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The Missing Lynx

By David Freedberg
(University of Chicago Press,
513pp., $30)

IN 2003, THE PRESIDENT OF ITALY, Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, paid official honor to a society whose four original members could scarcely have predicted that their intimate club would have become the 540-member national honorific society of a unified, secular Italian state, however well they knew that nature was full of unpredictable marvels. But in fact the year 2003 marked the four hundredth anniversary of their club, the Accademia dei Lincei, named for the proverbially sharp-eyed wildcat that gave its name in turn to Lynceus, the sharp-eyed Greek hero who acted as lookout for Jason and the Argonauts. (As it happened, 2003 was also the year in which wild lynxes were once again spotted in the Italian Appennines.) Those first four Lincei pledged to subject the phenomena of heaven and earth to their penetrating scrutiny, and when they enrolled Galileo Galilei as their sixth member in 1611, the range of that scrutiny expanded to include the furthest reaches that telescope, microscope, and fleet thought could traverse.

David Freedberg’s study of the first Lincei could not be better timed. And the Lincei themselves could not ask for a more learned and sympathetic emissary. Freedberg has written a book that pays empathetically devoted attention, descriptive and pictorial, to the individual details that dominated the imaginative life of that first handful of intellectual lynxes. He not only shows his mastery of their dense Latin and occasionally florid Italian vernacular, but also supplies correct analytical terms for the anatomy of flowers, the parts of mushrooms, and the mouthparts of bees. He provides an equally meticulous taxonomy of the social and political circles in which the Lincei lived and tried to pursue their work. Hence the book’s first three sections provide a marvelous, deeply intelligent account of how these first Lincei set out exploring and recording the animals, plants, and stars around them, charting their attempts to set that proliferating specificity into sweeping but usable schemes of classification. The book’s fourth section, “Pictures and Order,” aims to set the Lincean researches themselves into a larger intellectual order.

Freedberg’s history of the Lincei in their early years is an extraordinary achievement, the result of relentless, meticulous archival research. He has devoted to documents the same energy and unflagging alertness that his Lincei devoted to the natural world—although his grasp of the natural world is also formidable. One of the most impressive accomplishments of this book is the way Freedberg pieces together the intricate and tragic tale of the publication, over decades, of that natural history of the New World known as the Mexican Treasure, the sole surviving record of a huge shipment of manuscripts on New World plants and animals that were conveyed to Spain in the sixteenth century, only to perish in the fire that burned the Escorial in 1671. Freedberg has read the Mexican Treasure, not once but over and over, studying it in all its many different versions, patiently comparing each example of the book with the others to conclude, at last, that no two of them are the same.

This is not altogether surprising. One of Freedberg’s previous books is devoted to the Lincean drawings called Citrus Fruits, a subject that he manages to make as fascinating to modern readers as it was to the seventeenth-century artists and scholars who catalogued these wondrous formations in the first place. Those early citrus fruits were strange creatures indeed. The Eye of the Lynx provides images of sports of nature such as “pregnant” oranges (the navels of navel oranges are “pregnant” in this sense) and “fingered” lemons that look like bunches of bananas, but also fat, knobbed Amalfi lemons and citrons in rainbow colors; and there are fungi, civet cats, petrified wood, and a gourd that looks like a baby’s head, all of them potential clues for the sharpeyed Lincei of the grander order that governed Nature and the universe.

FREEDBERG’S BOOK HAS TWO heroes, Prince Federico Cesi, the founder of the Accademia dei Lincei, and Galileo Galilei, its most illustrious member. Both spent their lives pursuing strange details in search of Nature’s grand design, as if the very oddity of individuals held the key to the universe, not only for citrus fruits and civet cats but also for people, such as the young nobleman with an uncommon view of friendship, or the restless Tuscan philosopher who could sit for hours staring at the night sky through a glass, darkly.

Bit by intricate bit, the Lincei’s investigations began to break down the schematic vision of the world handed them by traditional natural philosophy, and above all by church tradition. These careful investigators began to take serious note of the fact that the Egyptian king lists preserved by ancient Greek writers traced the line of the pharaohs back beyond the conventional date of Creation; they acknowledged, too, that the presence of fossil seashells far from the coast could suggest only that present day mountains had once been seas. The Age of Exploration had expanded their world beyond the traditional three continents of antiquity, into new civilizations, new foods, new systems of belief. It took as much courage to relinquish the certainties of the past as it did to press on into the new domains of present and future, but the Lincei took their visionary cat symbol to heart and looked ahead unflinchingly, drawing what they saw with all the objectivity they could muster.

Like any serious work, Freedberg’s has its quirks of personality. Most writers on Galileo are attracted by the straightforward nature of the Tuscan astronomer’s scientific discoveries and his way of presenting them. He avoided peculiarities such as Kepler’s mystic celestial harmonies, Bruno’s tendency to put his ideas in poetry, or Newton’s alchemy-peculiarities that now only seem to have gotten in the way of science. But science as we know it did not yet exist; it was only beginning to take shape as “the new philosophy,” and it was taking shape with all the individual eccentricity that the Lincei so prized in the natural world. As one of the dominant shapers of that New Science, Galileo unfortunately passed on not only his way of doing science, but also his scorn for his contemporaries.

BRUNO HAS ALWAYS POSED A particular problem for Galileo scholars. He was burned at the stake in 1600, just nine years before the invention of the telescope, and thus his views of the cosmos owe much less than Galileo’s—or ours—to empirical observation. They also owe relatively little to mathematics, the other linchpin of modern scientific practice; Bruno denounces Copernicus on one occasion as a mere calculator, and many historians of science have been willing to take Bruno at his word, Freedberg included. Besides, the work in which Bruno sets out to defend Copernicus, his Ash Wednesday Supper of 1584, actually misquotes his hero fairly egregiously.

But a truly Lincean worldview cannot permit any easy generalizations about Bruno and his cosmology. By whatever means Bruno arrived at his idea about the universe—and he arrived with a better grasp of mathematics than his denunciation of the art suggests—it was the most radical idea to be formulated in his own day or Galileo’s, and happens to come as close as any natural philosophy of the sixteenth or seventeenth centuries to the way we see that cosmos today: as infinitely large, with an infinite number of planets orbiting an infinite number of stars. Hilary Gatti argues in Giordano Bruno and Renaissance Science that our own view of scientific progress has changed radically since the days, and the cosmology, of Isaac Newton; and that both Bruno and his ideas merit another look in our quantum world, along with our idea of scientific progress. Galileo’s universe, not Bruno’s, was the one that eventually turned into a dead end.

A still greater problem to a conventional Galileo-centered history of science may be posed by the important group of Jesuit astronomers who worked in Rome alongside, and often in opposition to, the Lincei. In the first place, Freedberg presents a more monolithic picture of these scholar-priests than was actually the case; like everyone else in their eccentric age, they were distinct individuals, the pregnant oranges and fingered lemons of the religious orchard. It is no longer sufficient to present figures such as Christoph Clavius, Christoph Grienberger, and Christoph Scheiner as true believers in an orthodox PtolemaicAristotelian cosmos, even if they were all compelled by their order’s conservative curriculum of 1599, the Ratio Studiorum, to do so. Instead, all three taught astronomy at the Jesuits’ Roman College by treading a fine line between religious orthodoxy and the empirical evidence that was pouring in not only from Galileo, but also from their own observatory; in 1633, as Galileo appeared before the Roman Inquisition, one of their brethren, Athanasius Kircher, was suggesting to some friends in France that all three were really Copernicans.

Only one Jesuit “new philosopher” of this period openly and willingly gave over his immortal soul, and what we would call his scientific curiosity, to the most strict form of Catholic orthodoxy, and this was Robert Bellarmine, sainted in 1935 for his services to church doctrine, which included aggressive participation in the Inquisition. To this sanguinary figure Freedberg shows surprising leniency. (It is true that Bellarmine said he could never hear the screams of the people tortured and burned at his orders without a twinge of conscience, but other saints somehow managed not to torture and kill at all.) Other Jesuit Fathers did not abandon their curiosity so readily; they reached various degrees of compromises with what they regarded as religious truth, much as Soviet-bloc scientists were forced for many years to make compromises with the genetic theories of Lysenko ,and other Soviet scientific myths. The fact that one of the Lincei would leave the Academy to join the Society of Jesus should alert us to the fact that the boundaries between Lyncean science and Jesuit science were not as hard and fast as Bellarmine would have liked to make them.

Freedberg liquidates the Jesuit professor Athanasius Kircher with a few short paragraphs, dismissing him as no more than an illustrator “interesting only to students of arcana,” but here the gentleman doth protest too much. Surely Freedberg knows that he has supplied an insufficient description of the man who first hypothesized a version of plate tectonics, traced bubonic plague to microbes, and suggested that Coptic would yield the key to Egyptian hieroglyphics. He knows in addition that those “students of arcana” are a compendious group, from Egyptologists to volcanologists to his antiquarian colleagues, and that they are enjoying themselves immensely in their encounters with the Reverend Father. The “students of arcana” know in turn that there are few people in the world better armed than David Freedberg with the knowledge and persistence to plunge into Kircher’s dozens of books—and are eager to see what happens when the twain inevitably meet, as they must. The results can only be spectacular, and I, for one, cannot wait.

ANOTHER QUIRK OF THIS remarkable book is poignantly generational: the reflexive recourse to Foucault, whose once-burnished reputation is beginning to tarnish a bit with time and overexposure to the elements. In 1966, Foucault’s Les roots et les choses (published in English as The Order of Things) divided Western thought into grand, chronologically bound structures called epistemes, and marked one of the great dividing lines between one episteme and the next around the year 1600. To make this scheme appear to work for his own subjects, Freedberg must dig a deep gulf between his early seventeenth-century heroes and the generations that immediately precede them, praising the Lincei for their devotion to order and mathematics while blaming the thinkers of the sixteenth century for their benighted, disorderly ways (which means ignoring Brunelleschi’s fifteenth-century geometric harmonies, Leonardo’s sketchbooks, and in effect granting Copernicus honorary citizenship in the seventeenth century). There is another solution to this problem, and it is to leave Foucault out of it. In Freedberg’s own terms, this is a robust solution that yields elegant results. It does mean facing a certain poststructuralist inquisition, but the inquisition be damned.

Thus it may be admissible (though always incurring a sin of anachronism) to fault someone such as the wonderfully haphazard sixteenth-century collector Ulisse Aldrovandi for poor intellectual organization, but there are other thinkers for whom this apparatus of praise and vituperation obscures more than it reveals. Here are three instances in which the facts refute it. First, although the Lincei certainly wrestled magnificently with the difficulties of graphics and illustration, they were not the first to do so: graphic representation of data was already in full swing by 1520, when Raphael and Cesare Cesariano both used ingenious tables to express various kinds of numerical, cosmic, and architectural order. Second, although Galileo’s hagiographers and his own unbounded ego may have divided his work from that of the Jesuit astronomer Christoph Clavius, who devised the Gregorian calendar that still guides our reckoning of time, it seems more sensible to suppose that Galileo, no less than Newton, saw far because he stood on the shoulders of giants. And third, what is the place of Bruno, burned at the stake in 1600 by the secular arm of the Inquisition, whose ideas about an infinite universe made up of atoms loomed far beyond the range of even Galileo’s lynx eyes? Bruno always presents a problem for Galileo’s partisans, largely because he also wrote on magic, and ancient Egypt, and couched his atomic theory in dactylic hexameter verse, so that he does not fit the role of a scientist. He was also brave enough to die for his ideas, whereas Galileo chose to recant and live.

Yet Bruno, as much as anyone in his era, was one of those strange hybrid creatures that Freedberg argues were so essential to the Lincei as a means to discerning the real order of things. And, true to that observation—which is one of the most lynx-eyed perceptions of this perceptive book—the final section of Freedberg’s book verges unavoidably toward these borderline cases as the way to see into the minds of the Lincei, before the argument is hijacked back onto the Foucauldian freeway.

Had Freedberg’s closing discussion of pictures and their discontent admitted a continuum, rather than an epistemic break, between the sixteenth century and the seventeenth century, then the earlier thinkers and the earlier ideas could have illuminated their descendants rather than being passed over as so much darkness. Presumably what prevents Freedberg from making this liberating move is his desire to preserve some idea of modernity, but modernity in one form or another has been plaguing humankind ever since Prometheus taught us to play with fire. Still, The Eye of the Lynx stands well enough on its own terms as an astounding work of mind and imagination.

Ingrid D. Rowland is Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities at the American Academy in Rome.

This article appeared in the May 3, 2004, issue of the magazine.