Project (2021-)

The Evolution of Scientific Visual Language in Early Modern Science: A Machine-Learning Based Analysis

This research wishes to define and describe the evolution of visual language in early modern astronomy. This project is a part of the research group “De sphaera” led by Professor Matteo Valleriani in Department I at the MPIWG. “The Sphere” project has created a database collecting more than 350 digital copies of textbooks from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries that contain the introductory text De sphaera by Johannes de Sacrobosco. First written in Paris in the thirteenth century, this text was the most common basic introductory to geocentric cosmology and was copied and taught throughout Europe until the seventeenth century.

More than 21,000 illustrations were drawn from this database. These illustrations are the historical materials and the starting point of this research. In order to define the visual language of these books and follow its evolution and change throughout space and time, the research organizes the illustration into a taxonomy based on the content they describe, their graphic form, and their function in relation to the text (varying from pedagogical aid, calculations, decoration, and more). Together with further information obtained from the database, this taxonomy will be analyzed to examine and explain the intellectual, social, technological, and economic contexts of astronomical knowledge in these times of fundamental change in the conception and practices of science. This project aims to contribute not only to a better understanding of the essence and roles of images in science, but also to the ways in which advanced technology can be applied in historical research and benefit it in new ways.