Science, Mathematics, and Harmony in the Renaissance

  • MedRen Student practicing Archery
    MedRen Student practicing Archery
  • 1st Dinner Seminar
    1st Dinner Seminar
  • Male Student in Armor
    Male Student in Armor
  • Female Student in Amor
    Female Student in Amor
  • Students at National Gallery of Art
    Students at National Gallery of Art
  • Students looking at Rare Books
    Students looking at Rare Books


Science, Mathematics and Harmony in the Renaissance” explores the many dimensions of science, mathematics and medicine at the historical moment when ancient fields of knowledge were transforming the sciences and the healing arts at the beginning of the modern world.  The cluster focuses in particular on features of science and medicine that make the sciences so fascinating in this period: the sense of wonder that nature evokes, the role of the imagination in scientific/medical discovery, the consequences of quantifying phenomena, the nature of empirical observation, the overlap of the arts and music with scientific knowledge, and applying hard-won knowledge and therapies to everyday life.   Students also learn that science and medicine developed in astonishing and unexpected ways.   Courses explores such topics as Renaissance wonder, harmonies between the human body and nature, the Renaissance fascination with the power of the imagination and empirical knowledge, the power of numbers to shape the understanding nature, and the surprisingly forward-looking ways that occult sciences like alchemy opened up new frontiers of knowing about the human body and material objects.  This is a FOCUS cluster that explores how science, mathematics, medicine, the arts and music can be deeply intertwined and the amazing and unexpected creativity that originated in the Renaissance as a result of this intertwining of the sciences, medicine and the arts.  


History 190FS/Medieval and Renaissance 190FS: Engineers, Doctors and Scientists in the Renaissance (CZ, CCI, STS, W)

Thomas Robisheaux, Fred W. Shaffer Professor of History

This course explores themes in Renaissance design and engineering, science and medicine at the time of the Scientific Revolution.  An “ArchivesAlive!” course that meets in the Rubenstein Library, class readings and assignments feature reading and research in original printed volumes, pamphlets and broadsides from the Renaissance.   Our course materials are ones that created new public spheres of knowledge and debate in the blended disciplines of design, architecture, engineering and art, medicine and alchemy, astronomy and physics, and natural history and ecology.  We study the principles of design developed by Leonardo da Vinci for his works of engineering, painting, sculpture and architecture.   We then explore  the revolution in modern medicine and chemistry brought about by the Swiss physician, Paracelsus, the “modern founder of pharmaceutical medicine.”  Through close observation of nature, Paracelsus developed revolutionary understandings of medicine, including the use of chemicals in medical therapies, the making of medicines from plants, and tapping the magical influences of the stars.  We then turn our attention to the revolution in physics and astronomy with Galileo Galilei and the controversy of the Copernican system.  Is the historical Galileo the same champion of science as the Galileo of modern legend?  In the final segment, the course explores the role of women in science through the life and work of Maria Sibylla Merian.   A naturalist and artist, Merian was captivated with the problem of metamorphosis in insects.   Her ambitious explorations of the flora and fauna in a Dutch colony in South America opened up an entirely new scientific field of investigation (ecology) and fascinated readers of work throughout Europe.  Weekly work in original printed editions from the Renaissance in this ArchivesAlive! course shows students how original historical research is one of the most exciting fields of learning in the social sciences and humanities today

Music 190FS/Medieval and Renaissance 190FS: Music, Medicine, and Natural Science (ALP, CZ)

Roseen Giles, Assistant Professor of Music

This course will explore the history of music as medicine from antiquity to the present day. We will consider the intertwined histories of art and science through topics such as music and healing; musical understandings in human anatomy; harmony in the natural world; cultural studies of music and health; philosophy of sound in cosmology; and music as treatment in the history of medicine. Drawing on a variety of readings, including primary source material from Plato through Ficino, Galileo, and Kepler, to contemporary debates on the efficacy of music in healing and prevention of disease, this course will introduce you to the close connections that have, and continue to exist between the arts and science. You will be encouraged to think critically about the relationships between the arts and the science of healing, between emotional response and objectivity, and between scientific knowledge and cultural practice. In short, the objective of this course is to understand how human creativity—the making and unmaking of what is true and what is false—has driven new discoveries in the science of medicine as much as it has in the art of music. A particular emphasis will be placed on consulting primary sources both digitally and in person at the special collections housed at Duke’s Rubenstein library. Open to all students with or without a background in music.

English 190FS/ Medieval and Renaissance 190FS: Thinkers, Discoverers, and Problem Solvers (ALP, STS)

Astrid Giugni, Visiting Assistant Professor of English

Renaissance mathematicians theorized the probability of winning games of chance, fought duels over the solution of algebraic equations, and discovered imaginary numbers. Their discoveries, in turn, sparked the imagination of other scientists, artists, travelers, as well as of political theorists and writers—but does measuring and quantifying the world spark or suppress the imagination? Is mathematical discovery essential for a sense of wonder at the universe or does it destroy the poetry of the unknown? And how different is science from magic and alchemy?

Taking up these questions in the version proposed by Francis Bacon in his Novum organon (1620), this class explores how Renaissance men and women interpreted the new discoveries in algebra, geometry, and probability. We will begin by reading, in translation, some of the original mathematical works that broke new ground in these fields and learn how to work with pre-modern mathematical conventions. The main concern of the course will be with how these discoveries influenced thinkers as different as Niccolo Machiavelli,  Christopher Marlowe, and John Milton as they wrote about politics, religion, and literature.

Faculty Director

Thomas Robisheaux
Thomas Robisheaux
  • Fred W. Shaffer Professor of History
202 Carr Bldg
Campus Box: 
BOX 90719
(919)684 5979, (919)684 3014