Conference Report “The Materialities of Knowledge in Early Modern Cities”

The international transdisciplinary conference “The Materialities of Knowledge in Early Modern Cities” – organized by the research project Creating a Knowledge Society in a Globalizing World (1450–1800) – took place in Antwerp on 18th and 19th November 2016. The research project focuses on the historical roots of ‘knowledge societies’ with a specific emphasis on the creation of a ‘global knowledge society’ in the early modern Low Countries. For this conference, the project’s focus was extended to include multiple sites outside the Low Countries such as Paris, Nuremberg, Rome, London and the Chinese province of Canton.

In the introduction, Bert De Munck (University of Antwerp) pointed out that the roles and functions of objects changed dramatically in the early modern period. He emphasized that we must expand our research on objects to include the various contexts in which they were created, handled, and used. Expanding further on concepts introduced by Peter Galison and Pamela O. Long, De Munck characterized the city as a “trading zone” in the sense that the cultural and political location of cities had a direct impact on people and how they thought and moved, which in turn affected the making and uses of objects. De Munck also showed that the early modern city was fundamentally shaped by concepts of materiality and knowledge production. The subsequent nine presentations by the conference participants delved more deeply into these issues.

The paper by Christine Göttler (University of Bern; read by Bert De Munck) focused on how Antwerp fashioned its identity through overseas trade and ties to the New World. Göttler examined the Antwerp Triumphal Entry (Blijde Inkomst) of Cardinal-Infante Ferdinand of Spain (1609–1641), focusing on the emblematic and allegorical structures of the Arch of the Mint, which was designed by Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640) and which represented Mount Potosí (now in Bolivia, but at that time in Peru), fabricated from wood, plaster and papier mâché. Göttler raised questions about how Spanish and colonial narratives intersected with local and urban concerns within this object. She further showed that the different iconographies on the two sides of the Arch – at the front the personification of Moneta and at the back the god Vulcan – indicate that they were aimed at different audiences.

The paper given by Anne-Laure Van Bruaene (Ghent University) focused on the usage of the term theatrum, a concept rediscovered in Europe around 1550. Numerous scholars have pointed out that the metaphor of the theatrum was used to “transmit knowledge in a comprehensive and ordered manner”, but Van Bruaene argued that it also claimed a civic value for knowledge. She pointed to the first anatomical theatre built in Leiden in 1594 and several rederijker performances as well as numerous tableaux vivants constructed for public festivals in the Low Countries. She went on to stress the ambiguity of the notion of theatre and the appearance of publications using the word theatrum to designate an “urban site of knowledge” directed towards a broader audience, using visual and rhetorical strategies to convey knowledge.

In her paper, Marika Keblusek (Leiden University) presented her ongoing research on the album amicorum and guestbook of Bernhard Paludanus (1550–1633). The book, whose rebinding at some point in its history has obfuscated the original order of the images, should be understood as more than just a “friendship book”, a list of acquaintances visiting the owner’s collection, or a costume book documenting his various voyages. Keblusek argued rather that this and other “note books” were “marketing instruments” and thus constituted “materialized trading zones” bound between two covers.

The keynote speaker, Stéphane Van Damme (European University Institute Florence), presented a study on the discoveries of antique stone blocks (e.g. Le Pilier des Nautes – the Pillar of the Boatmen) in the center of Paris during the early eighteenth century and how these finds shaped the understanding of Parisian urban history. He showed how the unearthing of these objects led to a vibrant discussion within Parisian learned society (the “Republic of Antiquarians”) concerning the classical heritage and historiography of the city. Van Damme pointed out that these objects were used as moments – and monuments – of self-assertion of a local identity which could now be based on objects rather than words. The case study sheds new light on the development of Paris as the ideological center of France and the construction of the idea of the French nation state.

Two of the speakers scheduled to address the conference on Saturday, keynote speaker Ann-Sophie Lehmann (University of Groningen) and Guido Marnef (University of Antwerp),

were unfortunately unable to attend for reasons beyond their control. The session on Saturday therefore began with a paper by Antonella Romano (Centre Alexandre Koyré, EHESS, Paris) on sixteenth-century Rome, specifically the collection and rearrangement of Egyptian obelisks during the reign of Pope Sixtus V (1521–1590). Romano argued that this (re)shaping of urban space was aimed not only at showcasing the universal or imperial power of the papacy but was also deeply concerned with the monumental objects themselves, which were the subject of scholarly debate at that time.

Koenraad Jonckheere (Ghent University) reconsidered the studio production of Peter Paul Rubens. Taking the artist’s large series of paintings for the Torre de la Parada as well as the set of portraits executed for Jan Moretus as his main examples, Jonckheere postulated that the so-called cantoor (closed cupboard or space) above the atelier functioned as a sanctum sanctorum for his ideas and designs. These were then later executed in paint by subcontracted artists in their own studios all over the city of Antwerp. This is a fundamental revision of the current understanding of Rubens’s studio and practice, making the whole city of Antwerp the site of his artistic production and reimagining Rubens’s workshop as an “early modern concept store”.

Hannah Murphy (Oriel College, University of Oxford) redirected our attention from the Southern Netherlands to Southern Germany and the city of Nuremberg, a center for artistic production during the early modern period. Murphy underlined the importance of the line as a connecting element between the arts (e.g. drawing) and the sciences (e.g. calculating) – all simultaneously present in the various artisanal techniques available in Nuremberg. As an example, she presented the Ein gute ordnung und kurtze Unterricht … Zierlichs schreybens (A good classification and a short introduction to elegant handwriting) by the artist Johann Neudörffer the Elder (1497–1563), an important figure in the creation of the German Fraktur script. Murphy analyzed one of its didactic prints, showing how to hold a calligraphy pen, and argued for an articulated connection between calligraphy and other crafts. She emphasized that the case of Neudörffer enables us to better understand the close relationship between artists and scientists and their crafts in an early modern urban society.

Sietske Fransen (Jesus College, University of Cambridge) presented a paper on the invention of the microscope. This scientific breakthrough also brought new challenges; in particular, a new vocabulary was needed to describe what was seen through its lenses. Fransen gave an overview of this visual vocabulary based on the correspondence of three Dutch microscopists, Regnier de Graaf (1641–1673), Jan Swammerdam (1637–1680), and Antoni van Leeuwenhoek (1632–1723), with the Royal Society in London. On the basis of these letters, Fransen raised questions about the excitement at seeing what had previously been invisible, the interrelationship between written text and images as well as the status of the image vis-à-vis this new scientific advancement.

In her paper, Shih Chingfei (National Taiwan University) described the highly skilled technique of carving ivory spheres in the province of Canton. She paid special attention to the possible exchange of craft techniques between China and Europe, pointing to the large numbers of turned and carved ivories in geometrical shapes produced at the Dresden Court. Shih proposed that the idea of turning ivories into geometrical shapes arrived in China through an as yet unknown connection between the Beijing Court and the electors of Saxony.

In his concluding remarks Sven Dupré (Utrecht University) identified five central points concerning early modern objects which had been addressed during the conference: (1) The papers and discussions showed that interest in the circulation of knowledge is today far more closely linked with the circulation of objects than it has been in the past. In addition, new research foci have been developed, particularly by scholars like Ursula Klein, Pamela H. Smith, and those of the ARTECHNE project (Utrecht University), which investigate how people attached meaning to certain objects and how those meanings were constructed. (2) Texts and books are also material objects and should be considered as such, as demonstrated in the papers by Christine Göttler, Marika Keblusek, and Hannah Murphy. (3) The importance of ‘knowledge societies’ was underlined; this concept was explored particularly in the work of Anne-Laure Van Bruaene and Siske Fransken. (4) Referring to the seminal work by Lissa Roberts and Antonella Romano, Dupré underscored the notion of the city as a hub where various kinds of knowledge were produced. (5) Lastly, he addressed the shift of focus from the Low Countries to a broader geographical framework and highlighted the importance of trading companies and their immense global networks. Here he referred to Christine Göttler’s paper that looked at one instance of a material object at the interface and intersection of the old and new worlds.

As a whole the Antwerp conference’s focus on early modern cities as “trading zones” of materialized (and conceptual) knowledge proved particularly fruitful for further investigations into the social and affective dimensions of early modern objects, things, and artefacts. We are looking forward to the publication of the papers.

Conference venue, former monastery of the Grauwzusters, today part of the University of Antwerp.

Conference program.

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