Today, we dine on marvels. The University of
Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
I just left the Art Museum
this ordinary Saturday morning. But what I saw
there was extraordinary. It was an exhibit called
The Age of the Marvelous. The great change of
thinking that marked the 1500s and 1600s was laid
out like a visual feast.
This was a shift in vision I've craved to see in
one place for a long time. Now, I have seen it, and
I am not disappointed.
Two huge events had taken place by 1500. The
printing press had come of age, and we'd discovered
two new continents between Europe and Asia. The
Americas gave us a trove of new exotica -- people,
plants, and beasts we'd never imagined. That would
only have fed new myths, without printing. But now
we had printing, and we were learning to make books
with elegant woodcut pictures.
So we look at books of maps and books of beasts.
Edward Topsell's inventory of all living creatures
is typical. It has pictures of unicorns and iguanas
-- of cats and sphinxes.
But as we explored marvels from the new world, we
also began exploring marvels within the human body.
Gross anatomy turned into the first new pictorial
Here's Ambroise Paré's book On Monsters and
Marvels. Half of it's about birth defects -- some
real, some faked. The other half shows the
creatures that sailors were talking about. Up on
the wall, we look at Dürer's etching of a
The drawings begin making use of the perspective
that Dü made into a formal science. A book by
Galileo includes sketches he made of the moon,
aided by perspective and his new telescope.
So the mood shifts in the 1600s. Art takes on
scientific realism -- scientifically contrived. At
the same time, it plays with our eye. It fools us
intentionally. An open cupboard turns out to be
only a picture of a cupboard.
The subtle point is that visual realism had led us
away from the old magic and marvels. The new vision
lived in a real world -- not a fanciful one. Now we
had to invent the magic and myth that the new
science had left behind.
Finally, this remarkable exhibit shows us theater
set designs. By now we'd invented opera. Baroque
opera was stage magic. Patrons may've lost the old
magic, but they still wanted to be surprised. As
the old marvels grew impotent we had to invent new
The one person who anticipated this entire
revolution isn't here. But the Museum is about to
add an exhibit of Leonardo da Vinci's anatomical
studies. Then we'll have the whole stunning story
of change in one place. I wonder if that won't make
too rich a serving for anyone's eye to look upon --
all in one place.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
The Age of The Marvelous. (Joy Kenseth,
ed.) Hanover, NH: Hood Museum of Art -- Dartmouth
The run of this traveling exhibit was from May 24th
to August 28, 1992, at Houston's Museum of Fine
Arts. It included prints and paintings, scientifc
artifacts, pieces of art, and a fine array of
original books from the period. I am especially
grateful to Alison Eckman and Sandra Zavaleta from
The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, for their help
with this episode. Other Engines episodes related
to the shift to the external eye of renaissance art
include Nos. 111, 327, 474,
511, 549, 598,
603, 610, 613,
614, 637, 689,
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
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