“Copper engraving,” plate 19 of <i>Nova Reperta</i>, designed by Jan Van der Straet, engraved by Philip Galle, ca 1600 (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

“Copper engraving,” plate 19 of Nova Reperta, designed by Jan Van der Straet, engraved by Philip Galle, ca 1600 (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Jan Van der Straet

NOVEMBER 2, 2020

Scientist of the Day - Jan Van der Straet

Jan Van der Straet, a Flemish artist also known as Stradanus, died Nov. 2, 1605; his date of birth is unknown. Although born in Bruges, he spent most of his life in Florence, where he was known as Giovanni Stradano.  Many of his paintings, frescoes, and tapestries survive, commissioned by the Medici court, but he is best known today for his print designs, which were turned into copper engravings by artists back in Antwerp, such as Philip Galle and Jan Collaert.  Many of the prints were themed and issued as suites, as was common in the late 16th century in the Netherlands.  The two suites most closely connected with science were the Nova Reperta (New Discoveries) and Americae Retectio (Discovery of America).  We will focus here on the Nova Reperta, a collection of 19 plates and an engraved titlepage, all of which were designed by Van der Straet and executed by Galle and Collaert.  The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City (the MET) has a complete set which they have made available on their website in high-resolution images, so we will choose from those for our reproductions here.

The inventions or discoveries that Van der Straet chose to highlight were, in order:  discovering America, the compass, gunpowder, printing, iron clocks, guaiac (remedy for malaria), distillation, silk-making, stirrups, the waterwheel, the windmill, pressing olive oil, refining sugar, oil painting, glasses, finding longitude, armor, the astrolabe, and copper engraving.  The choice itself is interesting, especially the grouping of compass, gunpowder, and printing, which Francis Bacon had not yet singled out as the three great examples of discoveries that were not indebted to ancient science.

The plates I chose to show here are ones not often reproduced (as is the discovery of America).  We begin with plate 19, copperplate engraving (first image), and follow with the invention of eyeglasses (no. 15; second image) and iron clockwork (no. 5; third image).  Notice how elaborate the design is for each image, with the plate on engraving, for example, showing all the stages of the process – design, burin work, etching, printing, and drying.

The engraved title page shows the equivalents of thumbnails for only the first ten inventions, suggesting that the suite was expanded after the title page was designed (fourth image). You can find the rest of prints in the suite by entering “Nova Reperta” into the search box on any MET page.  One of the treasures you will find is the original drawing for the “Discovery of America” plate (no. 1), attributed at the lower right to “Ioannes Stradanus” (fifth image).

The plates are not dated, and the actual time of their execution is uncertain.  The MET dates their set to ca. 1600, but they also attribute them to Jan Collaert, even though most of the plates are signed “Phil. Galle,” who we know was working on the engravings in the 1580s,  In 1953, the Burndy Library issued a facsimile of the Nova Reperta and Americae Retectio, and they date their set to 1638, so clearly the plates were issued several times, and possibly even recut, as the Burndy Library set is attributed to the sons of Philip Galle and Jan Collaert.  This set, by the way, is well worth acquiring, if you can find a copy, as the plates are large (full-size) and unbound, with an introduction by Bern Dibner.  We have a set of the 1953 edition in the Library.

There is a fine chalk-and-wash portrait of Van der Straet by another great Flemish artist, Hendrik Goltzius, in the Netherlands Institute for Art (sixth image) Dr. William B. Ashworth, Jr., Consultant for the History of Science, Linda Hall Library and Associate Professor emeritus, Department of History, University of Missouri-Kansas City. Comments or corrections are welcome; please direct to ashworthw@umkc.edu.