Online Lecture: The Drawing Compass as a Tool of Creation in Premodern Europe, The Warburg Institute, 10th-11th June 2021, 5:30-7pm (BST)

 ‘Circular Thinking’ is an online lecture, short papers and panel discussion devoted to the drawing compass, an essential tool of premodern makers that came to represent divine Creation. Although now associated primarily with architecture, the compass was a transmedial instrument, integral to a range of artisanal operations, yet evidence of its use is relatively thin. Called circinus in Latin for the action of ‘going round’, circles and arcs were rarely its final output, but intermediary guides often lost in the making process or intentionally erased. Compass work can thus be classed as ‘invisible labour’— work that contributes to the making of an object, but remains difficult to detect in its finished form. It is also dynamic labour that defies easy description in traditional print media, a problem compounded by a general lack of familiarity with the tool today. Through discussion and the close study of historical evidence, ‘Circular Thinking’ seeks to impart a more precise understanding of the compass’s varied uses—in the measurement, scaling, copying, the generation of diverse shapes in two and three dimensions—and, with this, its symbolic force. 

This event is hosted by the Warburg Institute and made possible by generous funding by the Leverhulme Trust. Programme details below. 

To book go to:

Thursday, 10 June 5:30–7:00pm BST

Professor Robert Bork, University of Iowa
Circles Below the Surface: The Role of the Compass in Premodern Creativity

Circular forms appear overtly in many famous works of art and architecture, from the age of Stonehenge onward, but these visible circles are hardly the only ones that mattered to premodern artists, craftsmen and designers. The drawing compass was one of their most valuable and frequently employed tools since its use in combination with the straightedge permitted the establishment of precise geometrical order without any need for carefully calibrated rulers or measuring rods. The layout and proportions of many premodern artefacts—and even many modern ones—thus become comprehensible only when the role of the compass in the creative process is taken into account. This talk demonstrates this principle using diverse examples ranging in date from the early Middle Ages to the twentieth century, including several in London collections: the Lindisfarne Gospels, a design drawing for the great Gothic tower of Ulm Minster and a painting by the Renaissance artist Piero di Cosimo.

Friday, 11 June, 5:30–7:00pm BST

Panelists will each present a case study of compass use in premodern Europe. These short presentations will be followed by discussion and general Q&A.

Dr. Sarah Griffin, Winchester College
Constructing the Calendars in the Diagrams of Opicinus de Canistris (1296-c. 1352)

Professor Jean-Marie Guillouët, University of Burgundy, Dijon 
Testimony of Construction Practices in Some Late Medieval Compass Traceries

Dr. Stephen Johnston, History of Science Museum, University of Oxford
Drawing and the Design Process in Mathew Baker’s Fragments of Ancient English Shipwrightry

Professor Robert Bork will join the group for discussion and Q&A

Dr. Megan C. McNamee, University of Edinburgh


Published by Ellie Wilson

Ellie Wilson holds a First Class Honours in the History of Art from the University of Bristol, with a particular focus on Medieval Florence. In 2020 she achieved a Distinction in her MA at The Courtauld Institute of Art, where she specialised in the art and architecture of Medieval England under the supervision of Dr Tom Nickson. Her dissertation focussed on an alabaster altarpiece, and its relationship with the cult of St Thomas Becket in France and the Chartreuse de Vauvert. Her current research focusses on the artistic patronage of London’s Livery Companies immediately pre and post-Reformation. Ellie will begin a PhD at the University of York in Autumn 2021 with a WRoCAH studentship, under the supervision of Professor Tim Ayers and Dr Jeanne Nuechterlein.

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