Before the sixteenth century, bugs and other creepy-crawlies could be found in the margins of manuscripts. Over the course of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, insects crawled their way to the center of books, paintings, and other media of natural history illustration. Janice Neri’s wonderful book charts this transformation in the practices of depicting insects through the early modern period. Inspired by the archaeology of Foucault but using an approach that spans the history of science, art history, and visual studies, The Insect and the Image: Visualizing Nature in Early Modern Europe, 1500-1700 (University of Minnesota Press, 2011) identifies a “specimen logic” through which images of insects were removed from their habitats, decontextualized, and mobilized into networks of regional and global exchange and circulation. Part I of the book traces the emergence of insects as subject matter for artistic representation, looking in turn at the work of Joris Hoefnagel, Ulisse Aldrovandi, Thomas Moffet, and still-life painters from 1580-1620. The choices made by these artists contributed to the transformation of ideas about nature as controllable and commodifiable. Part II shifts our attention to the later seventeenth century, and considers how the work of artists such as Robert Hooke and Maria Sibylla Merian helped visualize insects (as well as their own professional identities) anew across several media. Neri’s work urges us to reconsider some common binaries that tend to characterize thinking and writing about images in history: art/science, professional/amateur, image/object.
To see some of the images that we talked about in the interview, check out the following links:
Hoefnagel images can be found here, and the stag beetle is here.
Digitized images from Aldrovandi’s work can be navigated to from here [site is in Italian].
The Van Der Ast image can be found here.