Early Modern Revolutions

The early modern period in western Europe — a conceptual and chronological bridge from the medieval period to recognisable modernity — is notoriously difficult to pin down with precision. One convenient proposed starting point for the period is the advent of movable type in Germany in the mid-fifteenth century. Whatever the chronology, this time period is universally associated with profound societal change accompanied by (and sometimes driven by) rapid developments in literature, art, architecture, technology, and science. In the sciences, these trends were driven by an increasing focus on practical experimentation and empirical observation; this is the time period when our conception of the "scientific method" began to assume a cogent, recognisable form. Though it was a time of violent religious upheaval and burgeoning colonial impulses, which would lead to untold horrors over the centuries to come, the humanistic aesthetics and impulses of the period also drove numerous philosophical and practical reforms in society. The items below highlight some of these developments.

Frontispiece and title page

BACON, Francis. Sylva sylvarum : or, A natural history in ten centuries ; whereunto is newly added the History naturall and experimentall of life and death, or, Of the prolongation of life. (London, 1658). The seventh edition of Bacon’s complex, esoteric, and ultimately unfinished work of natural history, this book explores a vast range of subject matter. Widely regarded as the father of recognizably modern scientific empiricism and its associated experimental methodology, Bacon’s philosophy of science was significantly influenced by the occult traditions of western Europe.

First edition in Italian of Leonardo Da Vinci’s own work on optics, perspective, and colour.

DA VINCI, Leonardo & DU FRESNE, Rafaelle. Trattato della pittvra di Lionardo da Vinci : nouamente dato in luce, con la vita dell'istesso autore. (First edition; Venice, 1556). First edition in Italian of Leonardo Da Vinci’s own work on optics, perspective, and colour. The manuscript was only published posthumously, but instantly became highly influential.

VITRUVIUS. I dieci libri dell'architettvra. (Paris, 1651). Originally written during the Imperial reign of Augustus, to whom it was first dedicated, Vitruvius Ten Books on Architecture are one of the most significant treatises on the subject in history. The work was a major formative influence on Palladio — this edition features illustrations by his own hand — and subsequent generations of early modern architects.

BEHN, Aphra. A discovery of new worlds. (First edition; London, 1688). Best remembered as a prolific dramatist, Aphra Behn also possessed a keen scientific mind. In 1688, the last year of her life, she published an astute translation of Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelle’s Entretiens sur la pluralité des mondes — a groundbreaking, and even semi-scandalous, text on astronomy. Contemporary scholars have devoted renewed attention to Behn’s interventions in the text; Line Cottegnies credits her with “a quick mind ready to explore…inferences and genuinely committed to a [scientific] ideal.”

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