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Durham University

Institute of Advanced Study

Past Events

The Light Year Public Lecture Series - Understanding Celestial Light through Precious Stones: From the Jeweller's Culture of Optics to Natural Philosophy

24th February 2014, 18:15 to 19:15, Kingsley Barrett Room, Calman Learning Centre, Durham University, South Road, Professor Sven Dupré , Freie Universität Berlin

Precious stones and their glass imitations were valued in the medieval and early modern period precisely because they transmit light and thus are translucent. Optical qualities, the way light behaves in interaction with materials, was used to describe gemstones as well as their imitations in several crafts, such as oil painting and glass-making. Already Pliny spoke of the translucent qualities of precious stones and Albertus Magnus considered translucent gemstones a type of “glass produced by the operations of nature”. Optical qualities had provided a resource for the descriptions of gems in natural philosophy and for the arts imitating them since Theophilus in the twelfth century. In this lecture Sven Dupré shows that their descriptions offered a vocabulary to those approaching the question of celestial matter.

One of the protagonists of the lecture is Galileo. Situated between the furnaces of the glassmakers on the island of Murano near Venice and the ‘alchemical laboratories’ connected to the Medici court, first and foremost the Casino di San Marco in Florence , which produced the first printed treatise on glass-making, Antonio Neri’s ‚L’arte vetraria’ (1612), Galileo’s connections to the worlds and cultures of glass are multi-dimensional. Of course, the Italian astronomer needed high-quality glass to make his lenses and telescopes. But glass was also central to shaping his artistic tastes and in directing his decisions in questions of astronomy and natural philosophy. In addressing the problem of lunar light and substance, Galileo elaborated notions of light connecting Northern art and Venetian glass, equally popular in the artistic climate of the Medici court.

Sven Dupré, is Professor of History of Knowledge at the Institute for Art History at the Freie Universität Berlin and Research Group Director at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Berlin. He has published on a wide range of topics in the history of early modern science, technology and art in Italy, the Spanish Netherlands, the German lands, Britain and France. He is currently working on a monograph on Renaissance cultures of optics; an exhibition on art and alchemy at the Museum Kunstpalast in Düsseldorf and an edited book on laboratories of art; and a project (with Christine Göttler, University of Bern) on the collection of the Portuguese merchant-banker Emmanuel Ximenes in early seventeenth-century Antwerp.

The venue for this series is the Calman Learning Centre. Directions can be located at here. Alternatively on the University map, the CLC is denoted at building number: 43.

Contact for more information about this event.

Contact for more information about this event.