How to Read the Alchemical Corpus: Michael Maier’s Atalanta fugiens (1617/18)

How to Read the Alchemical Corpus: Michael Maier’s Atalanta fugiens (1617/18)

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Title page to Michael Maier's Atalanta fugiens (Oppenheim: Johann Theodor de Bry, 1618), © Herzog August Bibliothek Wolfenbüttel http://diglib.hab.de/drucke/196-quod-1s/start.htm

Written by the German physician, courtier, and alchemist Michael Maier, Atalanta fugiens (1617/8) offers its readers an alchemical interpretation of the Classical myth of Atalanta as a series of fifty emblems, each containing a motto, a copper plate engraving by the renowned Matthäus Merian, an epigram (in German and Latin), an accompanying fugue (or canon) for three voices, and a discourse explicating the emblem’s alchemical meaning. The parts of each emblem and the 214-page quarto book as a whole are meant to work together, with the music, image, and text as an interlocking guide to alchemical theory and to the production of the philosophers’ stone. The multimedia Atalanta fugiens was meant not only to link sound, sight, and intellect, but also to spark discussion and laboratory practice, making it an intriguing point of entry into an examination of the place of reading and writing—and their relationship to other bodily ways of knowing—in the production of early modern knowledge.

Although Atalanta fugiens is well known to historians of early modern alchemy, emblems, and music, HME de Jong’s 1969 study of the textual and visual sources for Maier’s alchemical emblems remains the only substantive scholarly examination of Maier’s text. In order to cultivate new scholarship on Atalanta fugiens, therefore, Donna Bilak (Columbia University) and Tara Nummedal organized Project Atlanta, the origins of which lie in two interdisciplinary workshops: one at the CHF in March 2015, which built on Bilak’s 2013-14 postdoctoral project at the Chemical Heritage Foundation (CHF) and Huntington Library, and a second co-organized at Brown University in February 2016. Because Atalanta fugiens lends itself so well to a digital environment, Bilak and Tara also worked with Brown University’s Mellon-funded Digital Scholarship Initiative to develop an electronic edition of Atalanta fugiens that will allow readers to recapture the early modern interactive and “multimedia” experience of hearing, reading, seeing, and manipulating the book.

Equally important, this edition incorporates scholarly essays on Atalanta fugiens by the rare book curators, musicians, and historians of science, medicine, emblems, music, art, mathematics who participated in the two workshops. With Project Atalanta, in short, Bilak and Nummedal sought to advance a rich scholarly conversation about the history of the book, alchemy, music, and image, while also taking advantage of digital tools to make this remarkable seventeenth-century book accessible to modern audiences (including students).