Thursday, December 7, 2017

Book Review / Florike Egmond's An Eye For Detail: Images of Plants and Animals in Art and Science, 1500–1630

In 2003, while browsing through images of sixteenth century naturalia housed in Amsterdam University Library, Ms Egmond came across a collection of non-attributed drawings and watercolours. It was only ten years later that the collectors were identified as Conrad Gessner* and Felix Plater. Though other images from that period are featured also in Eye For Detail, it is this treasure trove** brought back into the light after languishing in a forgotten state which casts a sparkle over her exacting scholarship, that is, once the reader catches the few lines near the book's end that matter-a-factly and without hubris divulges this intriguing nugget of information. The graceful relationship the author has with her own painstaking research reflects a similar though more tenuous one that several naturalists of the sixteenth century based in a geographical area spanning Belgium, Netherlands, Switzerland, Germany, and Italy shared with each other.

The author's thesis which is put together layer by intricate layer is that the embracing of science did not cause a rupture from the style, scope, and use of images already established before its blossoming. The visual handle did not erupt fully formed just because science had such tools like the microscope. However, since so much more information eventually supplied by advanced technological methodology was lacking, it is that century's grasp of concepts such as regeneration which can be justifiably perceived as being disjointed.

Egmond's account is a carefully wrought one, rich in details with each point expanding into generously broader territory thereby ensuring stimulation and satisfaction of intellectual curiosity. As a passionate lover of plantsmy first love was a morning glory, the second was a lilac, and by the time my next crush revealed itself to be a pansy, I realised this serial monogamy meant I adored all that is within their kingdom—I found her ability to weave together the challenging tapestry of art and science as fascinating as those members of that remarkable club with which I am smitten. Though scholarly, her writing never loses its passion.

  *Gessner was a Renaissance polymath and is regarded as the father of botany, zoology, and bibliography. Anna Pavord, the gardening writer, aptly puts it: He was an one-man search engine, a 16th-century Google with the added bonus of critical evaluation.
**Some of the wonderful animal images re-discovered by Egmond are in this Guardian article

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Publisher of Eye For Detail