European Cosmographer

Date: 1550
Owner: New York Public Library
Source Type: Images


This seventeenth century engraving, Lapis polaris, magnes, depicts a scholar comparing textual knowledge with empirically gathered navigation information. Due to the growth of empiricism that came with Iberian navigation and the exploration of the New World, the knowledge contained in the scholar's books was no longer legitimate merely on the basis of antiquity--it now had to be proven by observation. Although empiricism did much to replace classical learning, there was (and is) a great wealth of still-useful information in antique texts, and scholars such as this one worked to reconcile these two forms of knowledge.

As is apparent from the quantity of instruments in his study, empirical studies required far greater technological resources than textual knowledge, which was self-contained in books. This scholar's tools include an armillary sphere, a quadrant, an hourglass, an astrolabe, and a large water compass. Most of these instruments were used specifically for navigation, and the model ship and harbor scene outside the window emphasize that empirical learning in the early colonial period was inextricably linked with oceanic navigation, itself key to exploiting the riches of the New World.
The new technologies developed in Seville and elsewhere to facilitate American empire eventually became instrumental to modern science on the whole. By the time of the Enlightenment, scientific observations (such as those conducted by Humboldt) were not considered legitimate without verifiable data, information usually gathered with sophisticated instruments. Although fifteenth through seventeenth century Iberian cosmographers developed increasingly precise instruments for very practical purposes (like finding gold and shipping it to Spain), their devices--which enabled accurate measurements--did much to set the foundation for the scientific revolution.

CITATION: Theodore Galle after Johannes Stradanus, Lapis polaris, magnes. From The New York Public Library, Print Collection, The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Divison of Art, Prints and Photographs