Tag Archives: astrolabes

Medieval Touch: Handling session at the British Museum on scientific instruments in medieval and Renaissance Europe

On Weds 21st November 2018, Lloyd de Beer, Naomi Speakman, and Oliver Cooke kindly allowed students and staff from the Courtauld Institute of Art and elsewhere into the horological storerooms of the British Museum, the latest in a series of handling sessions organised by Medieval Touch. Dr Jeanne Nuechterlein of the University of York led the group in a joint examination of a series of mostly sixteenth-century scientific instruments, including replicas from her own collection.horology

We began by looking together at an astrolabe. Astrolabes were observational and calculating instruments and allowed users to tell the time through the position of the stars in relation to the astral map on the astrolabe itself, however your ability to do so was contingent upon any number of factors, not least the environmental conditions.

 

As well as explaining their purpose, Jeanne attempted to instruct us all in their use and as each of us tried and frequently failed to grasp the fundamentals of astrolabe reading, it became apparent that astrolabes are not intuitive instruments. Their use implies and demands significant technical experience and knowledge. We questioned whether this knowledge was simply more widespread in the early modern world or whether utility was not their only value. Even when we consider astrolabes purely in practical use, several limiting factors would have dictated how and by whom they were employed. Astrolabes are geographically specific instruments, each backplate designed for a set latitude – the mobile user would have required multiple plates. Moreover, larger instruments were more easily legible and produced more accurate readings.

Certain instruments that survive like this column shaped sundial were too elaborately shaped to be of any functional use. Their design seems to effect other concerns, perhaps commemorative (was this the model of a larger monumental sundial?) or aesthetic.

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However, other instruments were clearly more useable. Ivory diptych sundials like these 16th-century examples from Nuremberg, appear to have been designed for the Early Modern traveller. Handy and conveniently pocket sized, they also offered a range of adjustable settings depending on location.

 

London to Naples, Portugal to Constantinople: the lists of cities on these objects, clustering around the cities of Mitteleuropa and Northern Italy, Bremen, Königsberg, Venice and Genoa, spoke to some of us of a now lost trading geography of Europe. However, made of ivory and not unelaborately decorated, these objects were demonstrably prestige items and must have elicited viewing as much as reading.

A glance at the range of sundials in the cabinets of the horological department reveals the complex interplay of aesthetic and practical motives at work in these objects.

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Here’s what we saw, all visible on the British Museum’s website:

Sundial/horary quadrant, England 14th c., 1972,0104.1
Sundial etc., Hans Dorn 1492, 1894,0615.1
Astrolabe, Georg Hartmann 1532, 1871,1115.3
Crucifix polyhedral sundial, Georg Hartmann 1541, 1894,0722.1
Astronomical compendium/wind-vane, Christopher Schissler c. 1550, 1855,0904.1
Sundial in the form of dividers, Christopher Schissler 1558, 1888,1201.283
Universal equinoctial dial with case, Christopher Schissler c. 1570, 1922,0705.3
Regiomontanus-style sundial, Caspar Vopel 1551, 1895,0319.1
Crucifix sundial, Melchior Reichle 1569, 1874,0727.3
Standing cup in the form of a celestial globe, French, 1569, AF.3060
Pillar dial in the form of a Corinthian column, Germany, 1593, 1888,1201.282
Scaphe sundial, Germany late 16th c., 1922,0705.6
Sundial etc., Netherlands late 16th c.?, 1871,1115.5
European celestial globe from 1659, 1896,0322.1
17c armillary sphere, 1855,1201.221
Diptych dial, Hartmann, 1562, 1900,1017.1

Many thanks again to Jeanne for a fascinating session!

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