Suzanne Karr-Schmidt on Printed Scientific Instruments

Picture a sundial and you’ll probably think of an object made from brass or another type of metal. But in early modern Europe you could find versions of a sundial and other scientific instruments constructed from paper.

Suzanne Karr-Schmidt, the Andrew W. Mellon Curatorial Fellow in the Art Institute of Chicago’s Department of Prints and Drawings, knows quite a lot about printed scientific instruments. You can find her essay on the subject in the catalogue that accompanies the exhibition Prints and the Pursuit of Knowledge in Early Modern Europe. You can also hear her speak on the topic at the Block at the end of February.

We asked Karr-Schmidt to give us a preview of her gallery talk, which takes place at 6 pm on Wednesday, February 29.

Q: How did Nuremberg become a center for the production of printed scientific instruments in the 16th century? What types of instruments were made there?

A: In the mid-13th century, Nuremberg was one of the free imperial cities of the Holy Roman Empire. This meant that the Emperor would use it as a seat for assemblies of the Imperial Estates every few years, making it an important political center. The visiting noblemen were in need of luxury goods, and with some 150 crafts being practiced there, economic prosperity followed. Besides being a center for painters and printmakers, there was a very active association of sundial-makers, as well as a variety of independent workshops where globes, astrolabes, sundials, nocturnals, and other instruments were made in a variety of materials.

Q: What were the advantages, for producers and users, of printed instruments over ones constructed of metal or ivory? Were there disadvantages?

A: A printed instrument was cheap, portable, and easy to produce in bulk, as all it required was a carved woodblock or an engraved or etched copper plate, paper, ink, and a press. Woodblocks could produce several thousand impressions, and copper plates at least a thousand. These would be glued to wood or paper board supports, often by the buyers, which meant the printers could spend their time printing more impressions, or updating the plates for new and improved editions. Paper instruments were sometimes colored and varnished to look and act like the real thing, but relatively few have survived. The main disadvantages would be that the materials weren’t as permanent as metal, wood, or ivory, and the glue that was used to affix them to their supports probably contributed to their eventual destruction, whether by discoloring the prints or attracting insects.

Q: Who was George Hartmann and what was his significance in the development of printed instruments?

A: Georg Hartmann was a priest, mathematician, instrument-maker and printmaker who lived in Nuremburg from around 1518 to his death in 1564. He began to make his own printed instruments in the late 1520s and is probably the most prolific instrument printer of all time, with some 75 that have been identified, with sundials (in multiple shapes) and astrolabes being the most common. He had experimented with small-scale mass production in his instrument workshop for brass astrolabes, and so it was not necessarily a big step to go from that to woodcut and engraved versions. His sundial prints in particular were probably not appreciated by the strict Sundial-Makers association, of which he was not a member, as their statutes soon after his death forbade this type of shortcut!

Q: For whom did Hartmann produce printed instruments? Were these instruments easily constructed by their users?

A: Hartmann sent a shipment of his ‘instruments on paper’ to his patron, the Duke Albert of Prussia, in the 1540s, and wrote several letters about them. These may have ended up being saved in albums, rather than being cut out, but a larger album now in Munich that probably came from Hartmann’s workshop shows that later owners (possibly other artists or printmakers) experimented with the prints, cutting out and constructing parts of them.  There was probably some difficulty in assembling them, and in fact several prints came with embedded instructions, but for users accustomed to the same instruments in more permanent materials, the functionality should have been the same.

Q: What printed instruments in the exhibition should visitors not miss?

A: The Georg Hartmann Cruciform Sundial woodcut is a unique survivor, in an amazingly deeply embossed, unused impression. He probably worked with an artist from Albrecht Dürer’s workshop on the design, and it is one of his most visually successful instruments. In contrast, the vitrine with the brass astrolabe, the booklet of uncut astrolabe engravings, and the engraved astrolabe constructed on a wooden core is an amazing testament to Hartmann’s range of production. The constructed astrolabe, from Oxford, is not in pristine condition, but we’re lucky that any have survived!

Join Suzanne Karr-Schmidt and Bruce Stephenson, curator of the Adler Planetarium and Astronomy Museum’s Webster Institute for the History of Astronomy, for the gallery talk Printed Scientific Instruments at 6 pm on Wednesday, February 29 in the Block Museum’s Main Gallery.

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