Posted by: whipplelib | February 26, 2015

More reflections on ‘Science in Print’

Jose Beltran, a PhD student from the European University Institute in Florence, was a Visiting Student at the Department of History and Philosophy of Science during the Michaelmas Term 2014, and joined us for the ‘Science in Print’ series. Here he offers some reflections on how the seminars have helped his thesis work and beyond:

The “Science in Print” graduate seminar, led by Roger Gaskell, Anna Jones and Jim Secord, was one of the graduate training series I attended at the University of Cambridge during my stay in the Michaelmas term 2014 as visiting PhD student at HPS. The seminar covered in five sessions the most significant aspects of bibliographical analysis and the history of early-modern and nineteenth-century book production. Three elements of originality deserve to be highlighted. First, the seminar did not only cover the hand-press period (roughly the 16th to the 18th centuries), but also the mechanical-press period (the 19th century). Although an early-modern historian, the session on mechanical-press book production gave me a very useful perspective on the bibliographical production of my own period.

Second, the seminar succeeded in the delicate exercise of combining theory and practice. The stunning collections of the Whipple Library—and the convenient location of this at the heart of the department—make this kind of seminar very difficult to reproduce in other institutions. Original copies of pivotal works of the history of science were under our eyes for close inspection during virtually all the sessions. The restricted number of participants permitted a fantastically close interaction not only with the materials, but also with the faculty. The varied expertise of the three conveners (a curator, a bibliographer, and a book historian) helped to sustain the high-quality level and far-reaching ambitions of the seminar. It is also important to say that even if these kind of practicalities seem to stir more enthusiasm than theory, the seminar gave an introduction to material and descriptive bibliography that has very much transformed my way of working with printed sources. In any case, the important aspect of the almost constant handling of books is that it effectively transmitted what I think was one of the most crucial messages of the seminar: that there is an immense gap between the non-existent ideal version of a book and the multiple copies of it, and that it is with the materiality of these variegated copies, issues and editions that the historian has to work.

Third, particular attention was given during the whole seminar to images, and this was a particularly compelling element for me. My doctoral dissertation revolves around the work of the French Minim friar Charles Plumier (1646-1704), Royal Botanist to the King Louis XIV, well-travelled natural historian, and accomplished draftsman. It interrogates, through this specific case study, the role of visual representation in the daily work of naturalists travelling overseas in late-seventeenth- and early-eighteenth-century France. In this sense, the Science in Print seminar was crucial to help me think anew the visual printed sources I am using in my thesis, and how their material specificities are the symptoms of not only the technical, but also the socio-cultural circumstances in which they were produced.

Among the points raised during the seminar while consulting and discussing concrete woodcut and intaglio book illustrations, there was one that has been especially influential in the writing of my thesis, namely the problem of fixity. Fixity has been one of the key notions in the history of book in recent decades, and particularly in the controversy between Elisabeth Eisenstein and Adrian Johns. Yet the existence or lack of fixity as a result of the culture of print has mainly been explored in the case of texts: images were assumed to be naturally less mutable than texts when a work was reedited, simply because the same plates tended to be re-used while a text has always to be entirely recast. After the ‘Science in Print’ seminar, however, I went back to my printed sources and I was urged to rethink fixity in the case of printed images, since the same copperplates were sometimes modified so as to adapt them to a book with a new target audience, or simply to adapt to new social, cultural, and economic circumstances. In other words, the seminar compelled me to go far beyond the traditional and simplistic polarity in the history of printmaking between intaglio and woodcut printing.

I would like to conclude with one specific illustration of the process of intaglio printing that struck me in particular, namely an etching from Abraham Bosse’s 1645 Traicté de la manière de graver en taille douce sur l’airin, a reproduction of which was circulated in the seminar. The image presents the scene of a printmaker’s shop: on the right, an engraver carves lines with a burin on a copperplate; on the left, an etcher incises through the dark acid-resistant patina covering his plate. At the back of the shop, two friars observe printed images made with the traditional and painstaking technique of engraving, while a nobleman admires a landscape done with a relatively new technique of etching, more convenient (etchings were slightly easier to make than engravings), and somehow mundane in comparison to the perceived austerity of engraving. Furthermore the etcher, whose technique was similar to drawing enough so as to be practiced by amateurs, wears the robbe de ville of the honnête homme; the burin engraver, whose complex art was rarely practiced by non-professional craftsmen, wears the bonnet of the artisan. Bosse’s etching is a fantastic example of one of the most significant contributions of bibliography to the historian: the idea that the correct understanding of the techniques involved in the production of books, both in the hand- and the machine-press periods, are consequential for the interpretation of the social and cultural worlds in which those books lived. The “Science in Print” seminar succeeded in conveying a master message: there cannot be a solidly grounded history having books for objects of inquiry without basic notions of bibliography. The five sessions taught its attendants, both in practice and theory, these essential notions. In this sense, the seminar has been consequential not only in the writing of my doctoral thesis, but also in my education as a historian.


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