Scientists, Artists, and Polymaths in the Renaissance


Scientists, Artists, and Polymaths in the Renaissance explores the role of creativity, discovery, and innovative thinking in the intertwined histories of art and science. 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 patterns 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, Michelangelo, and Claudio Monteverdi may have earned their reputations as artists and musicians but they were also inventors, physicians, and acousticians. The men and women of the Renaissance featured in these courses were polymaths: imaginative and versatile thinkers who crossed the boundaries between humanistic and scientific knowledge. The cluster explores the surprising ways that these various dimensions of human learning interacted: how music was used as a tool for understanding the natural world, how art and architecture were connected to the science of anatomy, how mathematics was used to understand beauty and proportion, how medicine was inseparable from harmonic understandings of nature and the human body. This is a FOCUS cluster that explores how science, mathematics, medicine, the arts and music continue to be deeply connected. 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, Medicine, and Natural Philosophy (ALP, CCI)

Roseen Giles

Roseen Giles, Assistant Professor of Music

During the Renaissance music was a great deal more than a source of entertainment; it was a fundamental tool for understanding both the natural world and the functions of the human body. Music was the seam between the physical and mental: it was highly mathematical, measurable and precise but it was also moving, magical, mysterious, and capable of speaking to the irrationality of human emotion. This course will explore the history of music and medicine with a particular 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; 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 Marsilio Ficino, Galileo Galiei, and Johannes 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.

History 190FS/Medieval and Renaissance 190FS - Engineers, Doctors and Scientists in the Renaissance (CZ, 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. The course focuses on books, essays, pamphlets and printed images from the first generations of the printed book that created new public spheres of knowledge about design and architecture, engineering, art, medicine and alchemy, astronomy and physics, and natural history and ecology. Class readings and assignments therefore feature reading and research in original printed volumes, pamphlets and broadsides from the Renaissance. The course therefore meets frequently in the Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscripts Library.  In our first module we study the principles of Renaissance design developed by Leonardo da Vinci for engineers, architects, painters, and sculptors. We then study the revolution in medicine and chemistry brought about by Paracelsus, the “modern founder of pharmaceutical medicine.” Through first-hand observations of nature, Paracelsus developed radically new approaches to medicine, including the use of chemicals in medical therapies, the making of medicines from plants, and tapping the magical influences of the stars. Our third unit turns to physics and astronomy in a study of Galileo Galilei, religion and the controversy over the Copernican system. How does the historical Galileo compare to our image of Galileo today?   Our final unit explores the role of women in science through the life and work of Maria Sibylla Merian. A naturalist and artist, Merian was captivated by the problem of metamorphosis in insects. Her bold studies of the flora and fauna of South America and Europe enchanted readers and, at the same time, helped create the new scientific field of ecology. Weekly exercises in early printed works from the Renaissance give students experience and insight into crafting original research projects. 

Italian 208FS/Romance Studies 208FS/Medieval and Renaissance 250FS - Gendering the Renaissance (CZ, CCI, EI)

Kate Driscoll

Kate Driscoll, Assistant Professor of Romance Studies

This course studies the debates around women, gender, and sexuality in Renaissance Italy and Europe (ca.1400-1700). Framed historically as the woman question (la querelle des femmes), these debates challenged womens nature, capabilities, and intellect, sparking robust response by women poets and philosophers, as well as by male defenders of the female sex. An interdisciplinary approach studying how gendered expectations for Renaissance women and men emerged across lyric poetry, conduct manuals, medical treatises, political pamphlets, paintings, theater, and early opera. We will contextualize early examples of premodern feminism, anti-feminism, misogyny, and prejudice compared to models today.