The Eye of the Lynx: Galileo, His Friends, and the Beginnings of Modern Natural History

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The Eye, of the Lynx: Galileo, His Friends, and the Beginnings of Modern Natural History Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002. 525 pp.; 83 color ills., 89 b/w. $50.00

Once some fathers came to see [Galileo], and he was working in his garden and observing how the buds came out. He said, "I am ashamed that you see me in this clown's habit; I'll go in and dress myself as a philosopher."

"Why don't you have this work done by someone else?"

"No, no; I should lose the pleasure. If I thought it as much fun to have things done as it is to do them, I'd be glad to."-Stillman Drake, Galileo at Work, 1978(1)

So said Vincenzio Viviani, Galileo's first biographer, to the young Sir Robert Southwell in 1661, and so Stillman Drake began his Galileo at Work: His Scientific Biography in 1978. Whatever the anecdote meant to his English visitor, Viviani and his fellow Florentines would have seen in it an inversion of Niccolo Machiavelli's famous letter to Francesco Vettori, where the disgraced statesman alleged that each evening he exchanged his clothes, covered with the "filth and slime" of his country-side retreat, for "royal and courtly habits" in order to study the ancients, to interrogate them, to embody them, and to forget for a lime cares, poverty, and death. While the story conveyed to Drake Galileo's industry, his cheerful disregard for social convention, his candor, and his evident appreciation of the natural world, more recent scholarship has done much to alter this appealing portrait, substituting at times a heretical, calculating, and courtly figure far closer to, though no less fallible than, the masked Machiavelli.

What remains unresolved is precisely how this vignette of Galileo at leisure relates to Drake's Galileo at Work. This is the concern of David Freedberg's The Eye of the Lynx: Galileo, His Friends, and the Beginnings of Modern Natural History, a magisterial study of the ambitions, accomplishments, and sublime failures of the earliest scientific society, the Academy of the Linceans, or sharp-sighted ones. Galileo's smiling and slightly chilling affirmation that when it suited him he could, and did, have things done by others, is borne out by Freedberg's reconstruction of the activities of the Linceans from the establishment of their academy in 1603 through the publication of their Treasury of Medical Mailers of New Spain in 1649-51. The naturalists, philologists, and historians who surrounded the scientist, and the several unknown artists who assisted them and documented their findings, conducted the greater part of their research in the successive wakes of each Galilean discovery and its ensuing debate. This is not to contest Galileo's own interest in natural history: the scattered references to the motion and bodies of birds and beasts in the Dialogue concerning the Two Chief World Systems and the Two New Sciences; to the cinnamon trees of the New World in the Assayer; to the cultivation of grapes, oranges, olives, and peaches in the Dialogue; and to the appearance of a rain-soaked cabbage plant in Two Netu Sciences all suggest an experienced and interested observer of plants and animals. The Eye of the Lynx, however, confirms that what served as the occasional leisurely activity for Galileo constituted an enormous and sustained research program for his fellow Linceans and, more significantly, a body of knowledge they consistently sought to relate to his discoveries in astronomy, optics, and even mechanics.

Freedberg's chronicle begins, however, with a discovery of his own, that of hundreds of early modern natural history drawings in a cupboard in Windsor Castle in 1986. These illustrations, many of them beautifully reproduced in color in The Eye of the Lynx, depict birds, beasts, plants, flowers, fruits, fossils, fungi, and gems from the New and Old Worlds, with, variously, the monstrous, the typical, and the telling detail as their focus. Originally commissioned by the 17th-century connoisseur and antiquarian Cassiano dal Pozzo for his museo cartaceo, or "paper museum," these and several thousand others discovered in the British Museum, in the library of the old medical school at Montpellier, and at the Institut de France in Paris all had as their source the Academy of the Linceans. …