Think Piece

Acqua Panna: When History Makes Bottled Waters

By Luna Sarti

In their Plastic Water: The Social and Material Life of Bottled Water (MIT Press, 2015), Gay Hawkins, Emily Potter, and Kane Race investigate “how and why branded bottles of water have insinuated themselves into daily life and the implications of this for safe urban water supplies” (xxii). In asking what is at work in the decision to move from drinking from the tap to drinking from the bottle, they advocate for an understanding of market arrangements in relation to consumers who recognize the distinct qualifications surrounding the product while incorporating the product into their world (xxxiii).

Plastic Water (book cover)

Although a diversity of elements and devices have been identified in the making of water into a “fast-moving consumer good” (FMCG), there is some agreement between scholars in identifying narratives of nature, purity, and human health as the key elements in the processes whereby bottled water has been transformed into a FMCG in the last few decades. However, there seems to be an emerging trend in the bottled water business to feature history as a crucial element in  branding their products. Such a shift toward historicity should not be underestimated. Hawkins, Potter, and Race suggest, in fact, that the bottle of water should be approached “as an unfinished or entangled object” whose nature demands careful elaboration (xvi). Using Evian as a case study for bottled spring waters, they discuss how waters become singularized and distinguished by analyzing dynamics captured by processes of rebranding and “the ways in which they generate multidimensional relations that feed back into market processes and shape them in predictable and unpredictable ways” (34). If for a long time it was important to detach the imaginary of bottled waters from human activity and position them on the side of nature by stressing ideal characteristics such as spring waters untouched quality and their  uncontaminated features, one should start wondering why historical dates are increasingly appearing on spring water brands such as Poland Spring, Acqua Panna, and San Pellegrino (all managed by Nestlé Waters).

Since the key issue with water is that it can be turned into a market object in many different ways, it is crucial to pay close attention to the specific historical processes whereby it is “rendered economic” in the sense described by Fabian Muniesa, Yuval Millo and Michel Callon  in their introduction to Market Devices (3). Such a shift towards a historical aura for bottled waters could have interesting implications, particularly for social and historical analyses.

Picture of Acqua Panna’s new 1 L plastic bottle. © 2015 Nestlé

This question first came to my mind when noticing that following the cross-platform campaign that Nestlé Waters North America launched last May, Acqua Panna’s bottle label emphasizes the year 1564, the Italian word for Tuscany (“Toscana”) as well as a stylized fleur de lis, the emblematic symbol of Florence, and – only on the glass bottle- an explicit reference to the Medici family. The year represents such an important detail that it is also impressed in the plastic bottle, whereas the glass bottle has the brand name “San Pellegrino” impressed which replaced “natural spring water” that characterized the old bottle. While for decades water companies tried to construct an imaginary that severed their water products from human interaction, Nestlé Waters seems to be now trying to establish a sense of historicity for Acqua Panna by connecting today’s bottled waters to Florence and the time of the Medici. 

That history represents an important aspect of Acqua Panna’s identity, particularly since its acquisition by Nestlé Waters in the late 1990s, is confirmed when looking at its official website. While traditional informative sections of bottled waters focus on themes such as water quality, mineral content, PH levels, and the water shelf-life, Acqua Panna has included since the early 2000s a section on its history, which is now addressed as the fourth question in their FAQ section for the US website.

FAQS section – 4. What is the history behind Acqua Panna?

“Acqua Panna takes its name from the Villa Panna Estate in Tuscany, a summer estate that was owned by the noble Medici family of Florence. The Medici family were of the most renowned art patrons in history. Their court included some of the most celebrated artists & visionaries including Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Galileo, and Botticelli. The iconic fleur-des-lis symbol was their crest. The Medici family acquired over 3,000 acres of land in Scarperia, Tuscany in order to turn it into an untouched hunting reserve. They officially limited its borders with an act, dating back to 1564.  That decree still exists and guards the land where Acqua Panna flows.” From The US website of Acqua Panna.  © 2015 Nestlé

Certainly, in 1564 the bandita (featured in the gallery below) of Scarperia , which included the villa of Panna and local springs, was transformed into the Duke’s game reserve, thus effectively preventing the local community from accessing the spring water within its borders. However, the Bando focuses on establishing the borders of the reserve, and the Medici never bottled their water nor commercialized it. It was the Marquise Luigi of Torrigiani who acquired the reserve in the 19th century and started bottling and selling Acqua Panna (as Acqua sorgiva di Panna) in Florence.

Using WebArchive it is possible to look at the way in which the historical discourse was reshaped over time. A snapshot of the website taken between August 8, 2013, and July 14, 2014 (featured in the gallery below), shows how Acqua Panna originally featured a proper story line on their website, spanning from Roman times to the year 2006. The story line pinpoints several events for each century. For the 16th century we find the aforementioned establishment of the reserve in 1564 and the construction by the Grand Duke Francesco I of the oratory at Villa Panna in 1572. Moving forward, the timeline includes the image of an extant cabreo documenting the estate in 1792, along with the location of the villa of Panna, and then shifts to the year 1860 when the Marquise of Torrigiani for the first time sold the waters from the estate in Florence in 54-liter demijohns. For the 20th century, there are references to the year 1910, which is highlighted as the year when the Marquise Luigi Torrigiani started to use liter bottles for Acqua Panna, the year 1938, when the Count Contini Bonaccossi who bought the estate from the Torrigiani family founded the “Società Panna”, and then the acquisition of the company by the San Pellegrino Group in 1956, which was later bought by Nestle in 1997. All of these references to events that somehow signal a shift in the commercialization of this water have disappeared in the 2019 rebranding.

As I continue to investigate the complex processes that make the international assemblage that is today Acqua Panna, I ask myself why history is becoming more important to constitute contemporary bottled waters and why a particular history has been selected in the process to singularize Acqua Panna from other waters. Inspired by Plastic Water to rethink packaging as “something that helps bring new realities and practices into being that have socially binding effects” (6), I wonder if this historicization of the label and of bottled waters might be an attempt to play against the growing awareness of what plastic waters mean for our material world. Perhaps, as public discourse around the impact of plastics in marine ecosystems grows and campaigns against bottled waters intensify, it becomes difficult to sustain the association between nature and bottled waters that for so long played a role in the marketing of plastic water. It would make sense then to reshape the narrative around Acqua Panna and place it at the center of the Medici myth. Away from nature, via history, this bottle shapes a time-honored lifestyle.

Luna is a Ph.D. candidate in Italian Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. Her research explores the shifting cultures and practices of water that bound the Arno river in Florence. In her dissertation, she analyzes site-specific medieval and early modern narratives of flooding to discuss if, when, and how flood is to be considered a “natural disaster.” 

Featured Image: Acqua Panna website on August 8, 2013. Retrieved via Web Archive on August 12, 2019.  Copyright – 2011 Sanpellegrino S.p.A. © 2015 Nestlé

Intellectual history

Leonardo’s Leicester Codex at the Uffizi Galleries: a review of “Water as Microscope of Nature”

By contributing editor Luna Sarti

This year several events will take place across the world to celebrate Leonardo da Vinci on the occasion of the 500th anniversary of his death. In Florence, where Leonardo lived and worked for several years, the Uffizi Galleries hosted the exhibition entitled “Water as Microscope of Nature”, which  focused on Leonardo’s multidisciplinary engagement with water. Organized by the Uffizi Galleries in collaboration with the Museo Galileo, this project was made possible thanks to the generosity of Bill and Melinda Gates, who loaned the Leicester Codex to the Uffizi Galleries, as well as to the financial support of the Fondazione CR Firenze and the Comitato Nazionale per le celebrazioni dei 500 anni dalla morte di Leonardo da Vinci.

Leonardo 1

Almost 400,000 people visited the exhibition and stared in amazement at Leonardo’s writings. Individual folios were displayed in vertical glass cases which allowed visitors to read the recto and verso sides of each page while moving through the dark, arched room.

Leonardo 2
The exhibition room and two of the codescopes.

The curatorial team, guided by the director of the Galileo Museum, decided in fact to group folios according to topics while several codescopes were installed in the space to allow visitors to virtually flip through the pages of the Leicester Codex, thus reproducing the order in which the folios were bound together. Thanks to the codescopes, it was also possible to browse the codex and eventually visualize transcriptions of the text while getting information on some of the most significant issues addressed by Leonardo, particularly the physics of water movements, the structure of the Moon, and the history of the Earth.

As the exhibition title suggests, water intrigued Leonardo perhaps more than anything else. In his writings, he discusses its nature, its movements, and the difference between springs, rivers, seas, and rain. Defining the mechanisms connecting all these different phenomena became almost an obsessive thought for him. In order to deal with this complex system of problems, Leonardo meticulously recorded observations from experience and compared them with existing sets of knowledge, drawing on a variety of sources and devising experiments to verify hypotheses.



Leonardo’s experiments on water. Video available on the exhibition website.

Although Leonardo’s myth in popular discourse undoubtedly plays a role in attracting visitors to events of this kind, it is remarkable that the curator managed to orient such a vast audience toward the manuscript pages and other forms of “row documents”. A variety of texts, such as other manuscripts, incunabola, and maps were, in fact, on display as Leonardo’s possible sources, thus fostering the interest of the public toward the historical processes that inform not only knowledge formation but also its circulation and legacy. The inclusion of such documents as Leonardo’s sources contributes to dismantle conceptions such as that of geniality or the irrelevance of history for scientific engagement, while stressing the role of education and tradition in any process leading to new knowledge.

Leonardo 3
Pliny the Elder, Naturalis Historia (1458). Manuscript conserved in Florence at the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Plut. 82,4. Folio available on the exhibition website .

Certainly, some of the items that were on display also have an incredible aesthetic quality that captivated the audience and thus amplified the call for the significance of history that informed the exhibition. For example, among the manuscripts that were likely consulted by Leonardo for their relevance on the questions of the nature and physics of water were a 13th-century manuscript edition of Ristoro d’Arezzo’s La compositione del Mondo (The composition of the world) now conserved in Florence at the Biblioteca Riccardiana, and a 15th-century illuminated manuscript of Pliny’s Natural History, which belonged to the Medici Family and is now part of the collection of the Biblioteca Laurenziana in Florence. Remarkably, almost to reiterate the importance of access to sources and of history in the making of knowledge, all the materials that were part of the exhibition, including the curatorial narrative, are now available for public consultation on the official website.

Leonardo 4
Ristoro d’Arezzo, La composizione del mondo con le sue cascioni (XIII century). Manuscript conserved in Florence at the Biblioteca Riccardiana, Ricc. 2164. Folio available on the Exhibition website.

Although some of the celebratory language and the Promethean tones informing the curatorial narrative might sound overwhelming for many science historians, this exhibition was particularly interesting for assessing the way in which the dualism art/science can still characterize public discourse around figures who would actually be functional to question such a divide. Leonardo is, in fact, a pivotal figure for any discussion on the relationship between artistic practice and scientific thought and can spark interesting considerations on the benefits of interdisciplinarity.

While walking through the exhibition and learning about Leonardo’s reflections, it becomes clear that much of the audience’s amazement stems from the variety of tools and languages on which Leonardo could draw to investigate problems of physics, mechanic engineering, and geology. Together with geometrical representations illustrating physical problems, the Codex also includes an “image bank” and several attempts to develop a lexicon for describing water.

Thus, much could be said on the curator’s decision to keep the two parts of Leonardo’s work separate, even if motivated by practical reasons, such as the absence of alarm systems in the space that was used for the temporary exhibition. Leonardo’s paintings, although referenced, were not in fact part of the exhibition which instead focused on documents, particularly manuscripts and maps, to position the viewer within that part of Leonardo’s work which is considered “scientific”. Unfortunately, the choice of material presented as well as the title seems to suggest the persistence of the dualism science/humanities when considering historical processes of knowledge making. On the contrary, Leonardo’s engagement with tradition, his open mindedness when combining historical research, field-work, and different languages for the investigation of problems, could have been easily presented as a model-story advocating for thinking across disciplines.

Leonardo da Vinci, Leicester Codex (1501-1508). Folio 7v and 30r. Available on the exhibition website.

Hopefully, this beautiful show will be of inspiration for more exhibitions that are able to work across the division between art and science when presenting historical process of knowledge formation to the public. With this in mind, we look forward to the upcoming exhibition “Leonardo da Vinci: a Mind in Motion” in London at the British Library this summer.

Water as Microscope of Nature” was on view at the Gallerie degli Uffizi  in Florence, Italy from October 30, 2018 to January 20, 2019. The exhibition was accompanied by a beautiful catalogue (available in Italian or English).

Think Piece

Representing Material Evidence: The Catacombs in Print

by Madeline McMahon

bosio1632 frontispieceAntonio Bosio’s Roma sotterranea was published posthumously in 1634. Bosio’s original manuscript, now in the Biblioteca Vallicelliana, was finally brought to print by the Oratorian scholar Giovanni Severano. The book would have cost a fortune—it was over six hundred folio pages long and heavily illustrated—but it became enduringly popular (Simon Ditchfield, “Reading Rome,” 189). It covered much more than the underground world of the Roman catacombs for which it is now known. It detailed how the martyrs’ bones had been preserved by providence for future believers (book I) and discussed early Christian material evidence from construction sites as well as excavations proper in books II and III. But the vast majority of the visual evidence for which the book is so famous and the detailed analysis of that evidence in book IV were primarily the work of the editor Severano rather than Bosio (Ditchfield, “Text Before Trowel,” 346). Severano’s team of engravers recreated Christian sarcophagi, catacomb paintings, lamps, and inscriptions, often from multiple angles.

In the catacombs, as Jerome reflected dramatically in the fourth century, “So great is the darkness that the language of the prophet seems to be fulfilled—‘Let them go down quick into hell.’” How did one bring the catacombs to light in print—how did one depict the material evidence that was so often fragmentary but also charged with devotional meaning? Severano’s interests were clearly iconographical. His added fourth book addressed the typical representations of biblical figures and the symbolism used in the catacomb art. Iconography could both help and hinder understanding of early Christian art. It helped the engravers fill in destroyed or only partially visible carvings and paintings. Typically they did not call attention to it, but sometimes they did.

Screen Shot 2016-03-28 at 5.19.43 PM
Reconstructing a damaged wall painting, with a hypothetical restoration (p. 271)

Here, for example, they have taken the liberty of showing a corresponding figure in the orans pose on the other side of good shepherd where a piece of plasterwork had fallen off. But they have also taken care to show both their addition and the damaged area. Yet their expectations for iconography could also blind them, leading them to expect the instruments of martyrdom (p. 433) or subtly shaping their depiction of a bust-length portrait of Christ (p. 253).

Screen Shot 2016-03-28 at 5.18.40 PMThe way in which they depict text is especially fascinating in light of Severano’s attempts to depict and describe early Christian iconography. As he noted in IV.31, “the ancient Christians not only represented our Lord with various images, as we have seen, but his most holy name was expressed in different mysterious ways,” including the monogram (cifra) of the Chi-Rho (p. 629), comprised of the Greek letters Χ (chi) and Ρ (rho). Letters could function like images—to such an extent that Severano included the symbol in the book’s index under “X” rather than “C,” so that befuddled readers could learn what this common sign meant.

This awareness of text as image sometimes influenced the reproductions of epitaphs on sepulchers. Although many of the reproductions only imitated original inscriptions through their use of capital letters, Severano’s team occasionally reproduced visual elements in the text, such as the exaggerated size of T’s (probably referring to the association of the Greek letter Τ (tau) with the cross) in some (p. 300). As in the case of the praying figure on broken plaster, they also tried to indicate damage, either by replicating cracks in the stone or including ellipses in the transcription. While they frequently attempted iconographically based reconstructions of missing parts of paintings or imperfect sarcophagi, textual frammenti were left incomplete. In one instance, on a marble stone that was especially “worn out,” they simply confessed, “Il resto non si può leggere” (p. 400).

Screen Shot 2016-03-28 at 5.23.12 PM
A broken inscription and an inscription with exaggerated T’s (p. 151)

Screen Shot 2016-03-28 at 5.24.59 PMWhile even simple capital letters in a square are evocative of the material object they represent, there are a few instances in Roma sotterranea when Severano clearly felt that the script was integral to the artifact. One was a broken sepulchral inscription found by the Via Portuense catacombs—one of many fragments “from which one could not extract any sense” (p. 125). Perhaps its very difficulty made it necessary to reproduce with greater attention to the placement of the text on the stone. Text, with symbols like palms, doves, and the Chi-Rho, also features as part of the reconstructions of the sepulchers carved out in the catacomb walls. One page in particular includes an attempt to copy the curved, messy writing on an anonymous grave: “Rest in peace. Kalends of December” (Sabbato in pace KK decembris) (p. 214).

Screen Shot 2016-03-28 at 5.16.58 PM
Tombs with inscriptions (p. 214)

Although Severano’s appreciation of script was not as sophisticated as his understanding of early Christian iconography, the two are not unrelated. As William Stenhouse has shown, earlier contemporaries of Bosio and Severano had begun to contextualize classical inscriptions and reproduce them to scale, differentiating between different kinds of writing. They had even made attempts to reconstruct fragmentary inscriptions. In many ways, Roma sotterranea follows these trends more closely in its engravings of catacomb paintings than in its reproductions of Christian inscriptions and epitaphs. Nonetheless, there were certain instances in which image and text were treated as one. The inhabitants of “Underground Rome” had envisioned Christ in many guises—as a Good Shepherd, as an Orpheus, and even as collections of letters. Their own writing was part of the material evidence that Bosio encountered, and these textual objects became part of a new one when Severano brought the book to press.

Think Piece

Hellenism and the Materiality of Greek Books in Renaissance Italy

by guest contributor Anna Gialdini

In the Preface to the Magnum ac perutile Dictionarium (1523), Janus Laskaris put words into the mouth of his pupil Guarino Favorino about Favorino’s ethnic identity. Favorino argued that while his parents were Italian, he himself was Greek. ‘How, then’, he is asked ‘can you be Greek?’ ‘From the bottom of my soul,’ he replies, ‘My Greek studies serve as proof; […] I am a Greek within an Italian [body]’.

A copy of the Anthologia Graeca (1494) printed by Lorenzo de Alopa in 1494. Notice the raised bands on the spine, non-projecting endbands, and how the bookblock is smaller than the boards.
A copy of the Anthologia Graeca (1494) printed by Lorenzo de Alopa in 1494. Notice the raised bands on the spine, non-projecting endbands, and how the bookblock is smaller than the boards.

In Renaissance Italy, Greek studies became increasingly popular with the augmented availability of texts and teachers after the fall of Constantinople. Antiquarianism and Hellenism fostered collections of Greek books, programs at local institutions of learning, and patronage. Some scholars were content with reading, discussing, and speaking Greek. Aldus Manutius famously founded a Nea Akademia, the statute of which dictated that members were expected to only address each other in Classical Greek and those who failed to do so would be fined. Other humanists chose to don the Greek dress physically. While Janus Laskaris imagined Favorino in Italian garb, the Paduan Augusto Valdo, Favorino’s colleague in Rome, wore Greek clothes after an extended sojourn in Greece. The King of France, Charles VIII, liked to be depicted in Byzantine apparel, but for a very different reason: he nursed a dream of becoming ‘King of the Greeks’, as a popular prophecy of the time promised, terrifying the population of Italy during the turbolent years of the Italian Wars. He even bought the title off the last descendant of the Byzantine Emperor Constantine XI, Andreas Palaiologus, who died in poverty in Rome in 1502. Not that any power in Europe recognised the French monarchs’ sense of entitlement to the throne of Byzantium (in fact, both the Russian Tsar and the King of Spain thought the title would do nicely for them): but significantly, it does give us some hints to the different reasons why European élites came to look favourably upon ‘Greek’ objects. Identities came with a number of cultural and political implications, and what one wore, read, or owned could communicate them quickly and effectively.

One object that both scholars and men of power owned, and that ideally sits at the centre of the cosmos of ealy modern ideologies and culture, is books. Italians (and Venetians in particular, as Venice was home of the largest Greek community of the time) knew perfectly well not just what Greek men looked like, but also how to tell a Greek book from an Italian one. Venice was the largest hub for Greek books in Europe: most Greek texts were printed, copied, sold there, and brought over from previously Byzantine territories. It was also one of the main locales of production of Greek-style bookbindings, sometimes still called ‘alla greca’ (though the modern, if perhaps duller, but less ambiguous term for such bindings is ‘Greek-style‘).

A Venetian-made genuine Greek-style binding on a fifteenth-century Greek manuscript (Milan, Biblioteca Braidense, Braid. AF.X.47)
A Venetian-made genuine Greek-style binding on a fifteenth-century Greek manuscript (Milan, Biblioteca Braidense, Braid. AF.X.47)

Identifying how Greek a Greek-style binding made in Western Europe is can be tricky. In the last two years, I have surveyed over 350 Greek-style bookbindings (out of about 1000 surviving), most of them made in and around Venice. Around two thirds of the bindings are genuine, meaning that they replicate all the features of Byzantine bindings: (1) smooth spines given by unsupported structures, as opposed to spines with ridges given by sewing supports common in Western Europe from the Middle Ages onwards, (2) projecting endbands running along the edge of the boards, (3) bookblocks cut to the same size as the boards, as opposed to projecting boards, (4) grooved board edges, (5) and triple or double interlaced straps.

Bookbindings in which these characteristics are mixed with Italian, French, or other features, are called ‘hybrid Greek-style’. Plain genuineness and hybridism, however, are hard to come by. Even Byzantine bindings could lack grooved board edges from time to time, for reasons that are yet to be completely understood; and at the same time as Greek-style bindings became fashionable and then declined in Italy, Islamic, Armenian, and Western-European traditions were welcomed into Post-Byzantine binding practices.

In Greek-style bindings made in Italy, sometimes the individual components of a binding were the result of a mix between Greek and Italian traditions. Such hybridity could be intentional or merely circumstantial. Investigating structures and materials unveils all sorts of different situations in terms of agency, know-how, cultural contacts, and financial means. The binder might never have heard of Byzantine techniques before and not completely understand them, for instance. It is interesting to note that hybrid bindings seemed to be produced in most areas up to the turn of the sixteenth century. After the 1490s, there was a higher degree of sophistication, with bindings more genuine or more deceptively genuine-looking, at least in Venice. This coincided with the beginning of Aldus Manutius’s printing enterprise and the work of the only known Italian-based Greek binder who lived in Padua.

The funerary monument of Alvise Trevisan († 1528) in the Basilica di San Zanipolo, Venice). Note the Greek-style fastenings and the grooved edges of the boards. (Photo courtesy of the author.)
The funerary monument of Alvise Trevisan († 1528) in the Basilica di San Zanipolo, Venice). Note the Greek-style fastenings and the grooved edges of the boards. (Photo courtesy of the author.)

This corpus is only a fraction of what was originally produced, but it tells us that Greek-style bindings were sufficiently widespread that the intellectual elites of Western Europe knew how to tell them apart from other books. The Milanese philologist and physician Cesare Rovida, for instance, wrote to Gian Vincenzo Pinelli, one of the most famous Italian scholars and book collectors, that he was desperate to retrieve a manuscript of Aristotle that once belonged to Ottaviano Ferrari, his teacher and an acquaintance of Pinelli. ‘It is a folio size; in a fairly ancient script; […] the binding is not in the Greek style.’ (‘Non é legato alla \foggia/ greca, ma con altro modo’) (Milan, Biblioteca Ambrosiana, MS S 107 sup., f. 8). Pinelli clearly knew what a Greek-style binding was; he owned six. The Mantuan Giangiacomo Arrigoni wrote a letter to Zacharias Kalliergis, requesting his copy of Hesiodus to be bound in the Greek-style (ἑλληνιστί), a rare example of a patron’s specific request in the bookbinding business. Greek-style bindings also make some appearances in visual sources and in inventories, another sign that they made a book memorable or an object of prestige. The library of Cardinal Niccolò Ridolfi included a printed copy of Lucian ‘bound in the Greek style‘ (‘ligato al greco’), and several volumes that belonged to Fulvio Orsini were also identified by their Greek-style bindings (‘ligato alla greca‘, passim).

These individuals were high-profile scholars, and among the group of collectors who owned the most genuine Greek-style bindings that also contain Greek texts. They mostly had these bindings made in Venice. Johann Jakob Fugger also had hundreds of his manuscripts not only copied, but bound there. At the same time that he was leading the Fugger firm in the 1550s, he was also accumulating one of the largest libraries of his time, including approximately 300 Greek and Hebrew manuscripts bound in the Greek style (most of them genuine, with few exceptions).

MS Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Cod.graec. 61, bound in Venice for Johann Jakob Fugger.
MS Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Cod.graec. 61, bound in Venice for Johann Jakob Fugger.

Could Fugger read the books he collected so avidly and had bound so beautifully? He certainly was not an uneducated man; but it does not appear that he could Greek, much less Hebrew. A letter by his librarian, the philologist Hyeronimus Wolf, is often cited by German historians to support Fugger’s competence in the classical languages, but it only seems to confirm that Johann Jakob had mastered Italian, French, and Spanish in an impressively short time. An admirable feat, indeed: but no proof that he used his Greek books much.

On the other hand, the fact that Fugger has been remembered as a scholar for the past 450 years – that, in fact, many clamed that his insatiate hunger for books contributed to sending the family firm into bankruptcy – speaks clearly of the power of material culture. And it takes someone who is fully aware of the same intellectual strategies to challenge them. After enjoying Fugger’s hospitality in 1551, Roger Ascham (who would go on to teach the young Elizabeth Tudor her Greek) described his visit to his host’s library in enthusiastic terms, but accused Fugger of having no authentic interest in Greek texts or in sharing them with the rest of the world. No matter the allure of the bindings in his library, to Ascham Fugger was nothing but a βιβλιοτάφος, a ‘burier of books’.

Anna Gialdini studies Greek-style bookbindings in the Veneto in the fifteenth and sixteenth century at the Ligatus Research Centre at the University of the Arts London.

Think Piece

Book Review: Meredith Ray, Daughters of Alchemy

by guest contributor Elisabeth Brander

Alchemy, and its association with the quest for the always-elusive philosopher’s stone, is one of the most fascinating aspects of early modern science. It was not only a tool to effect the transmutation of metals and create medical remedies, but also a philosophical and theological pursuit. Its most famous practitioners include John Dee, Isaac Newton, and Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim, more commonly known as Paracelsus. The alchemical work of Paracelsus in particular has attracted considerable academic interest: from Walter Pagel’s analysis of his medical philosophy, published in the mid-twentieth century, to Charles Webster’s more recent studies of Paracelsus’ social and theological mission.

doaThese men might be well-known, but they were not the only alchemical practitioners. Tara Nummedal has shed light on the career of Anna Maria Zieglerin, a sixteenth-century German alchemist in the court of Duke Julius of Braunschweig-Wolfenbüttel, whose work focused on childbearing and fertility. This is complemented by the work of Alisha Rankin, who has brought attention to what she terms “noble empirics”: German noblewomen who created medical remedies using their empirically gained knowledge. Meredith Ray’s new study Daughters of Alchemy continues this discussion of female practitioners. Her analysis of Caterina Sforza, the noblewoman from whom the Medici grand dukes were descended, provides an Italian counterpart to Rankin’s empirics. Sforza was actively engaged in the scientific empiricism of the age, and was a collector of “experiments”: personal recipes based on alchemical principles that could fulfill a variety of useful functions. Some were used to make cosmetics or medicinal remedies, and others were used for the traditional alchemical pursuits of creating—or mimicking—gold. These recipes reveal the ways in which alchemy was a practical pursuit for noblewomen, whether as a means to preserve health and beauty, or maintain control of their finances.

Sforza wrote her recipes in a private manuscript—a true “book of secrets”—but in the sixteenth century these compilations of recipes were also published, forming a popular literary genre. While these books contained knowledge that appealed to both sexes, many of their recipes offered advice tailored specifically to females, such as how to make breasts small and firm. This indicates that women were an intended audience for these texts. Yet only one book of secrets, the Secrets of Signora Isabella Cortese, is attributed to a female author, and even the Secrets’ female authorship is dubious. Ray ties this male authorship of books of secrets to the wider early modern desire to uncover the so-called “secrets of women.” This special knowledge of the female body, which was believed to be possessed only by women, was a topic of great interest for early modern medical practitioners; and Ray argues this is echoed in the male authorship of books of secrets. But even though these works were most often written by men, their distinctly feminine content is an indication of women’s continuing interest in practical alchemy.

Although her monograph is titled Daughters of Alchemy, Ray’s focus extends beyond alchemical practice. The second half of the work shifts away from alchemy and towards natural philosophy, particularly how women deployed it in literature. The Venetian authors Moderata Fonte and Lucrezia Marinella used their understanding of scientific discourse and natural philosophy as weapons in the querelle des femmes, the ongoing literary debate about the proper role and status of women. Both Fonte and Marinella incorporated scientific learning into their narrative works to make keen observations regarding the inherent intelligence of women and their equality with men. While these two authors did not engage with the empirical practice of Sforza and Cortese, their literary output shows that women could engage with scientific knowledge outside the confines of a university. In that sense they are similar to the seventeenth-century English noblewoman Margaret Cavendish, another early feminist author and natural philosopher whose scientific contributions have attracted academic attention in recent years.

Ray’s final two case studies are the most directly engaged with the so-called Scientific Revolution. Camilla Erculiani, an apothecary from Padua, published her Letters, a scientific treatise in epistolary format, in 1584. This work combined her knowledge of Galenic and Aristotelian thought with her understanding of alchemical processes to describe the causes of the great flood. Margherita Sarrochi, who was famous for her learning and hosted a salon that attracted many leading scientific figures, did not publish any scientific works of her own. This did not, however, prevent her from participating in scientific culture. She corresponded with no less a figure than Galileo: not only about her own epic poem Scanderbeide, but also about his astronomic discoveries. The letters of others corroborate that a high value was placed on her opinions, and emphasize the prominent role she played within her scientific network.

None of the women Ray describes held formal positions at the great European universities, and the vast majority of published scientific treatises were written by men. But as the work of Ray and others are making increasingly apparent, early modern scientific culture was not limited to male academic circles. Women practiced alchemy within their households, incorporated scientific learning into their literary pursuits, and offered their opinions on scientific treatises. As Ray states in her introduction, “It is not women who are missing from the picture: it is our lens that must be adjusted to perceive them” (4). Daughters of Alchemy certainly does this.

Elisabeth Brander is the rare book librarian at the Bernard Becker Medical Library of Washington University in St. Louis. Her academic interests include anatomical illustration in the early modern period, the history of obstetrics, and the connections between magic and medicine.

Think Piece

Medardo Rosso’s Casts, Copies and Prints: Illuminating the Artist’s Process

By guest contributor Jeremy Bleeke

Rosso in his studio in Milan, 1883. From Margaret Scolari Barr, Medardo Rosso, Museum of Modern Art, (1963), 18.
Rosso in his studio in Milan, 1883. From Margaret Scolari Barr, Medardo Rosso, Museum of Modern Art, (1963), 18.

The life and work of Medardo Rosso (1858-1928) has traditionally been divided by scholars into two phases: an initial period of creative fecundity, and a late period characterized by processes of reproduction, repetition, and copying, generally seen as a failure of imagination and vitality. From the final two decades of the nineteenth century until 1906, the sculptor created around 50 subjects in various media (characters such as the Procuress, the Sacristan, the Laughing Woman, and the Jewish Boy); Rosso then ceased to make “new” sculpture, and until his death he was mostly involved in recasting and promoting existing work. Recently, however, art historians have begun to challenge this schema, demonstrating ways in which serial production spanned Rosso’s oeuvre and challenging the dichotomy between phases of authentic originals and derivative copies.

In 2003, an exhibition titled Medardo Rosso: Second Impressions focused exclusively on Rosso’s work after the so-called end of his creative period in 1906. The show assembled series cast in different materials and uncovered the methods by which Rosso produced them. The curators found, for example, that Rosso cast with wax in the same way that he cast in bronze: working from a plaster mold that had been created from a clay model. Rosso’s fascination with “the range of possibilities inherent in the nature of the casting process” became clear.

Several years later, Francesca Bacci published a portion of her exhaustive study of Rosso’s photography (the subject of her doctoral dissertation), illuminating a facet of his production that had been largely ignored or misunderstood (Bacci, “Sculpting the immaterial, modelling the light: presenting Medardo Rosso’s photographic oeuvre”). Bacci argues that in the two decades before his death, Rosso was in fact highly productive, using photography to explore certain cherished methodologies and techniques that he had developed in his sculptural practice. For example, Rosso was famous for insisting that his sculptures must be viewed from one angle, as if they were paintings. As Bacci notes: “This viewing modality is the visual equivalent of observing a flat object. Because a photograph is an exact two-dimensional representation of an image perceived from a unique point of view, the best visual translation of Rosso’s aesthetic theory lies in the photographs of his own sculpture” (Bacci, 223). Bacci argues that the photographs are not means to an end (studio aids or documentary evidence) but stand-alone works of art.

As this new wave of scholarship suggests, Rosso (like his contemporary Rodin) was fundamentally concerned with a discourse that would become one of the main strands of twentieth-century art history and theory: the relationship between an original and its copies. So far in advance of the later conceptual games of Andy Warhol, Cindy Sherman, or Sherrie Levine, Rosso’s play with casts, copies and photographs has a freshness and innocence (born partially out of the relative youth of photography in his day) that is at once surprising and challenging. Far from seeing serial production as a repetitive exercise of duplication, Rosso opened a dialogue in his final decades between the sculptural and the photographic, using each medium to enrich one’s experience of the other.

20141022_NY_CIMA_Rosso_634_CP (1)

Now, at the Center for Italian Modern Art in New York, an elegant exhibition of Rosso’s work explores the long-overlooked photographic dimension of the sculptor’s research and its relationship to his sculpture (a sister show, also drawn from the holdings of the Rosso museum in Barzio, Italy, is being staged concurrently in Milan). The CIMA show brings together 11 sculptures, dozens of drawings, and over 50 original photographs taken by the artist. While we wait for CIMA to publish its research on the photographs and sculptures, a visit to the exhibition immerses the visitor in the physical evidence of the sculptor’s highly singular creative process.

Rosso's photographs on display at CIMA.
Rosso’s photographs on display at CIMA.

CIMA, which opened in SoHo in 2013, occupies an airy, uncluttered suite of rooms; filled with light and beautifully renovated, it is a rare, uplifting space for viewing art. Stepping off the elevator, visitors are met with Rosso’s photograph Impression of an Omnibus (1884-89) taken of a plaster sculpture, now destroyed, depicting five people arrayed side by side. In a vitrine below this image are series of photographs made from it: individual fragments in which one of the characters is subjected to an array of different treatments. In one series Rosso focuses on the young woman second from the left, photographing and re-photographing existing prints of the sculpture. The result is a subtle process of abstraction, in which the figure is pared down to its essential form. From one image to the next, the woman transitions from solidly present – part of the plaster mass that is visible around her – to suggestively dematerialized. Rosso crops her more closely, and the act of re-photographing washes out the picture, so that the shadows around her face and head are all that distinguish her from the white background. In her focused, straight-forward gaze, we are reminded of the description of Clarissa’s daughter in Mrs. Dalloway, whose ride on the roof of a London omnibus might read as an ekphrasis of this image: “the breeze slightly disarrayed her; the heat gave her cheeks the pallor of white painted wood; and her fine eyes, having no eyes to meet, gazed ahead, blank, bright, with the staring incredible innocence of sculpture.”

Moving into the main exhibition space, we see serial production take familiar form in Rosso’s sculpture, most notably in three iterations of the Madame Noblet, executed between 1897 and 1914 in plaster, bronze, and wax over plaster. Playing with imitations of materiality, Rosso gives the lightweight substances of plaster and wax heft and solidity, as if they are rock from which Madame Noblet has been hewn. Two versions of the Sick Child, in wax and plaster, provide a foil to the roughly handled heads. Here, the amber wax that covers the child’s face seems as delicate as skin itself. The nearby series of photographs open a provocative dialogue with these sculptures. Just as the photographic images were formed through a temporal process of exposure onto a negative, so the sculpture seems to act as a kind of receptacle of the light, becoming sharper or more diffuse depending on the ambient conditions. In the rooms of CIMA, flooded with natural light, Rosso’s play of materials can be appreciated to best effect. As the cold light of morning transitions to the golden light of early evening, these sculptures, which seem to absorb and radiate the light, must transform in fascinating ways.

"Sick Child" in wax and plaster.
“Sick Child” in wax and plaster.


"Sick Child" in wax and plaster.
“Sick Child” in wax and plaster.

For visitors relatively unfamiliar with Rosso the exhibition is filled with revelations, from near-abstract graphic works to an early experiment in photomontage. There is the shock of Conversation (1903), a plaster that just barely suggests human forms, while achieving an almost Rococo effect in its play of whispers and glances. Its baroque modeling, in which the figures rise out of a writhing bed of plaster, anticipates Lucio Fontana’s plasters and ceramics by decades. In the kitchen, a new series of prints from old negatives show Rosso exhibiting at the 1900 Exposition Universelle and the 1904 Salon d’Automne in the company of such modern masters as Cezanne. Richly detailed images of his Paris atelier round out the collection.

It is rare to see a show whose content and presentation – so thrilling yet so humble – complement each other as well as they do here. A broad passageway, in which many of the photographs are displayed, links the main exhibition space with two smaller galleries. The photographs invigorate our experience of the sculptures and drawings and unite the space by showing us the work through Rosso’s eyes. The rooms are not subdivided by genre, medium or date, and thus display a body of work that feels holistic while never becoming predictable. Without bombastic wall text and overblown claims, CIMA allows the work to speak for itself. Its insights unfold quietly, deliberately, as gradual as sunlight that slowly shades from afternoon to evening.



Medardo Rosso, at the Center for Italian Modern Art in New York City, can be viewed by appointment on Fridays and Saturdays. It runs through June 27.

Jeremy Bleeke studies twentieth-century art with a particular focus on European modernism and post-modernism. He received his MPhil in History of Art from the University of Cambridge in 2014.