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  • Art and Science: Works from the Collection of the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga by Paolo Pereira
  • Jan Baetens
Art and Science: Works from the Collection of the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga
by Paolo Pereira text; and Massimo Listri, photography. Franco Maria Ricci, in collaboration with Champalimaud. Foundation and Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga, Milan, Italy, 2015. 154pp., illus. Trade. ISBN: 978-9-899-92563-2; (Champalimaud Foundation); ISBN:978-9-729-25827-5 (Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga).

At first sight, this book looks like a catalog: that of the masterpieces on display in a premier Portuguese museum. At second sight, it looks like one of the well-known books by Martin Kemp and others on a similar topic. And, true, it is perfectly possible to read it as a catalog and see it as continuation of the line of thinking launched by Kemp and his followers. Such a reading, however, would be unfair to the very original take on the catalog format as well as the art and science subject one finds in this publication.

A collaboration between a major art institution (the National Museum of Ancient Art) and a major institution dedicated to scientific research (the Champalimaud Foundation, equally in Lisbon), this book—the first one of a larger series—explores new ways of bringing together art and science. Generally speaking, this encounter takes two forms. The first one is diachronic: In this case, one investigates the way in which the mutual relationships between art and science evolve through time—and this evolution is not that of a growing divergence but rather a zigzag line of sometimes stronger and sometimes weaker affinities. The second one is synchronic: In this case, one examines the way in which scientific inventions or revolutions have shaped art, or vice versa (although one should never forget that the influence of science on art is easier to observe and probably also more important than that of art on science). Art and Science: Works from the Collection of the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga follows a different path, which aims at showing both the autonomy of both fields (the book opens with a strong statement: “The main concern of Art is not Science. And the main concern is not Art,” p. 13) and their inevitable proximity. This proximity is approached here from the point of view of the arts, more specifically of the visual arts (painting and sculpture), and it is studied in a way that is [End Page 472] neither illustrative nor metaphorical. The book does not try to make a case for “art as research,” which would be the metaphorical way of touching upon the subject. It also refrains from suggesting that artistic achievements can be used to highlight the cultural use-value of technological and scientific devices or concepts, and this would be the illustrative way. Instead, the book departs from the idea that works of art are organized according to certain patterns, models, structures, ways of thinking, social and political debates that can only be understood when related to a certain state of knowledge—a state that, by definition, is always on the move, no less in older periods than in more recent ones.

It is this type of social knowledge, inextricably linked with a wide range of belief systems and traditions, that the authors of this book attempt to disclose. They do so in various ways, which cannot be separated from the material form of their enterprise. Art and Science: Works from the Collection of the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga is more than a lavishly illustrated scholarly study or an extensively captioned iconography. The images of the book offer close-ups of the works under comment, while the texts offer close readings of what the images help visualize. Pereira and Listri have succeeded in building a truly hybrid composition wherein the verbal and the visual seem at once to create each other and be created by each other. While they do reproduce complete paintings, the photographs by Listri highlight in the very first place intriguing details that are the basis for Pereira’s historical comments. This emphasis on the detail can be inferred also from...


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pp. 472-473
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