Saturday, September 22, 2007

Donkeys do harbor lice

The creature he drew would have lacked a scale and a context, it might have been a mere grotesque or a fabulous monster from Mandeville's travels. What made the illustrations of microscopic observations so important was the use made of the new knowledge that they incorporated.
This happens to be precisely the point made by Michel Foucault in his book Les Mots et les choses, to which Professor Alpers appeals in her interpretation. He points out that the microscope was used in the seventeenth century to solve problems. Take the example of the Italian physician Francesco Redi who, in his book of 1668 (no. 9.45 in the catalog mentioned above), illustrated among other specimens a louse peculiar to donkeys.
He thus disproved Aristotle's contention that donkeys do not harbor lice, and apparently incurred the wrath of his contemporaries. But what is this slight contribution to knowledge compared with Redi's conclusion, derived from an examination of the reproductive organs of insects and fortified by experiments, that the universal belief in the spontaneous generation of maggots and vermin in carcasses was untenable, and that all these creatures emerged from eggs laid by files?
Here, surely, is a milestone on the road to Pasteur's achievement which could never have come about without the microscope, but never through the microscope alone, or, be it said, through a collection of pictures or specimens, however accurate and however complete. Important as was the art of describing, the art of thinking also needs its defenders.
NYREV, Volume 30, Number 17 · November 10, 1983 Review Mysteries of Dutch Painting By Ernst Gombrich The Art of Describing: Dutch Art in the Seventeenth Century by Svetlana Alpers University of Chicago Press, 273 pp., $37.50 In the challenging book under review Professor Alpers argues convincingly that we are still the heirs of this tradition, which did indeed dominate the teaching of art in the academies of Europe.

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