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Jacques de Gheyn II, Great Lion, c. 1590.

Prints + Pursuit of Knowledge in Early Modern Europe | Block Museum

Block Museum shows prints by 16th-century artists like Albrecht Durer.


Yeah, yeah, your iPhone is great. I’m sure it can tell you what time sunrise and moonrise will be. But can it also cast horoscopes, offer advice on bleeding (the medical technique) and help you determine when to sow your crops?

The Sun and Moon Instrument (1534) designed by Hans Holbein the Younger and Sebastian Münster combines all of these apps in a woodcut with movable dials. Such low-tech but sophisticated tools fill this exhibition, which reveals how prints by Northern Renaissance art stars like Albrecht Dürer shaped the history of science.

Curated by Harvard Art Museums’ Susan Dackerman, “Prints and the Pursuit of Knowledge…” presents exquisite maps, pictures of newly discovered animals, mathematical diagrams and anatomical illustrations. Numerous prints intended to be cut up and assembled into sundials, globes and other devices are also on view. Visitors can try out facsimiles: Don’t miss Heinrich Vogtherr’s proto–pop-up books—two anatomical “flap prints.”

While some prints disseminate scientists’ and explorers’ findings, others reflect the artists’ research. Distinctions between disciplines were much less rigid during the 16th century; the show includes Dürer’s treatises on measurement and on the proportions of the human body, which he based on his own studies.

A new scientific emphasis on direct observation influenced Jacques de Gheyn II’s Great Lion (pictured, c. 1590). The naturalism of the lion indicates that the Dutch artist probably saw it in person—a big improvement over the secondhand, inaccurate Rhinoceros that Dürer printed 75 years before.

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