Sunday, December 25, 2011

Cosmographia Claudii Ptolomaei Alexandrini (15th Century)

Introduction to Europe Maps, part I: Ireland (Ibernie Insvle) and Great Britain (Albionis Insvle).

This cosmography was commissioned by Nicolaus Germanus in 1465 and dedicated to the Pope Paul II. Nicolaus Germanus (1420-1490) was a german cartographer, who lived temporally as a monk of Benedictine order, possibly on the Reichenbach Monastery, and later on a Benedictine Monastery close to Florencia, Italy ¿?. His works were of great value in diffusing the knowledges of Ptolemy's Geography. Apart of this Cosmography, I know that in Modena (Italy), the Bibliotheca Estensis has another latin translation of the Geography of Ptolemy, probably still not digitized. Another cosmography is also hosted at Lenox Library in New York. The most important characteristic of this Cosmography is that Nicolaus, instead of adhering to the flat projection of Ptolemy, chose what is known as the “Donis” projection system, that he invented, in which the parallels of latitude are equidistant, but meridians are made to converge towards the pole. This projection system is also known as “trapezoid projection”. Another interesting characteristic in this compilation is the introduction of updated maps for Spain, Italy and the Northern countries. 

Spain and Portugal. Nicolaus updated the official map for Spain with high detail (main cities and towns)

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Audubon's “Birds of America” (19th Century)

Blue jay specimen, eating other birds' eggs

John James Audubon (1785-1851) was a French-American naturist who developed a particular -and questionable, at least under my point of view- method for representing birds with extremely detailed illustrations in their natural habitats. This particular method consisted in killing the birds first with a very fine shot, using a special rifle to avoid damage the bodies. After that, he used wires and rigid metal bars to accommodate the bird in a natural position. This was a meticulous work: for a major specimen like an eagle, he would spend up to four 15-hour days, preparing, studying, and drawing it. His paintings of birds are set true-to-life in their natural habitat. He often portrayed them as if caught in motion, especially feeding or hunting. With the edition of his "Birds of America", published in 1842, he earned more than 30.000 dollars and around 1000 subscribers. With this money he bought an estate on the Hudson river, and for nearly 60 years a tract of land in upper Manhattan was known as Audubon Park...
Google Doodle published on on April 26th this year to celebrate J.J. Audubon 226th birthday

Audubon soon reached a high popularity: King George IV was an avid fan of Audubon's pictures. Was ellected as fellow by the London's Royal Society -second north american at Royal Society after Benjamin Franklin-. Charles Darwin quoted Audubon in his "On the Origin of Species". And continues in our days: last December 2010, a copy of "Birds of America" was sold at a Sotheby's auction for $11.5 million. On 26 April this year, Google celebrated his 226th birthday by displaying a special Google Doodle dedicated to J.J. Audubon.

J.J. Audubon with his special rifle, painting by John Syme

Yellow crowned night heron and little blue heron. This painting now hangs in the US White House.
Rough legged hawk
White pelican
Snowy owl

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Ars moriendi ("The Art of Dying"), 15th Century

Demons tempt the dying man with crowns (a medieval allegory to earthly pride) under the disapproving gaze of Mary, Christ and God.

Believe it or not, this codex provides protocols and procedures for a good death, explaining how to die well according to Christian precepts of the late Middle Ages. Hard to believe, but has an explanation: this amazing codex was written under influence and historical context of the effects of the Black Death which was one of the most devastating pandemics in human history caused by the bacteria “Yersinia Pestis”. Consequence: around 40% of total Europe population died in less than 2 years, between 1348 and 1350. Author of this book is unknown, theories point to a Dominican friar in Germany.
The book has the following chapters: 1) First chapter explains that dying has a good side, and serves to console the dying man that death is not something to be afraid of. 2) Second chapter outlines the five temptations that beset a dying man, and how to avoid them (lack of faith, despair, impatience, spiritual pride and avarice). 3) Third chapter lists the seven questions to ask a dying man. 4) Fourth chapter expresses the need to imitate Christ's life. 5) Fifth chapter addresses the friends and family, outlining the general rules of behavior at the deathbed. 6) Sixth chapter includes appropriate prayers to be said for a dying man.

Appropriate prayers to be said for a dying man (6th Chapter)
Representation of avarice temptation

Sunday, December 4, 2011

“Tashrih al-badan” (Anatomy of the body, 14th Century)

The venous system, with figure drawn frontally and the internal organs indicated

Mansur ibn Muhammad ibn Ahmad ibn Yusuf ibn Ilyas, “Mansur ibn Iiyas”, descended from a Shiraz family of scholars and physicians. His illustrated treatise, “Anatomy of the human body” often called “Mansur's Anatomy” consists of an introduction followed by 5 chapters on the 5 main systems of the body: bones, nerves, muscles, veins and arteries; each illustrated with a full-page diagram. The manuscript was a total new for me, as I always thought that Qur’an has severe restrictions regarding human representations. Indeed, it has, especially in Sunni Islam (representation of all living beings).
The Qur’an condemns idolatry and uses the Arabic term musawwir ("maker of forms," or artist) as an epithet for God. The belief is that the creation of living forms is unique to God, and this includes also representations. I found several references on the internet regarding figural representation in Islamic Art (I recommend the explanations given in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, link is here) and after my investigation I can’t conclude a significant advance about why Mansur decided to illustrate human body in his treatise. I know that other Hakims in Persia, during the Islamic period, strictly observed Qur’am when developing their advances on medicine. My investigation continues, at least to try to understand this exception.

Human skeleton, viewed from behind with the head hyperextended so that the face looks upward

Muscle figure, shown frontally, with extensive text denoting muscles

The Persian contribution to medicine was remarkable during the medieval Islamic period. One of the main roles played by medieval Persian Hakims (doctors or practitioners) in the scientific field of medicine was the conservation, and development of ideas and knowledge based on ancient civilizations, with continuous references to Greek philosophy. Medicine development was also intense during the pre-islamic period, from a practical point of view even: the archaeological case study of a 13-year old girl in south-east Iran indicated that she had cranial surgery to take apart a piece of her skull bone (due to a severe hydrocephaly) and she survived the surgery, this happened during the 3rd century BC. Anesthetic practices are also well known during 10th Century in Persia.

Most famous medical scientific or Hakim during this age in ancient Persia was Ibn Sina, better known in occident as Avicena or Avicenna. He made astute observations and experimentations and wrote around 40 treatises about medicine. His master piece was “The Canon of medicine” (the complete digital facsimil of this treatise has been a target for me during the last years). Other Hakims with significant contributions to medicine science were Fakhr al-din, and Muhammad ibn Zakariya.