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The Insect and the Image

Visualizing Nature in Early Modern Europe, 1500-1700

Janice Neri

Publication Year: 2011

Once considered marginal members of the animal world (at best) or vile and offensive creatures (at worst), insects saw a remarkable uptick in their status during the early Renaissance. This quickened interest was primarily manifested in visual images—in illuminated manuscripts, still life paintings, the decorative arts, embroidery, textile design, and cabinets of curiosity. In The Insect and the Image, Janice Neri explores the ways in which such imagery defined the insect as a proper subject of study for Europeans of the early modern period.

It was not until the sixteenth century that insects began to appear as the sole focus of paintings and drawings—as isolated objects, or specimens, against a blank background. The artists and other image makers Neri discusses deployed this “specimen logic” and so associated themselves with a mode of picturing in which the ability to create a highly detailed image was a sign of artistic talent and a keenly observant eye. The Insect and the Image shows how specimen logic both reflected and advanced a particular understanding of the natural world—an understanding that, in turn, supported the commodification of nature that was central to global trade and commerce during the early modern era.

Revealing how sixteenth- and seventeenth-century artists and image makers shaped ideas of the natural world, Neri’s work enhances our knowledge of the convergence of art, science, and commerce today.

Published by: University of Minnesota Press


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pp. 1-7


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p. vii-vii

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Introduction: Specimen Logic

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pp. ix-xxvii

In 1475 a woodcut illustration of insects appeared in Konrad von Megenberg’s Buch der Natur, the earliest natural history book in the German language (Figure I.1). By present-day standards of scientific illustration, and more importantly by the image-making standards that would be established by the end of the sixteenth century, this woodcut image can only be ...

I. Insects as Objects and Insects as Subjects: Establishing Conventions for Illustrating Insects

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1. Joris Hoefnagel’s Imaginary Insects: Inventing an Artistic Identity

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pp. 3-26

During the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, insects emerged as objects of study for artists, naturalists, and other practitioners as part of the rising interest in classifying, collecting, and representing the natural world in early modern Europe. The Flemish artist Joris Hoefnagel (1542–1601), whose exquisite miniatures were much sought after by northern and central ...

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2. Cutting and Pasting Nature into Print: Ulisse Aldrovandi’s and Thomas Moffet’s Images of Insects

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pp. 27-73

During the last quarter of the sixteenth century, insects were a rich subject around which the many and varied interests of naturalists, physicians, artists, and other practitioners coalesced. It was during these years that two naturalists, working separately, began assembling the materials that would lead to two major publications on insects. Ulisse Aldrovandi’s ...

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3. Suitable for Framing: Insects in Early Still Life Paintings

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pp. 75-101

As I described in chapters 1 and 2, insects emerged as new subject matter during the 1580s and 1590s for European artists and naturalists in courtly, academic, and medical contexts. In this chapter I examine representations of insects in European still life painting from circa 1590 to 1620 and the establishment of insects as subject matter during the formative period of ...

II. New Worlds and New Selves

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4. Between Observation and Image: Representations of Insects in Robert Hooke’s Micrographia

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pp. 105-138

The English polymath Robert Hooke (1635–1703) can be credited with a number of mathematical and mechanical inventions, including originating the term “cell” in biology and composing the equation describing elasticity known as Hooke’s Law. But it is Hooke’s Micrographia, published in London in 1665, that is considered a landmark in the history of scientific ...

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5. Stitches, Specimens, and Pictures: Maria Sibylla Merian and the Processing of the Natural World

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pp. 139-180

By all accounts, including those written during her own lifetime, Maria Sibylla Merian was a remarkable woman who led an extraordinary life. Born in Frankfurt, Germany, in 1647 into the eminent artistic and publishing family of Matthäus Merian the Elder, Maria Sibylla demonstrated an early passion and talent for the subjects that would come to dominate her ...

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Conclusion: Discipline and Specimenize

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pp. 181-191

In this book I have traced the development of the insect as subject matter and the use of insects by artists and other practitioners to construct professional personae through making, circulating, and displaying insects as three-dimensional objects and as two-dimensional images. When the insect emerged as a subject of interest in the sixteenth century, Joris Hoefnagel ...

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pp. 193-194

My investigation of the networks of artists, naturalists, collectors, and other practitioners who made up the world of insect illustration in early modern Europe has been made possible by the encouragement, support, and assistance of an equally diverse and intellectually stimulating network of scholars and friends. I am grateful to George and Linda Bauer for their ...


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pp. 195-224


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pp. 225-233

E-ISBN-13: 9780816678419
E-ISBN-10: 0816678413
Print-ISBN-13: 9780816667659

Page Count: 280
Publication Year: 2011