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ART REVIEW | Renaissance art

Renaissance art in the service of science

16th-century prints served to disseminate knowledge

“Map of the Northern Celestial Hemisphere’’ (1515), executed by Albrecht Durer and Johannes Stabius. “Map of the Northern Celestial Hemisphere’’ (1515), executed by Albrecht Durer and Johannes Stabius.
By Mark Feeney
Globe Staff / September 5, 2011

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CAMBRIDGE - We think of woodcuts, engravings, and etchings - prints - in the same way that we think of paintings and sculptures: as art. So they are, of course. But in the 16th century the capacity of prints for reproducibility and the manipulability of paper made printmaking an extremely effective example of what we would now call communications technology.

Prints provided as ideal a form for the burgeoning content that was scientific knowledge as was available in the late Renaissance. “Prints and the Pursuit of Knowledge in Early Modern Europe,’’ an engrossing, even enchanting exhibition that opens tomorrow at Harvard’s Arthur M. Sackler Museum, offers a varied and extensive look at art in the service of science in 16th-century northern Europe (Germany and the Netherlands especially). The show, which has been curated by Susan Dackerman, runs through Dec. 10.

How varied and extensive? There are nearly 200 items on display. In addition to prints, they include maps, books, anatomical charts, and scientific instruments. Among the latter are facsimile reproductions of sundials, astrolabes, and the like, which viewers are encouraged to touch and hold. It’s an attractive feature, an example of how “Prints and the Pursuit of Knowledge’’ manages to demonstrate viewer friendliness along with impressive scholarly heft.

Equally impressive is the quality of the art. Among artists with works in the show are Albrecht Durer, Hans Baldung, Lucas Cranach the Elder, Hans Holbein the Younger, and Martin Schongauer. If “Prints and the Pursuit of Knowledge’’ has a star, it’s Durer. There are familiar items from him here: his “Rhinoceros’’ and “Melancholia,’’ for example. But there are also studies of human proportionality and maps of the celestial hemispheres. He executed the latter with Johannes Stabius, in 1515. They’re the first printed renderings of the constellations of the Northern and Southern Hemispheres. Exciting as is their lively, intricate beauty (note what looks like a modern-day top hat on the head of the astronomer who appears in the upper-right-hand corner of the Northern Hemisphere map), the advance they marked in human knowledge is vastly more so.

There’s something thrilling about witnessing a culture in the process of learning that the real can be more astonishing than the fantastical. One can still feel a sense of shock in this newfound pursuit of precision and measurement. This is a past that, anything but dead, visibly teems with interrogation, discovery, reexamination.

Looking at the many maps in the show, one sees guesswork giving way to exactitude. The rubric earlier mapmakers resorted to, “There be monsters,’’ that notorious concession of ignorance, is nowhere to be found here. Instead, we see real “monsters’’ realistically portrayed: not just Durer’s rhinoceros (and other artists’ variants on his rendering), but also an elephant by Schongauer, an anonymous artist’s beached pilot whale, and so on.

Then as now, the scariest monster of all is the human being. One of the century’s scientific heroes was Andreas Vesalius, the founder of the study of anatomy. A new, more realistic approach to documenting the human body is evident throughout “Prints and the Pursuit of Knowledge.’’ Sometimes the results of that approach really can be scary, as in Hans von Gersdorff and Hans Wechtlin the Elder’s “Instruments for Use in Cranial Surgery,’’ which is taken from a field manual for treating battlefield wounds. Grotesque and arresting, the images are worthy of that master of film horror Guillermo del Toro.

As for Heinrich Vogtherr the Elder’s hand-colored woodcuts “Anatomy, or, a Faithful Reproduction of the Body of a Female,’’ what we notice today is the technical expertise that allowed for the inclusion of a flap to impart dimensionality and allow for viewing of different organs. What contemporaries must have fastened on was those organs’ detailed rendering. The products of such previously unknown realism must have seemed even more grotesque to them than the pages from the cranial manual seem to us now.

Realism can take different forms. Mythology and the spell of the ancients remained very much a presence in the early modern era, but now with the occasional up-to-the-16th-century twist. Hendrick Goltzius’s 1589 engraving “The Great Hercules’’ doubles as exacting anatomy lesson. This is one strong man with serious muscle definition.

There is such a beauty in the actual. One sees it in Adrien Collaert’s flower and bird studies (the homely charm of his roses, the squawky appeal of his parrots) or, surpassingly, in Jacques de Gheyn II’s 1600 “Three Studies of a Dragonfly.’’ The ravishing delicacy of these ink drawings over black chalk remind us that close observation of nature didn’t just represent an expansion of knowledge in the 16th century but an aesthetic liberation, too.

Mark Feeney can be reached at mfeeney@globe.com.

PRINTS AND THE PURSUIT OF KNOWLEDGE IN EARLY MODERN EUROPE

At: the Arthur M. Sackler Museum, 485 Broadway, Cambridge, tomorrow through Dec. 10. Call 617-495-9400 or go to www.harvardart museums.org.