his own Dam, which put together importeth, O you that enter the World, and go out of it; God hateth injustice.

This translation, of course, is not even close; nobody in the seventeenth century could have translated this passage. To my dismay, the engraving of the hieroglyphs is so stylized that I doubt it would be possible to reconstruct their actual meaning. That said, how interesting is it to see a seventeenth century person grapple with this language! Is the River-horse supposed to be a hippo? I don’t know, but I was so excited to share this when I found it. (source: p. 81-82)

George Sandys, Sandys travels, 7th ed. (London : Printed for John Williams junior, 1673). [HOLLIS]

Later flowers for the bees

by doconversationsblog

This post is provided by Anne Marie Creighton, who joins us this year as a research fellow in the Dumbarton Oaks Library.

The lady ginkgoes are dropping their weird, squashy fruit all over the sidewalks and the glossy, dark-fruited chokeberries have sprouted and died, which means it’s finally full fall here in Georgetown. It’s a sunny day at Dumbarton Oaks, and the signs of autumn fill the gardens. Between the pinks and oranges rapidly appearing among the green of the summer leaves and the fall flowers blooming with every shade of the rainbow, the gardens are brimming over with color.

Flowers in the Dumbarton Oaks gardens, October 17

Flowers in the Dumbarton Oaks gardens, October 17

As great as the gardens look today, a wild palette of fall color can also be found inside the Dumbarton Oaks Rare Book Room. In the eighteenth century, gardeners could buy seeds from beautifully illustrated seed catalogs, showing fruit, flowers, or both. One of the first of these, and so beautiful that its illustrations were reproduced in new editions long after they stopped serving as a catalog, was Twelve Months of Flowers, circulated by Robert Furber. (He was the subject of a previous blog post here.) Below, to match the season, is the image for October. Although they’re faint in this image, each flower is numbered and labeled below. The large yellow flower at the very center of the image, for instance, is a yellow poppy, a perennial. Each of these flowers would have been available for purchase from Furber’s business, as was the print itself separate from the catalog.

Twelve Months of Flowers: October

Twelve Months of Flowers: October

The Twelve Months of Flowers, published in 1730, was very popular, and followed two years later by Twelve Months of Fruit. The image for October is below, full of cherries and apples and pears. None of these varieties seem to be common today, at least under the names they have here, but I think they look delicious.

Twelve Years of Fruit: October

Twelve Years of Fruit: October

Furber, Robert. Twelve Months of Flowers: From the Collection of Robt. Furber, Gardiner at Kensington. London: s.n, 1730. [HOLLIS]

Furber, Robert. Twelve Plates of Fruit: From the Collection of Robt. Furber, Gardiner at Kensington. London: s.n, 1732.  [HOLLIS]


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