Scientific Revolutions: Music, Medicine, and Literature in the Renaissance


            “Scientific Revolutions: Music, Medicine, and Literature in the Renaissance” explores the role of creativity, discovery, and innovative thinking in the intertwined histories of art and science. All three courses in this cluster ask: “what is a scientific revolution?” “Who or what brings them about?” The subjects explored in these courses—from historical, musical, and literary perspectives—reveal that it was both artists and scientists who inaugurated what we call “scientific revolutions”: watershed moments in learning that ushered in new worldviews and ways of living. Although the arts and sciences have in more recent days been considered two distinct branches of human knowledge, this was not always so. During the Renaissance, the two were connected both in their subject matter and, even more fundamentally, in their pattens of thought: new discoveries in science were informed by artistic ways of thinking and, likewise, new modes of expression in the arts were influenced by the latest scientific innovations. In a period often associated with the beginnings of the modern world, the most influential figures of the Renaissance were as fascinating as they were enigmatic. Their works cannot easily be classified into strictly artistic or scientific fields. Galileo Galilei, Johannes Kepler, and Isaac Newton may be known primarily as scientists, but they were also writers, musicians, and philosophers; Leonardo da Vinci, Giovanni Boccaccio, and Claudio Monteverdi may have earned their reputations as artists, writers, and musicians but they were also inventors, political thinkers, and acousticians. The men and women of the Renaissance were polymaths: imaginative and versatile thinkers who crossed the boundaries between humanistic and scientific knowledge. This cluster explores the surprising ways that these various dimensions of human learning interacted during moments of revolution: how music was used as a tool for understanding the natural world, how art and architecture were connected to the science of anatomy, how literature was interpreted as a political tool, and how medicine was inseparable from harmonic understandings of nature and the human body. The astonishing human creativity that originated in the Renaissance continues to teach us about how we can understand both our world and ourselves.  


Music 190FS / Medieval and Renaissance Studies 190FS - Music and Medicine (ALP, CCI, W)

Roseen Giles

Roseen Giles, Assistant Professor of Music

During the Renaissance music was more than entertainment; it was a fundamental tool for understanding the natural world and the functions of the human body. Music is the seam between the physical and mental: highly mathematical, measurable, and precise, but also magical, mysterious, and capable of speaking to the irrationality of human emotion. This course explores the history of music and medicine with an emphasis on the artistic and scientific culture of the Renaissance. 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; and music as treatment in the history of medicine. Drawing on a variety of readings, including primary source material from Plato through Ficino, Da Vinci, 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. 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. Emphasis is placed on consulting primary sources both digitally and in person at the special collections of Duke’s Rubenstein Library. Open to FOCUS students with or without a background in music.

History 190FS/Medieval and Renaissance 190FS - Renaissance Doctors, Engineers, and Scientists (CZ, STS, W)


Thomas Robisheaux, Fred W. Shaffer Professor of History

This course explores four extraordinary Renaissance careers. At first glance each of them may seem to fit into a kind of profession that seems familiar to us: an engineer and artist (Leonardo), a doctor (Paracelsus), a scientist or natural philosopher (Galileo) and a naturalist and book illustrator (Maria Sibylla Merian). Each of them helped shape the modern science, medicine and technical design, leaving an extraordinary legacy in notebooks, treatises, letters, drawings and paintings. What did each one contribute to the extraordinary changes in science, medicine and/or technology during the “Scientific Revolution”? What did they share in common? What can they teach you as you begin to figure out your own career and professional interests and life path?  An “Archives Alive!” course, this seminar meets in the Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscripts Library where students are introduced to and work regularly with first editions of books, treatises, drawings and other materials published or produced in the Renaissance.  Students learn how to handle rare books, understanding paper, the printing process, the features of a book that tells us about publishing, marketing, distribution, and purchasing books during the print revolution of the Renaissance.

Italian 190FS/Medieval and Renaissance Studies 190FS - Boccaccio, the Disguised Revolutionary (ALP, CZ)

Martin Eisner

Martin Eisner, Professor and Chair of Romance Studies

Medieval and renaissance, radical and conservative, class-warrior and aspiring aristocrat, Boccaccio has been interpreted in contradictory ways since the fourteenth century. The course investigates Boccaccio’s varied production from the Decameron and the Elegy of Madonna Fiammetta in the vernacular to Famous Women and the Genealogy of the Pagan Gods in Latin to analyze how Boccaccio’s revolutionary ideas about fleshly desire, language, gender, cultural diversity, and power not only challenged ideas in his own time but also prompted censored editions and translations through the late 20th century. Interpreting Boccaccio’s works in light of Dante, Ovid, and Apuleius, this course brings into focus the political consequences of Boccaccio’s thought in authors such as Petrarch, Machiavelli, Tullia d’Aragona, Pier Paolo Pasolini, and Margaret Atwood.