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Marco Beretta. Imaging a Career in Science: The Iconography of Antoine Laurent Lavoisier. Bologna Studies in Scientific Heritage, no. 1; Uppsala Studies in History of Science, vol. 29. Canton, Mass.: Science History Publications/USA, 2001. xvii + 126 pp. Ill. $29.95 (0-88135-294-2).
Marco Beretta is a principal motivator behind the Panopticon Lavoisier, a ground-breaking online database of Lavoisier's published works and manuscripts (http://moro.imss.fi.it/lavoisier/). To quote the authors' home page: "Panopticon Lavoisier aims at creating a virtual museum of the collections of the French chemist Antoine Laurent Lavoisier (1743-1794) scattered throughout the world. A detailed chronology of Lavoisier's life and works, the catalogue of Lavoisier's manuscripts (ca. 6000 items), laboratory apparatus (ca. 500 items), library (ca. 3000 items), and minerals (ca. 4000 items), the digital edition of Lavoisier's collected works, the bibliography on and of the French chemist (ca. 2000 bibliographic records) as well as his complete iconography are integrated in one relational database, Pinakes, and made available to remote users."
This book is a print version of one component of the Panopticon: the important paintings, sculptures, drawings, and engravings concerned with Lavoisier's life and scientific work. As such, it is a worthy object in its own right—major images are thoroughly documented and reproduced (some in color) on high-quality stock, and the provenance research is first-rate. But it is unusually interesting because it also shows the differences between digital database presentations and traditional print materials. Much like the HyperNietzsche Project, the Pantopticon is intended to be a multiauthored research site where the emphasis is on making accessible a vast and well-organized amount of heterogeneous material, and built into the project is the solicitation of new materials and documentation from outside scholars. This print work, however, incorporates a distinct authorial voice enunciating an analytic argument, which would be distracting in the database but which is appropriate to a scholarly monograph. The print object does not supersede the digital database; rather, they complement each other.
The author, a well-known historian of Lavoisier and early modern chemistry, integrates the presentation of these finally accessible visual materials with an erudite discussion of the history of Lavoisian iconography, especially the nineteenth-century creation of the image of Lavoisier as the ideal scientist. In so doing, he reviews the relevant debate of Lavoisier scholars and engages much recent art-historical scholarship concerned with portraits of celebrated natural historians and scientists in which the portrait becomes a tool in the creation of a meritocratic ideology. He points out that there is only a handful of portraits of Lavoisier done from life; most that we see are versions of the famous David portrait. Beretta's iconographic analysis of the David painting (pp. 25-42) is fascinating (the order in which the laboratory equipment is displayed reproduces the chronology of the invention of pneumatic chemistry), and should be read alongside the social analysis of the painting in Jean-Pierre Poirier's monumental Lavoisier.1 [End Page 222]
Beretta's arguments concerning the apocryphal portraits and hommages to Lavoisier after his execution are the most provocative in the book. The lack of a reliable likeness did not stop ideologues from distributing portraits to further the advancement of their political programs. Indeed, Beretta shows that the goal of an icon is to provoke a judgment, not to embody a likeness. In this sense, if I have one quibble with this work, it is that he does not engage the end of Bernadette Bensaude-Vincent's Lavoisier in European Context (1995) or Lisa Jardine's analyses of the creation of an iconography of the Great Man of Science around Boyle, Newton, and Christopher Wren in Ingenious Pursuits: Building the Scientific Revolution (1999), both of which focus on issues of scientific iconography and scientific propaganda. But this book will stimulate further such debate, and it is a welcome addition to Lavoisier scholarship.