Essays

The Anthropometric Detective and His Racial Clues

The Anthropometric Detective and His Racial Clues

Ava Kofman explores how the spectre of race, in particular Francis Galton's disturbing theory of eugenics, haunts the early history of fingerprint technology. more

Who Says Michelangelo Was Right? Conflicting Visions of the Past in Early Modern Prints

Who Says Michelangelo Was Right? Conflicting Visions of the Past in Early Modern Prints

When the lost classical sculpture Laocoön and His Sons — lauded as representing the very highest ideal of art — was dug up in 1506 with limbs missing, the authorities in Rome set about restoring it to how they imagined it once to look. Monique Webber explores how it was in reproductive prints that this vision was contested, offering a challenge to the mainstream interpretation of Antiquity. more

Robert Greene, the First Bohemian

Robert Greene, the First Bohemian

Known for his debauched lifestyle, his flirtations with criminality, and the sheer volume of his output, the Elizabethan writer Robert Greene was a fascinating figure. Ed Simon explores the literary merits and bohemian traits of the man who penned the earliest known (and far from flattering) reference to Shakespeare as a playwright. more

On Oscar Wilde and Plagiarism

On Oscar Wilde and Plagiarism

Celebrated for his innovative wit, Oscar Wilde and the notion of originality are common bedfellows. The pairing, however, is not without its complications. Joseph Bristow and Rebecca N. Mitchell explore the claims of plagiarism that dogged Wilde's career, particularly as regards his relationship with that other great figure of late-19th-century Decadence, the American painter James McNeill Whistler. more

Worlds Without End

Worlds Without End

At the end of the 19th century, inspired by radical advances in technology, physicists asserted the reality of invisible worlds — an idea through which they sought to address not only psychic phenomena such as telepathy, but also spiritual questions around the soul and immortality. Philip Ball explores this fascinating history, and how in this turn to the unseen in the face of mystery there exists a parallel to quantum physics today. more

The Science of Life and Death in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

The Science of Life and Death in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

Professor Sharon Ruston surveys the scientific background to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, considering contemporary investigations into resuscitation, galvanism, and the possibility of states between life and death. more

The Price of Suffering: William Pynchon  and The Meritorious Price of Our Redemption

The Price of Suffering: William Pynchon and The Meritorious Price of Our Redemption

William Pynchon, earliest colonial ancestor of the novelist Thomas Pynchon, was a key figure in the early settlement of New England. He also wrote a book which became, at the hands of the Puritans it riled against, one of the first to be banned and burned on American soil. Daniel Crown explores. more

Notes on the Fourth Dimension

Notes on the Fourth Dimension

Hyperspace, ghosts, and colourful cubes — Jon Crabb on the work of Charles Howard Hinton and the cultural history of higher dimensions. more

Richard Spruce and the Trials of Victorian Bryology

Richard Spruce and the Trials of Victorian Bryology

Obsessed with the smallest and seemingly least exciting of plants — mosses and liverworts — the 19th-century botanist Richard Spruce never achieved the fame of his more popularist contemporaries. Elaine Ayers explores the work of this unsung hero of Victorian plant science and how his complexities echoed the very subject of his study. more

Bad Air: Pollution, Sin, and Science Fiction in William Delisle Hay's The Doom of the Great City (1880)

Bad Air: Pollution, Sin, and Science Fiction in William Delisle Hay's The Doom of the Great City (1880)

Deadly fogs, moralistic diatribes, debunked medical theory — Brett Beasley explores a piece of Victorian science fiction considered to be the first modern tale of urban apocalypse. more

Dr Mitchill and the Mathematical Tetrodon

Dr Mitchill and the Mathematical Tetrodon

One of the early Republic's great polymaths, New Yorker Samuel L. Mitchill was a man with a finger in many a pie, including medicine, science, natural history, and politics. Dr Kevin Dann argues that Mitchill's peculiar brand of curiosity can best be seen in his study of fish and the attention he gives one seemingly unassuming specimen. more

Tribal Life in Old Lyme: Canada’s Colorblind Chronicler and his Connecticut Exile

Tribal Life in Old Lyme: Canada’s Colorblind Chronicler and his Connecticut Exile

Abigail Walthausen explores the life and work of Arthur Heming, the Canadian painter who — having been diagnosed with colourblindness as a child — worked for most of his life in a distinctive palette of black, yellow, and white. more

When the Birds and the Bees Were Not Enough: Aristotle's Masterpiece

When the Birds and the Bees Were Not Enough: Aristotle's Masterpiece

Mary Fissell on how a wildly popular sex manual — first published in 17th-century London and reprinted in hundreds of subsequent editions — both taught and titillated through the early modern period and beyond. more

Machiavelli, Comedian

Machiavelli, Comedian

Most familiar today as the godfather of Realpolitik and as the eponym for all things cunning and devious, the Renaissance thinker Niccolò Machiavelli also had a lighter side, writing as he did a number of comedies. Christopher S. Celenza looks at perhaps the best known of these plays, Mandragola, and explores what it can teach us about the man and his world. more

Cat Pianos, Sound-Houses, and Other Imaginary Musical Instruments

Cat Pianos, Sound-Houses, and Other Imaginary Musical Instruments

Deirdre Loughridge and Thomas Patteson, curators of the Museum of Imaginary Musical Instruments, explore the wonderful history of made-up musical contraptions, including a piano comprised of yelping cats and Francis Bacon's 17th-century vision of experimental sound manipulation. more

The Mystery of Lewis Carroll

The Mystery of Lewis Carroll

The author of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, which sees its 150th anniversary this year, remains to this day an enigmatic figure. Jenny Woolf explores the joys and struggles of this brilliant, secretive, and complex man, creator of one of the world's best-loved stories. more

A Bestiary of Sir Thomas Browne

A Bestiary of Sir Thomas Browne

Hugh Aldersey-Williams takes a tour through Thomas Browne's Pseudodoxia Epidemica, a work which sees one of the 17th-century's greatest writers stylishly debunk all manner of myths, in particular those relating to the world of animals. more

The Nightwalker and the Nocturnal Picaresque

The Nightwalker and the Nocturnal Picaresque

The introduction of street lighting to 17th-century London saw an explosion of nocturnal activity in the capital, most of it centring around the selling of sex. Matthew Beaumont explores how some writers, with the intention of condemning these nefarious goings-on, took to the city's streets after dark, and in the process gave birth to a peculiar new literary genre. more

The Empathetic Camera: Frank Norris and the Invention of Film Editing

The Empathetic Camera: Frank Norris and the Invention of Film Editing

At the heart of American author Frank Norris' gritty turn-of-the-century fiction lies an essential engagement with the everyday shock and violence of modernity. Henry Giardina explores how this focus, combined with his unique approach to storytelling, helped to pave the way for a truly filmic style. more

Scurvy and the Terra Incognita

Scurvy and the Terra Incognita

One remarkable symptom of scurvy, that constant bane of the Age of Discovery, was the acute and morbid heightening of the senses. Jonathan Lamb explores how this unusual effect of sailing into uncharted territory echoed a different kind of voyage, one undertaken by the Empiricists through their experiments in enhancing the senses artificially. more

Forgotten Failures of African Exploration

Forgotten Failures of African Exploration

Dane Kennedy reflects on two disastrous expeditions into Africa organised by the British in the early-19th century, and how their lofty ambitions crumbled before the implacable realities of the continent. more

Black on Black

Black on Black

Should we consider black a colour, the absence of colour, or a suspension of vision produced by a deprivation of light? Beginning with Robert Fludd's attempt to picture nothingness, Eugene Thacker reflects* on some of the ways in which blackness has been used and thought about through the history of art and philosophical thought. more

Ignorant Armies: Private Snafu Goes to War

Ignorant Armies: Private Snafu Goes to War

Between 1943 and 1945, with the help of Warner Bros.' finest, the U.S. Army produced a series of 27 propaganda cartoons depicting the calamitous adventures of Private Snafu. Mark David Kaufman explores their overarching theme of containment and how one film inadvertently let slip one of the war's greatest secrets. more

Sex and Science in Robert Thornton's Temple of Flora

Sex and Science in Robert Thornton's Temple of Flora

Bridal beds, blushing captives, and swollen trunks - Carl Linnaeus' taxonomy of plants heralded a whole new era in 18th-century Europe of plants being spoken of in sexualised terms. Martin Kemp explores* how this association between the floral and erotic reached its visual zenith in Robert Thornton's exquisitely illustrated Temple of Flora. more

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