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  • Ciencia, Arte e Ilusión en la España Ilustrada by Jesusa Vega
  • Alisa Luxenberg
Jesusa Vega, Ciencia, Arte e Ilusión en la España Ilustrada (Madrid: Ediciones Polifemo, 2010). Pp. 528, illus. 296. 75.00.

Jesusa Vega’s latest book explores how artistic and scientific invention interfaced in Enlightenment Spain. It is a valuable contribution to the scholarly discourse on the art–science dialogue, especially concerning the pivotal role attributed to the eighteenth century in bringing these two disciplines into the public arena and the modern era. Landmark studies include those by art historians, such as Barbara Maria Stafford’s Voyage into Substance: art, science, nature, and the illustrated travel account 1760–1840 (1984), Martin Kemp’s The Science of Art (1990), and Susan Dackerman’s Prints and the Pursuit of Knowledge in Early Modern Europe (2011), as well as those by historians of science, including Pamela H. Smith’s The Body of the Artisan: Art and Experience in the Scientific Revolution (2004) and Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison’s Objectivity (2007). What distinguishes Vega’s book, however, is its focus on a single culture and century, thereby redressing the peripheral place often assigned to Spain in investigations of Enlightenment culture and the isolation of such achievements to the reign of Charles III (1759–1788) or to specialized practices like botanical expeditions and illustration. While contextualizing [End Page 81] Spanish participation in Enlightenment ideas and practices, Vega also indicates when its cultural circumstances or attitudes differed. For example, she notes that optical views did not have a popular audience in Spain as they did in England or France, probably because their production was dominated by the royal art academy, making them more of a luxury item. Furthermore, she acknowledges that wealthy and learned Spaniards were less likely to undertake a Grand Tour than were their European counterparts.

A widely published historian of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Spanish art, Vega has considerable expertise in printmaking, national dress, and travel that informs this ambitious study in sometimes unexpected but utterly convincing ways. She has organized a potentially overwhelming array of conceptual, textual, and visual evidence into a clear and coherent argument. Deeply committed to material culture, she presents a judicious but copious selection of objects and visual images, and critically analyzes and integrates each one into her argument. The same is true of the substantial excerpts she cites from eighteenth-century texts on scientific devices and demonstrations. Since many of these sources are little known, Vega provides an important service, and allows her readers to evaluate the original rhetoric for themselves.

Vega begins by explaining that she originally set out to write a history of Spanish photography. However, questions about the medium’s illusionistic power, as well as its combination of chemistry, optical devices, and visual aesthetics, soon led her to reorient her project toward earlier, broader cultural developments in these three areas. Her book sets the historical and conceptual stage for the new medium in Spain, not unlike Geoffrey Batchen’s Burning with Desire: The Conception of Photography (1997) does for it in Europe, but with more grounding in material culture. Demonstrating that the visual arts and sciences in this crucial period often shared the same audiences, means of expression, and aesthetic tastes—sometimes even the same instruments—she finds it even more curious that art historians and historians of science have worked so separately for so long. Her overarching argument posits that the visual arts and sciences collaborated to birth “a new visual culture [that] redefined what it meant to see and what there was to see” (219).

The first part, “Science,” presents the men, institutions, commercial applications, and new urban social practices through which scientific and technological knowledge was created and disseminated. Vega’s discussions of the eighteenth-century concept of “taste” and the modern one of “sociability” are paragons of informed and measured interpretation, linking the arts and sciences through these vehicles of public discourse. One salient point is how the image of the scientist, or “natural philosopher” as he was then called, changed during the 1700s, from a man dependent on mechanical instruments to one who controlled and even invented them. By comparing...


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