By Susanna Berger

Princeton ISBN 978 0 691 17227 9   £54.95

 reviewed by Alan Dent


        From the early seventeenth century to the beginning of the eighteenth elaborate and usually high-crafted images were employed as a means of illustrating philosophical ideas for students. Many of the works included in this study were produced in Paris (arguably the most advanced centre of philosophical teaching of the time) but some come from Leuven or Rome, or even as far away as Mexico. Aristotle, of course, made use of instructional images on the grounds that our primary contact with reality is through our senses. “When the mind is actively aware of anything it is necessarily aware of it with an image,” he wrote. Quite how this tallies with modern conceptions of how the brain produces and handles concepts is moot, as, perhaps, is the question of just how effective images are at facilitating the grasp of intellectual subtleties. Susanna Berger has chosen a highly specialised subject which many people may have little inkling of. From is she has produced a remarkable, fascinating study, impressive in its detail and thorough in its treatment.

            As an object, the book is a delight. Printed on high quality paper it contains a cornucopia of images drawn from books, broadsides (the large prints used as teaching aids) alba amicorum (friendship albums) and student notebooks. The latter are quite amazing in their skilled draughtsmanship and dedication – a reminder, perhaps, of how seriously learning was taken as a good in itself during the period. Berger writes in a clear, uncluttered style avoids theoretical flights of fancy, organizes the material so it is accessible to the non-specialist and in her commentary is insightful and thought-provoking.

            It is helpful to have some basic knowledge of Latin, especially for the appendices, but Berger sensibly provides translations throughout the text (there is perhaps one quibble – she translates Cuntae res difficiles non potest homo eas sermone explicare as All things are hard: men cannot explain them by word; perhaps All difficult things can’t be explained by men’s words might be closer.)

            Probably the most important names in the book are Meurisse, Chéron and Gaultier, producers of internationally influential thesis prints. Meurisse was born in Picardie in 1584, grew in poverty, joined the Franciscans in his home town and moved to Paris to join the Cordeliers. Between 1614 and 1618 he produced, along with the engraver Gaultier, Artificiosa totius logices descriptio (Artful description of logic in its entirety); Clara totius physiologiae synopsis (Clear synopsis of physics in its entirety); Laurus metaphysica (Laurel of metaphysics); Tableau industrieux  de toute la philosophie morale (Artful table of moral philosophy in its entirety) and Typus necessitates logicae ad alias scientias capessendas (Scheme of the necessity of logic for grasping the other branches of knowledge). The Artificiosa and the Typus are included  in fold-out posters, the others across two pages. They are extraordinary documents. Berger points out that the Artificiosa and the Typus are divided into segments which viewer-readers of the prints were expected to follow in order to understand them. She mentions too their extraordinary complexity, especially the Typus which depicts more than a hundred figures scrambling, stumbling, sailing in pursuit of knowledge and wisdom. It’s perhaps worth reflecting again on how this points to the high seriousness with which learning was taken at the time. In our more utilitarian age where many students see learning as the route to a job providing money and status, it’s well to be reminded that much of our intellectual and cultural inheritance comes from people who if they had ulterior motives, recognised it was best to be modest about them.

            Berger’s comparative discussion of the Typus and the Descriptio is instructive and interpretive. There is a mass of detail: for example, in the Typus King Solomon sits top left and the inscriptions show he is being asked Vnde venit sapientia ? (Where does wisdom come from ?) and Quis est locus intelligentiae? ( Where is the place of understanding?) A further inscription declares: Causa inveniendae philosophiae fuit ignorantia. (The instigator of philosophy was ignorance). This was its primary cause, followed by wonder, appetite and experience.

            Interestingly, the inscription (Sapientia) non invenitur in terra suaviter viventium ( Wisdom is not found in the land of those who live in delights) suggests an appreciation of the difficulties of dispassionate intellectual inquiry. The Typus examines the different operations of the mind (forming concepts, making distinctions etc) as part of its wide, expansive attempt to understand the nature of learning and understanding. Later, Berger, examines how the Descriptio and the Typus influenced Johann Justus Winkelmann whose Logica memorativa was published in 1725, indicating how enduring was the work of Meurisse, Gaulthier and Chéron.

            Chapter three deals with student notebooks, a very different matter from the notes students produce today. In Paris and Leuven, study of philosophy was obligatory for students. The illustrations which accompanied the notes they were required to copy, an intellectual task of some discipline in itself, were not doodles or idle complements, but intellectual exercises . Berger points out that visual art begins in intellectual experience. Students used visual representations as a means of aiding their understanding. Their drawings display expert draughtsmanship and evidence of long application. Once again, this points to the high-minded seriousness which attended learning at the time, the strict self-discipline and absorption in the task it required.

            The same skills which went into the illustrations of the notebooks are found too in the alba amicorum. These included the square of opposition, an ingenious depiction of the logical relations between propositions and the taxonomic Tree of Porphyry. The rector of the Latin school in Tiel, Johannes van Aelhuijsen included in his album in c 1655 a marvellous coloured drawing depicting Eloquentiae Latinae Triumphus (The Triumph of Latin Eloquence) in which Athena and Fame ride in a chariot pulled by two white horses, Athena carrying a portrait of Cicero. The latter’s wise advice on oratory and rhetoric could serve some of our politicians well. Yet not all was so serious: there was bawdy too: in a drawing featured  in the album of Georg Christoph Wagenbronner , a boy plays drums placed on a woman’s behind as she lies on her bed observed by a masked jester; but the part of the page on which the drums are painted can be lifted to expose the woman’s bare buttocks. This illustration may have been intended to provoke laughter but it is nonetheless expertly drawn.

            In chapter five, Berger discusses Dürer and Hobbes, the later understanding the importance of visual eloquence as a means of making his arguments. There is much more to be said about this excellent and remarkable book. It is a revelation and a pleasure. It is of interest not only to art historians but to anyone curious about how many of our fundamental intellectual concepts were taught and passed down to us. It is altogether fascinating; the kind of book you never tire of reading.

            Perhaps one of its greatest virtues is to make us inordinately grateful for the diligence, seriousness and application of the people whose work it examines. Needless to say, Berger too displays those qualities in great measure.