Essays
Art & Illustrations

*Hypnerotomachia Poliphili* and the Architecture of Dreams

Hypnerotomachia Poliphili and the Architecture of Dreams

With its otherworldly woodcuts and ornate descriptions of imagined architecture, Hypnerotomachia Poliphili brims with an obsessive and erotic fixation on form. Demetra Vogiatzaki accompanies the hero as he wanders the pages of this quattrocento marvel, at once a story of lost love and a fever dream of antiquity. more

Precedents of the Unprecedented: Black Squares Before Malevich

Precedents of the Unprecedented: Black Squares Before Malevich

Described by Kasimir Malevich as the “first step of pure creation in art”, his Black Square of 1915 has been cast as a total break from all that came before it. Yet searching across more than five hundred years of images related to mourning, humour, politics, and philosophy, Andrew Spira uncovers a slew of unlikely foreshadows to Malevich's radical abstraction. more

Of Angel and Puppet: Klee, Rilke, and the Test of Innocence

Of Angel and Puppet: Klee, Rilke, and the Test of Innocence

Built for his son from the scraps of daily life — matchboxes, beef bones, nutshells, and plaster — Paul Klee’s hand puppets harbour ghosts of human feelings, fragile communications from a world most adults have left behind. Kenneth Gross compares these enchanted objects to angelic figures, in Klee’s artworks and the poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke, helping us dance as well as wrestle with their visions of innocence. more

Petrified Waters: The Artificial Grottoes of the Renaissance and Beyond

Petrified Waters: The Artificial Grottoes of the Renaissance and Beyond

Idling alongside the waters of artificial grottoes, visitors found themselves in lush, otherworldly settings, where art and nature, pleasure and peril, and humans and nymphs could, for a time, coexist. Laura Tradii spelunks through the handmade caves of the Italian Renaissance and their reception abroad, illuminating how these curious spaces transformed across the centuries. more

Handy Mnemonics: The Five-Fingered Memory Machine

Handy Mnemonics: The Five-Fingered Memory Machine

Before humans stored memories as zeroes and ones, we turned to digital devices of another kind — preserving knowledge on the surface of fingers and palms. Kensy Cooperrider leads us through a millennium of “hand mnemonics” and the variety of techniques practised by Buddhist monks, Latin linguists, and Renaissance musicians for remembering what might otherwise elude the mind. more

Documenting Drugs: The Artful Intoxications of Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz

Documenting Drugs: The Artful Intoxications of Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz

In pursuit of Pure Form, the Polish artist known as “Witkacy” would consume peyote, cocaine, and other intoxicants before creating pastel portraits. Juliette Bretan takes a trip through Witkiewicz’s chemical forays, including his 1932 Narcotics, a genre-bending treatise that warns of the hazards of drugs while seductively recollecting their delirious effects. more

Love and Longing in the Seaweed Album

Love and Longing in the Seaweed Album

Combing across 19th-century shores, seaweed collectors would wander for hours, tucking specimens into pouches and jars, before pasting their finds into artful albums. Sasha Archibald explores the eros contained in the pressed and illustrated pages of notable algologists, including “the most ambitious album of all” by Charles F. Durant. more

A Paper Archaeology: Piranesi’s Ruinous Fantasias

A Paper Archaeology: Piranesi’s Ruinous Fantasias

From the vast confines of his imaginary prisons to the billowy scenes that comprise his grotteschi, the early works of Giovanni Battista Piranesi wed the exacting details of first-hand observation with the farthest reaches of artistic imagination. Susan Stewart journeys through this 18th-century engraver-architect’s paper worlds. more

Picturing Scent: The Tale of a Beached Whale

Picturing Scent: The Tale of a Beached Whale

What can visual art teach us about scent, stench, and the mysterious substance known as ambergris? Lizzie Marx follows a “whale-trail” across history to discover the olfactory paradoxes of the Dutch Golden Age. more

Reading Like a Roman: *Vergilius Vaticanus* and the Puzzle of Ancient Book Culture

Reading Like a Roman: Vergilius Vaticanus and the Puzzle of Ancient Book Culture

How did Virgil’s words survive into the present? And how were they once read, during his own life and the succeeding centuries? Alex Tadel explores Graeco-Roman reading culture through one of its best-preserved and most lavishly-illustrated artefacts. more

The Art of Making Debts: Accounting for an Obsession in 19th-Century France

The Art of Making Debts: Accounting for an Obsession in 19th-Century France

Being in debt was once an artful promenade — the process of eluding creditors through disguise and deceit. Erika Vause explores a forgotten financial history: the pervasive humor that once accompanied the literature and visual culture of debt. more

“The Mark of the Beast”: Georgian Britain’s Anti-Vaxxer Movement

“The Mark of the Beast”: Georgian Britain’s Anti-Vaxxer Movement

Ox-faced children, elderly women sprouting horns, and cloven minds — all features attributed to Edward Jenner’s vaccine against smallpox. Introducing us to the original anti-vaxxers, Erica X Eisen explores the “vacca” in the first-ever vaccine: its bovine origins and the widespread worry that immunity came with beastly side effects. more

The Art of Whaling: Illustrations from the Logbooks of Nantucket Whaleships

The Art of Whaling: Illustrations from the Logbooks of Nantucket Whaleships

The 19th-century whale hunt was a brutal business, awash with blubber, blood, and the cruel destruction of life. But between the frantic calls of “there she blows!”, there was plenty of time for creation too. Jessica Boyall explores the rich vein of illustration running through the logbooks and journals of Nantucket whalers. more

The Revolutionary Colossus

The Revolutionary Colossus

As the French Revolution entered its most radical years, there emerged in print a recurring figure, the collective power of the people expressed as a single gigantic body — a king-eating Colossus. Samantha Wesner traces the lineage of this nouveau Hercules, from Erasmus Darwin’s Bastille-breaking giant to a latter incarnation in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. more

“More Lively Counterfaits”: Experimental Imaging at the Birth of Modern Science

“More Lively Counterfaits”: Experimental Imaging at the Birth of Modern Science

From infographics to digital renders, today's scientists have ready access to a wide array of techniques to help visually communicate their research. It wasn't always so. Gregorio Astengo explores the innovations employed in early issues of the Royal Society's Philosophical Transactions, the world's first scientific journal — new forms of image making which pushed the boundaries of 17th-century book printing. more

Primary Sources: A Natural History of the Artist’s Palette

Primary Sources: A Natural History of the Artist’s Palette

For all its transcendental appeals, art has always been inextricably grounded in the material realities of its production, an entwinement most evident in the intriguing history of artists' colours. Focusing in on painting's primary trio of red, yellow, and blue, Philip Ball explores the science and stories behind the pigments, from the red ochre of Lascaux to Yves Klein's blue. more

Comic Gold: The Easterner Goes West in Three Early American Comics

Comic Gold: The Easterner Goes West in Three Early American Comics

The California Gold Rush transformed the landscape and population of the United States. It also introduced a new figure into American life and the American imagination — the effete Eastern urbanite who travels to the Wild West in quest of his fortune. Alex Andriesse examines how this figure fares in three mid-nineteenth-century comic books. more

Emma Willard’s Maps of Time

Emma Willard’s Maps of Time

In the 21st-century, infographics are everywhere. In the classroom, in the newspaper, in government reports, these concise visual representations of complicated information have changed the way we imagine our world. Susan Schulten explores the pioneering work of Emma Willard (1787–1870), a leading feminist educator whose innovative maps of time laid the groundwork for the charts and graphics of today. more

Of Pears and Kings

Of Pears and Kings

Images have long provided a means of protesting political regimes bent on censoring language. In the 1830s a band of French caricaturists, led by Charles Philipon, weaponized the innocent image of a pear to criticize the corrupt and repressive policies of King Louis-Philippe. Patricia Mainardi investigates the history of this early 19th-century meme. more

Woodblocks in Wonderland: The Japanese Fairy Tale Series

Woodblocks in Wonderland: The Japanese Fairy Tale Series

From gift-bestowing sparrows and peach-born heroes to goblin spiders and dancing phantom cats — in a series of beautifully illustrated books, the majority printed on an unusual cloth-like crepe paper, the publisher Takejiro Hasegawa introduced Japanese folk tales to the West. Christopher DeCou on how a pioneering cross-cultural endeavour gave rise to a magnificent chapter in the history of children's publishing. more

Music of the Squares: David Ramsay Hay and the Reinvention of Pythagorean Aesthetics

Music of the Squares: David Ramsay Hay and the Reinvention of Pythagorean Aesthetics

Understanding the same laws to apply to both visual and aural beauty, David Ramsay Hay thought it possible not only to analyse such visual wonders as the Parthenon in terms of music theory, but also to identify their corresponding musical harmonies and melodies. Carmel Raz on the Scottish artist’s original, idiosyncratic, and occasionally bewildering aesthetics. more

The Khan’s Drinking Fountain

The Khan’s Drinking Fountain

Of all the things described in William of Rubruck's account of his travels through 13th-century Asia, perhaps none is so striking as the remarkably ornate fountain he encountered in the Mongol capital which — complete with silver fruit and an angelic automaton — flowed with various alcoholic drinks for the grandson of Genghis Khan and guests. Devon Field explores how this Silver Tree of Karakorum became a potent symbol, not only of the Mongol Empire's imperial might, but also its downfall. more

Audubon’s Haiti

Audubon’s Haiti

An entrepreneur, hunter, woodsman, scientist, and artist — John James Audubon, famous for his epic The Birds of America, is a figure intimately associated with a certain idea of what it means to be American. And like many of the country's icons, he was also an immigrant. Christoph Irmscher reflects on Audubon's complex relationship to his Haitian roots. more

Progress in Play: Board Games and the Meaning of History

Progress in Play: Board Games and the Meaning of History

Players moving pieces along a track to be first to reach a goal was the archetypal board game format of the 18th and 19th centuries. Alex Andriesse looks at one popular incarnation in which these pieces progress chronologically through history itself, usually with some not-so-subtle ideological, moral, or national ideal as the object of the game. more