Friday, September 11, 2020

Correction: It was the Chinese

Gutenberg Bible: The Chinese beat us to moveable type by 400 years.
      When was the last time you learned something from a card on a museum wall? Not trivia, not a detail from a French Impressionist's sordid private life? But something important that you did not know before? Some new historical information that contradicted what you had always believed was true and changed the way you see the world?
Our reputation preceded us: America is the naked
lady holding the severed head in the foreground.
      I was working on the book at the Newberry Library Wednesday, when I took a break for lunch. I got downstairs a little ahead of schedule, and steered myself into their new exhibit, to kill 10 minutes. 
     While not on the usual stations-of-the-cross rotation of the Art Institute, Museum of Modern Art, Field Museum and the Museum of Science and Industry, the Newberry still mounts some wonderful shows, if you recall our visits to "Creating Shakespeare" in 2016, "Religious Change in Print" in 2017, their marvelous Melville exhibit last year. 
    This new exhibit, Renaissance Invention: Stradanus's "Nova Reperta, based on a series of 16th century engravings about then cutting edge technology by Medici court artist Johannes Stradanus, is up there with the best of them.
     In the first room is a framed page from a Gutenberg bible, and as I went up to admire it, I glanced at the explanatory card. I didn't jot the text down—must have been sapped by my morning of professional-quality historical research—but it basically said, "While Gutenberg is credited with inventing moveable type in the West, Asian cultures had been using it since the year 1000." 
    Oh. So now you tell me.  I suppose we could hide behind the detail that Gutenberg's type was metal and the Chinese type porcelain, but really, what you make the type from isn't really the sticking point in the invention. Score one for the Chinese.
    Much in the show was truly beautiful—Abraham Orteleus' colorful 1570 "Theater of the World," the first modern world atlas (above).  Or the title page of Francis Bacon's Novum Organum.  
Galileo tried to hide his heresy by disguising it as a
friendly argument among three philosophers.
 The pope was not fooled
       As the afternoon wound down, I kicked off a half hour early so I could return to the show, and was amply rewarded. Next to a brass astrolabe—a device for finding the latitude of a ship—we are told that this one comes from the famed wreck of the Nuestra Senora de Atocha which went down off the coast of Key West in 1622 and, incidentally, "Over half of the 100 surviving examples of mariner's astrolabes come from such shipwrecks."

     See? Treasure hunting is not all about gold doubloons and pieces of eight.
     There might be more. I ran out of time before I ran out of exhibit, and could only leave knowing I'll soon be back at the Newberry, doing more research. 
     Of what I could take in, my favorite object has to be a copy of Galileo's Dialogo. I knew he had published something supporting the Copernican system and got in trouble with the pope. But I had never seen the actual book that sent him kneeling on a rail, nor imagined it was such a lavish volume. 
      The exhibit is free and open to the public. The gallery was utterly empty while I was there: one other patron in the 40 minutes or so I was exploring. So if you're looking for a safe, convenient, interesting diversion—interesting if you are of a certain mind, that is—well, now you have a place to go.
Not crowded.




  1. Today’s post grabbed my interest; I would certainly be visiting the Newberry Library were it more conveniently located, though I realize it’s well worth the effort.

  2. That looks like the kind of crowd we usually saw in the Newberry exhibit area even during pre-Covid visits. We enjoyed the "What is the Midwest?" exhibition about a year ago, in a different world. Then, saw the photos and story of Jun Fujita, right before everything changed. It's a wonderful place.


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