Geometry and the Artist-Scientist


One of the highlights of Prints and the Pursuit of Knowledge in Early Modern Europe at the Block Museum is a series of dazzlingly elaborate etchings of complex geometrical shapes, found in the Alsdorf Gallery portion of the exhibition, by the German artist Jost Amman. The prints are plates from an influential book by Wenzel Jamnitzer, a promiment Nuremberg goldsmith, published in 1568.

Northwestern University art history graduate student Kathleen Tahk, who contributed to the Prints and the Pursuit of Knowledge catalogue, spoke with Medill School undergraduate Claire C. Brown about the work of Amman and Jamnitzer.

Q: Who were Jost Amman and Wenzel Jamnitzer and how did they work together?

A: Amman and Jamnitzer were both artists active in 16th-century Nuremburg. By trade, Jamnitzer worked as a goldsmith, and his workshop produced pieces for many princely collections throughout Europe, particularly for the Hapsburg Emperors Maximilian II and Rudolf II. Jamnitzer’s activities, however, extended far beyond metalwork to include the composition of a theoretical treatise (the Perspectiva corporum regularium) and the design of scientific instruments.

Less is known about Amman, who was not as prominent during his life as Jamnitzer. He was an etcher/engraver, who collaborated with several different artists. His primary project with Jamnitzer was the Perspectiva, for which he produced all of the plates, probably after drawings by Jamnitzer himself. In essence, Amman translated Jamnitzer’s designs into the detailed and crisply etched forms, which are so striking in the prints.

Q: What was the significance and impact of their major collaboration, the Perspectiva corporum regularium?

With the Perspectiva Jamnitzer produced his own unique contribution to the study of geometrical bodies. The book focuses on the five Platonic solids, which were a major subject of interest for Jamnitzer’s contemporaries, and develops from them a series of complex permutations of form. The final plates of the book increasingly elaborate geometrical structures, which call to mind some of Jamnitzer’s own virtuoso metalwork. One of the most striking features of the Perspectiva is the dominance of image over text—the vast majority of its pages are illustrations—which suggests that Jamnitzer considered these visual representations to provide access to a knowledge of geometric form that a textual explanation could not provide.

Though the Perspectiva is the only book Jamnitzer published, its impact seems to have been significant. It circulated widely, especially at the Hapsburg court. Perhaps most significantly, the astronomer Johannes Kepler, one of the most important scientific minds of the period, owned a copy, which many even have influenced his 1596 model of the planetary orbits based on the Platonic solids.

Q: In Amman’s portrait of Jamnitzer, Jamnitzer is depicted looking very much like a scientist. Why do you think Amman chose to portray him like this rather than in a more artistic-looking way?

A: Amman’s portrait of Jamnitzer is indeed striking because it does not include any signs of his professional identity as a goldsmith. Instead, Jamnitzer appears in the guise of a bearded scholar, operating a perspective machine of his own devising. This portrayal of Jamnitzer reflects his own self-conception as an artist-scientist, who integrated artisanal practice with scientific observation. When the portrait was made, Jamnitzer already had a prominent reputation as a goldsmith, and this image seems to be an attempt to redefine his identity as a scholar rather than a mere craftsman. Jamnitzer’s desire to move from the status of artisan to that of scholar points to the convergence of art and science at this moment in early modern Europe, which the exhibition investigates.

Q: What was the experience of contributing entries to a major catalogue like for you?

A: I was extremely fortunate to have the opportunity to contribute to the catalogue for such an significant exhibition. My involvement in the catalogue came out of a graduate seminar in fall 2009 with Professor Claudia Swan, where we had the pleasure of a visit from Susan Dackerman, who was then organizing the exhibition. I have a longstanding interest in Jamnitzer, so it was very satisfying to see him included in the catalogue and even more satisfying to be able to write the entries. Because the exhibition was organized at Harvard, I had to compose my entries here in Chicago while in long-distance correspondence with Susan Dackerman. As a result, the opening of the show here at the Block is especially exciting for me, since this is my first chance to see the full exhibition with which I have been involved for so long.

IMAGES: Jost Amman, after Wenzel Jamnitzer, Plate AV, from Jamnitzer, Perspectiva corporum regularium, Nuremberg, 1568, etching. New Hollstein, 44.6, Staatliche Graphische Sammlung München, 14988D. Detail from Jost Amman, Portrait of Wenzel Jamnitzer: Goldsmith, Mathematician, Instrument Maker, c. 1572–75, etching. Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Anonymous Fund for the Acquisition of Prints Older than 150 Years, 2007.189. Photo: Department of Digital Imaging and Visual Resources, Harvard Art Museums, © 2011 President and Fellows of Harvard College.

Kathleen Tahk and fellow graduate student Stephanie Glickman will discuss Wenzel Jamnitzer in depth when they lead the gallery talk Geometry and the Artist Scientist on Thursday, January 26 at 6 pm.

The catalogue Prints and the Pursuit of Knowledge in Early Modern Europe is available in the Block Museum’s book shop.

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