Robert Boyle’s Experimental Proof of the Possibility of the Resurrection

In 1675 the natural philosopher Robert Boyle (1627-1691) published a text with an unusual title – Some Physico-Theological Considerations about the Possibility of the Resurrection. Robert Boyle was a founding member of the Royal Society of London, and is mostly famous today for his contributions to the science that we now call chemistry.

The ‘Shannon Portrait’ of Robert Boyle by Johann Kerseboom. Painted in 1698, the portrait can now be found at the Chemical Heritage Foundation in Philadelphia, USA.

Boyle was a man of deep Christian piety, and his activities as an experimental scientist were as much an expression of this piety as were his extensive writings on religious matters. Indeed Boyle wrote several books grappling – in an intellectually ambitious manner – with difficult questions about the role that scientific inquiry could play in bringing people closer to (what he saw as) theological truths. You can see Boyle’s Some Physico-Theological Considerations about the Possibility of the Resurrection as part of a broader effort on his part to work out the extent to which the powers of human reason could be used to make inferences out about the nature of God. In fact he published it at the end of a much longer book on just this topic – Some Considerations about The Reconcileableness of Reason and Religion.

In Some Physico-Theological Considerations Boyle carefully considered the extent to which science could furnish insights about one of the grandest claims made in the Bible. This was the promise that, at the very end of time, God would cause all the people who had ever lived to be resurrected, complete with their original bodies. From the outset, Boyle made it clear that his intention was not to argue that humans could understand exactly how such an event could take place. For Boyle, the resurrection would not be the outcome of the normal natural processes that natural philosophers could understand. God would make it happen through his endless power and wisdom:

“[…] when I treat of the possibility of the General Resurrection, I take it for granted, that God has been pleas’d to promise and declare, that there shall be one, and that it shall be effected, not by or according to the ordinary course of Nature, but by his own Power.”


In this way Boyle made it clear that he did not intend to inquire too far into sacred mysteries. His intention was not to explain the resurrection. He limited himself instead to a more modest aim – that of using his knowledge of natural processes to show that the resurrection was at least possible. What Boyle sought to do, then, was to show that some of the processes observable in natural phenomena had resurrection-like qualities.

Boyle therefore set about trying to understand what kinds of physical processes would need to take place for a human body to be resurrected. He quickly encountered a major problem. After death, human bodies generally decay and are transformed into other substances. How was it possible for God to restore out bodies to their original state if the matter that made us up had been distributed among countless other organisms, and even into the air itself? It was surely not possible that “so many scatter’d parts should be again brought together, and reunited after the same manner wherein they existed in a humane Body”.

Boyle’s strongest response to this objection consisted in a simple but rather profound observation. Far from being stable entities made up of the same matter all the time, our bodies are in fact in a state of continual flux. We are continually taking in matter, in the form of food, and shedding old matter. At no times is this truer than when the human body grows during childhood and adolescence:

“a Humane Body is not as a Statue of Brass or Marble, that may continue; as to sense, whole ages in a permanent state; but is in a perpetual flux or changing condition, since it grows in all its Parts, and all its Dimensions, from a Corpusculum, no bigger than an Insect, to the full stature of Man”

Boyle’s point, then, was that the matter making up a human body in fact changes a great deal over the course of a lifetime, and that human identity is not necessarily bound up with being made out of the same particles of matter at any given moment. This observation changed, for Boyle, the nature of the task that was ascribed to God in the promise of the resurrection. God did not need to gather together all the particles of matter that had once made up each individual. Doing this would actually result in the resurrection of deformed monsters, since God would end up gathering up much more matter than was actually required. Instead, all God needed to do was to be able to transform particles of matter into particles of the same kind that had made up human bodies. What God needed to do was to be able to chemically extract the particles of human matter that had been transformed into other substances after death, and return them to the bodies they had come from, in their original form and composition.

Now, Boyle did not think that natural philosophy could explain how such a massive and complex operation could actually take place. Yet he was confident that many examples of such chemical transformations – albeit on a smaller scale – could be observed in quite common natural phenomena and experiments. The transmutation of matter from one substance to another – and back again – was a surprisingly common occurrence.

To prove his point, Boyle used the example of a relatively simple chemical experiment – one that he had discussed in his earlier book about the theory of matter, The Origin of Forms and Qualities (1666). You can see this experiment in the youtube video below. All that happens is this. You start with concentrated sulphuric acid in a flask. If you add camphor to the flask, you end up with an odourless, yellow solution. For Boyle it was really important that the camphor appeared at this point to have become a different substance entirely. So he took time to point out that the main qualities associated with camphor – its white colour, brittle texture and sharp aroma – all disappear when it is mixed with the acid. Yet when water is added to this mixture, the camphor precipitates out of the solution again. The camphor is apparently resurrected through a chemical intervention, with its white colour, strong smell and even its brittle texture once again evident.

Here is Boyle’s description of the experiment:

“[…] if you take a piece of Camphire, and let it lie awhile upon Oyl of Vitriol, shaking them now and then, it will be so corroded by the Oyl, as totally to disappear therein without retaining so much as its smell, or any manifest quality, whereby one may suspect there is Camphire in that Mixture; and yet, that a Vegetable substance, thus swallowed up, and changed by one of the most fretting and destroying substances that is yet known in the world, should not only retain the essential qualities of its Nature, but be restorable to its obvious and sensible ones, in a minute, and that by so unpromising a medium as common water, you will readily grant, if you pour the dissolved Camphire into a large proportion of that Liquor, to whose upper parts it will immediately emerge white, brittle, strong-scented, and inflameable Camphire, as before.”

Boyle saw this experiment as a compelling piece of evidence for the possibility that God could effect the resurrection of all human bodies at the end of time. This was because it suggested the possibility not only of creating new substances through chemical interventions (mimicking the decomposition of the body after death), but even of restoring altered substances to their pristine states, just as the Bible promised would happen to human bodies at the end of time. For Boyle, then, chemical experiments could provide powerful evidence for his theological principles.


The film featured in this video was made when I was a fellow (2013-14) in the Materialities, Texts and Images Program, a collaboration between Caltech and the Huntington Library. I am very grateful to all my colleagues at Caltech and the Huntington for making this filming possible, in particular John Brewer, Steve Hindle and Candace Younger. I am also very grateful to Melissa Ray and Kapauhi Stibbard for assisting me in making the film itself.

Knowledge & Taste in the 18th Century: An MTI Workshop

Please check out the workshop that I have arranged, to take place at Caltech on June 2nd:

Here’s the Program:

Knowledge & Taste in the 18th Century: Program

June 2nd, Treasure Room, Dabney Hall
California Institute of Technology


9.00-9.30: Coffee and Pastries

9.30-10.00: Welcome and Introduction
Alexander Wragge-Morley (MTI Fellow, Caltech and The Huntington Library)

10.00-11.00: Dialogues on Taste: men, women and the matter of luxury
Elizabeth Eger (Department of English, King’s College London)

11.00-12.00: The Sun Pictures: Making and Disfiguring Enlightenment ‘Photography’
Matthew Hunter (Department of Art History & Communication Studies, McGill University)

12.00-1.00: Lunch in Dabney Garden

1.00-2.00: An Impossible Category: The Picturesque in Eighteenth-century British Aesthetics
Timothy Costelloe (Department of Philosophy, William and Mary College)

2.00-3.00: The Third Age of Description
Joanna Stalnaker (Department of French and Romance Philology, Columbia University)

3.00-3.15: Coffee Break

3.15-4.15: Materializing Taste through the Rococo Cartouche
Michael Yonan (University of Missouri, Columbia, and Swedish Collegium for Advanced Study)

4.15-5.00: Roundtable Discussion (Participants to be Confirmed)

Image: William Cheselden giving an anatomical demonstration c.1730 Oil on canvas, 79.7 x 60.5 cm. Unknown artist.

Do Moles Really Have Eyes?

In my previous post, discussing attempts to interpret Stonehenge in the 17th Century, I suggested that some scientists of the seventeenth century thought that natural things had been designed by God. This meant that they sometimes found it useful to think about natural things as if they had been designed by people, perhaps using processes similar to architectural design or the design of clocks and watches.

There was, however, a crucial difference between things designed by people, and those designed by God. For these scientists, that difference was related to perfection. For devoutly Christian naturalists such as John Ray (1621-1705), it was pretty much self-evident that everything designed by God had to have been designed perfectly. There was no way, he thought, that God could have made something that was less than perfect. Ray argued this in a theological work published in 1691, The Wisdom of God Manifested in the Works of Creation.

This argument, which served both as an attempted proof of God’s existence and an important explanatory tool in scientific inquiry, threw up some big difficulties. If every type of animal and plant was perfect, could it nevertheless be claimed that some species were more perfect than others? Are humans more perfect, for example, than oysters or clams? Distinctions like these were important to seventeenth-century thinkers, who often wanted to show that God had shown special favour to humanity by endowing men and women with special qualities to distinguish them from animals? But this creates big problems. Robert Boyle, for example, worried about the possibility that God might seem like a bad designer to people who compared oysters with humans. How can an oyster have been ‘perfectly’ designed if, unlike humans, it can neither see nor hear.

Another difficulty was thrown up by animals that seemed to have redundant organs, which today we can explain using evolutionary arguments. One such animal was the mole, which seemed to possess eyes – albeit eyes that were not much use for seeing things. How could such eyes be an example of perfection in design? One response to such worries was to make arguments about the adaptation of species to their specific circumstances.


Skeleton of a Mole on display in the Museum of Jurassic Technology, Culver City, California.

In his Wisdom of God, Ray brought up the example of the mole, citing the philosopher Henry More, who had discussed in the 1650s. He made a virtue of the mole’s seeming impairment, arguing that its poor eyesight was an example of masterful design:

Dr. More produces an eminent Instance in a poor contemptible Quadruped, the Mole. First of all (saith he) her dwelling being under ground, where nothing is to be seen, Nature hath so obscurely fitted her with Eyes, that Naturalists can scarcely agree, whether she hath any Sight at all or no (In our Observation, Moles have perfect Eyes, and holes for them through the Skin, so that they are outwardly to be seen by any that shall diligently search for them; though indeed they are exceeding small, not much bigger than a great Pins head.).

 In other words, Ray tried to show that the mole was a perfect creature, perfectly adapted to its dark, underground way of life.

N.B. In NO WAY is this an endorsement of ‘intelligent design’ theories, which have no place in modern discussions of nature. I am simply discussing ideas held by seventeenth century naturalists.

Interpreting Stonehenge in the 17th Century

This follows from the previous post, describing the strategies used by Robert Hooke in the 1660s for understanding snowflakes.  As I mentioned there, Hooke thought that snowflakes were the ruins of once-perfect forms, having suffered much from violent winds on their way down to the ground.

A number of people moving in Hooke’s circle – and those who came before and influenced it – were intrigued by another set of ruins.  These were the ruins making up Stonehenge.  We can find some fascinating parallels between the drawings and interpretative moves that they used to try to understand what that famous stone circle had once looked like, and those use by Hooke on snowflakes.

Inigo Jones’s Roman Stonehenge

One of the most influential seventeenth-century interpretations of Stonehenge was put together by the famous architect Inigo Jones. He is remembered today as England’s first major architect in the classical style: you can see the Banqueting House that he designed for Charles I on Whitehall. Charles was later executed in front of that very building.

It might come as a surprise, given all that we now know about Stonehenge, to learn that Inigo Jones declared it to be a Roman building. In fact, he even asserted that he knew exactly what the ruin had once looked like, and that he could therefore decode its meaning precisely. Like Hooke, he tried to draw the building as it once had been – not as it appeared to his own eyes. Here is one of his most important drawings:


Plate 2 from Inigo Jones, The most notable Antiquity of Great Britain Vulgarly called STONE-HENGE on Salisbury Plain. Restored by INIGO JONES Esquire, Architect Generall to the late KING, edited by John Webb (London, 1655).

For Jones, this drawing of the ground plan of Stonehenge as it must once have been was a key piece of evidence proving its Roman origins. This was because it demonstrated – if his reconstruction was correct – that the inner circle of stones formed a hexagon. You can see it marked out in the centre of the image above, formed in the middle of 4 equilateral triangles drawn into the ground plan. The existence of this hexagon was the key, as Jones saw it, to the meaning of Stonehenge. It poved to him that a Roman architect must have come up with the design:

‘the Scheam also by which this work Stoneheng formed, was an Architectonicall Scheam used by the Romans.’

In other words, Jones’s own reconstruction of the geometric plan of Stonehenge proved that it had been designed by a Roman architect – just the sort of architect who would design ground plans based on regular, geometrical forms such as squares, rectangles, hemispheres, hexagons and so on. This in turn validated Jones’s choice of drawing. Since the building had been built by Roman architects, it made sense to represent Stonehenge using just the sort of drawing – a ground plan – used by all Roman architects to begin their designs. Such a drawing would reveal much more about the intentions of the designer than one that focused on the appearance of individual stones or some other aspect of Stonehenge.

Having made these moves, Jones could set about decoding Stonehenge by finding other Roman buildings that, he thought, had been designed with similar ground-plans and similar proportions. By consulting the works of the Roman architect Vitruvius he could easily conclude that Stonehenge had once been a temple dedicated to the God Uranus. As Robert Hooke did when comparing his snowflakes to urine crystals, he sought out more perfect examples of the design that he thought he had located in the ruins before his eyes, using those more perfect examples to work out what the ruins had once been like. Here is another of Jones’s is startling images of a Roman Stonehenge:


Competing Interpretations: Isaac Newton and John Aubrey

Unsurprisingly, Jones’s interpretation didn’t gain much traction in the second half of the century. But Hooke’s contemporaries, including Isaac Newton and the antiquary John Aubrey, kept up his interest in Stonehenge and were much influenced by his ideas. Newton, for example, rejected the idea that the plan of the monument was hexagonal – but only to suggest that the plan was in fact heptagonal. This seven-sided configuration also indicated the work of ancient architects who designed using plans. However, it suggested a rather different meaning and possibly different builders too. Newton ventured the possibility that the designers had opted for seven sides because they wanted to indicate that there were seven planets in orbit around the sun. Perhaps, he suggested, the builders of Stonehenge had been skilled architects who sought to embed astronomical knowledge in the plans of their buildings.

It remained for Aubrey to debunk such esoteric theories. He came closest in the seventeenth century to attributing Stonehenge to its real builders by arguing that it was essentially pre-architectural, having been designed and built by ancient Britons who did not lay out buildings in the Roman/classical manner. In his own notes, Aubrey demonstrated this by trying – and failing – to draw the layout of Stonehenge inside the hexagon that, according to Jones, it ought to fit into. Here are some of his efforts:

You can see how Aubrey's drawings of the outline of the inner circle of Stonehenge compare very poorly to the hexagon drawn on the right.

You can see how Aubrey’s drawings of the outline of the inner circle of Stonehenge compare very poorly to the hexagon drawn on the right. Even the heptagons that he manages to draw are rather uneven.

By rejecting Jones’s ‘hexagon’ theory, Aubrey made the work of interpreting Stonehenge’s design much harder. No longer could he refer to ancient architectural manuals in order to search out the meanings of certain forms and proportions. Instead, he had to trawl through a mass of evidence that we would now see as archaeological and ethnographic, trying to tease out meaning from sources that did not reveal it easily. Jones, on the other hand, tapped into a powerful design paradigm, confident in the assumption that his drawings revealed the most meaningful and revealing aspects of Stonehenge’s design. Aubrey also thought that Stonehenge had been designed – but he suspected that its meaning would be harder to uncover, and that it might not be so easily revealed in a series of formal drawings.

Natural History and Design

There are here, I think, many fascinating parallels to the work that Hooke did in trying to reveal the design of snowflakes. Like the restorers of Stonehenge, he thought that his samples were ruined, and that he had to work in order to find out what they had once been like. He tried to represent them in a way that might reveal the most important aspects of their form, and he sought out comparisons that might help inform the representations he had made. In fact, naturalists like Hooke often found themselves dealing with ruined samples of nature, whether bruised and battered animal skins or dried up bits of plant. Very often they found themselves having to describe not what they saw in front of them, but instead what that thing had once been like. And to do this they used, as we will see in the third post of this series, very similar resources to those employed by the restorers of Stonehenge. In part, this was because of one very important similarity that they perceived between buildings like Stonehenge and natural productions like snowflakes. They thought that all of these things had been designed by an intelligent agent, and that it made sense to interpret them in ways that would reveal the operations of that agent. They believed that natural things and works of art alike could be made to reveal principles of design.

N.B. In NO WAY is this an endorsement of ‘intelligent design’ theories, which have no place in modern discussions of nature. I am simply discussing ideas held by seventeenth century naturalists and antiquarians.

God and the Origins of Neuroscience

This post accompanies a talk that given by me in Somerville College chapel on 27th January, 2013. Unlike many of the posts that I have put up so far, which have been related to my teaching, this is connected to my own research.  Over the next few months the blog will have a lot more to say about my research.

God and the Origins of Neuroscience

In 1664 one of the first thorough physiological descriptions of the brain and nerves was published, with the title Cerebri Anatome, cui accessit Nervorum Descriptio et Usus (‘The Anatomy of the Brain, to which is added the Description and Use of the Nerves’).  The book’s author was Thomas Willis (1621-1675), a prominent medical doctor and – by this time – the Sedleian Professor of Natural Philosophy at Oxford University.  Willis opened the book with a remarkable dedication to the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Gilbert Sheldon (the man who financed the building of the Sheldonian Theatre):

For when I had resolved to unlock the secret places of Mans Mind, and to look into the living and breathing Chapel of the Deity (as far as our weakness was able) I thought it not lawful to make use of the Favours and Patronage of a less Person, neither perhaps would it have become me. For You indeed are He, who most happily presides (both by Merit and Authority) over all our Temples and Sacred Things. Therefore after I had slain so many Victims, whole Hecatombs almost of all Animals, in the Anatomical Court, I could not have thought them rightly offered, unless they had been brought to the most holy Altar of Your Grace.

It is fascinating to see here how Willis suggests that the human brain – the object of his inquiries – was nothing less than ‘the living and breathing Chapel of the Deity’.  In fact, this entire passage is full of religious imagery; the last sentence paints a picture of Willis dedicating the many creatures that he dissected as sacrifices at the altar of the Temple of Solomon, depicting Sheldon as the High Priest.  The story that I will tell here about Willis’s Anatomy of the Brain is now, however, one about the interconnections between ‘science’ and ‘religion’ in the past.  Instead, it is about people for whom making such associations seemed entirely natural, and for whom dissecting the brain was to search for (what they saw as) the elusive, semi-divine immortal soul.

Thomas Willis and his Work

Thomas Willis, who ran an extremely successful medical practice, belonged to a philosophical circle based initially in Oxford that grew into Britain’s modern day academy of science, the Royal Society.  Among his friends and colleagues were the chemist Robert Boyle, John Wilkins (who attempted to devise a universal language) and Christopher Wren, architect of the Sheldonian Theatre.  By the 1660s Willis had decided to investigate the workings of the human brain and nervous system. With the assistance of several others, including Wren, he set about the large number of dissections of human and animal bodies that would be needed to complete the work.

Willis seems to have felt keenly the disturbing and unpleasant aspects of his work. On one occasion in 1650 Willis had been about to begin a dissection when he discovered that the body, freshly arrived from the gallows, was a still-living person who had somehow survived her execution.  Yet he also felt that dissection was the only way to get the knowledge that he sought:

Minerva was born from the Brain, Vulcan with his Instruments playing the Midwife: For either by this way, viz. by Wounds and Death, by Anatomy, and a Caesarean Birth, Truth will be brought to Light, or for ever lye hid.

Discoveries and Theories

By June 1663, according to a letter written by Willis’s assistant Richard Lower, the work was nearly at an end and Wren had nearly finished the book’s beautiful illustrations. In 1664, the book was published.

Ask any neurologist today why Willis’s work is important, and he or she will tell you that the Anatomy is the founding work of modern neurology (a term coined by Willis himself).  In the Cerebri Anatome he announced two discoveries – made as the result of exhaustive anatomies – that hold true today.  The first was a circle of arteries that supply blood to the base of the brain, the so-called ‘Circle of Willis‘.  Second, and even more important, was his successful demonstration that different parts of the brain, identifiable as separate structures, regulate distinct bodily and mental functions. The cerebellum and medulla oblongata, for example, appeared to regulate involuntary and motor functions.  Higher cognitive functions, including the operations of imagination (which for Willis meant, roughly speaking, having ideas of things and placing them alongside each other) and memory, belonged to the cerebrum, the brain proper.

Cut-away diagram depicting (among other things) the medulla oblongata and cerebellum. The cerebrum is not labelled but is coloured pink here.

Willis arrived at such interesting conclusions because he pursued a comparative method.  Rather than just investigate human brains, he dissected many different animal brains, including birds, cats and sheep, in order to compare them all together.  This revealed that human and animal brains are similar in many respects, and that some animal brains are more similar to human brains than others.

Let’s take the example of cats.  Willis observed that the cerebellum of cats is very similar to the human cerebellum, differing only in its size.  Yet the cerebrum in cats differs very much from the human cerebrum.  The human cerebrum is full of folds, giving the ‘grey matter’ its characteristic convoluted appearance.  But the cat’s cerebrum has many fewer of these folds, arranged in a much simpler fashion.  For Willis, these differences – a very similar cerebellum and a much simpler (and proportionately smaller) cerebrum – accounted in some measure for the differences in behaviour between cats and humans:

Those Gyrations or Turnings about in four footed beasts are fewer, and in some, as in a Cat, they are found to be in a certain figure and order: wherefore this Brute thinks on, or remembers scarce anything but that the instincts and needs of Nature suggest.  In the lesser four-footed beasts, also in Fowls and Fishes, the superficies of the brain being plain and even, wants all cranklings and turnings about: wherefore these sort of Animals comprehend or learn by imitation fewer things, and those almost only of one kind; for that in such, distinct cells, and parted one from another, are wanting, in which the divers Species and Ideas of things are kept apart.

To put it in simpler terms, Willis argued that humans and animals have similar involuntary and motor functions, and this could be accounted for by the presence of a near-identical structure in the brain.  But the human capacity for imagination – for combining ideas – and memory could partially be accounted for by the more complex structure of the cerebrum.

The Search for the Soul

But what about the creatures that in fact have very similar brains to humans?  Willis knew that some animals had brains with much better-developed cerebra.  I am not sure if Willis had primates in mind when he started to discuss this issue, but it is worth mentioning that by the end of the seventeenth century it was quite well known that primate brains were very similar to those of humans.  In 1698 Edward Tyson brought out Orang-Outang, sive Homo Sylvestris: or, the Anatomy of a Pygmie Compared with that of a Monkey, an Ape, and a Man, a work that explicitly noted this fact.  Compare his images of the Chimpanzee brain with that of a human from Willis’s Cerebri Anatome:

Tyson_Edward-Orangoutang_sive_Homo_sylvestris-Wing-T3598-299_12-p67 (2)

Images of a chimpanzee brain from Tyson’s Homo Sylvestris

T Willis, Cerebri Anatome

Image of the base of the human brain from Willis’s Cerebri Anatome

Willis did not deduce from this, as you might expect, a sort of evolutionary theory about human origins.  Instead, he used the similarity between human and animal brains to form conclusions about the thing that, in a way, he had been searching for all along – the immortal soul, referred to by him as the ‘rational soul’.  The problem was like this.  True, humans and animals had very similar brains.  But humans also seem to be capable of a great deal more conscious thought and deliberate action than animals.  Willis and others had noticed that animals such as primates (and even dolphins) seem to exhibit emotional states.  Nevertheless, Willis saw that the differences between human and animal cognition are very great indeed.  Since there was no structural difference in the brain (that he could observe), he attributed the differences to the presence, in the human brain, of an immortal soul – a unique gift from God that distinguished humans from animals.  Therefore, animals (Willis used the word ‘brutes’) had a machine-like soul, the functions of which could be attributed to the machinery of the brain.  Willis stated the matter in a later work, De Anima Brutorum (1672) (‘On the Soul of Brutes’), like this:

As we have shewn, by comparing the Corporeal [bodily] Soul of the Brute, with the Rational Soul of Man, what vast difference there is between them, perhaps it might be to this purpose, to compare the Brains of either, and to observe their differences.  But this Anatomy being elsewhere made, we have noted little or no difference in the Head of either, as to the Figures and Exterior Coformations of the Parts, the Bulk only excepted; that from hence we concluded, the Soul Common to Man with Brutes, to be only Corporeal [part of the body], and immediately to use these Organs

The search for the soul, and by extension an attempt to work out the place of humans in relation to God, was an important part of Willis’s anatomical agenda.  He lived in a time and a place when neurological research had striking, immediate implications for how people conceived of the experience of having feelings, ideas, knowing things and believing (or not) in God.  Willis was not alone in contemplating such things, and in trying to find out precisely where the soul might find its home in the brain.  Willis concluded that the soul must inhabit a body called the corpus callosum (see the diagram above), a structure that links the cerebrum with the cerebellum and medulla oblongata.  The great French philosopher René Descartes, meanwhile, had settled for the pineal gland, which sits nearby.

The Cerebri Anatome proved immensely influential  as soon as it came out, and contemporaries lost no time at all in working out its implications for matters of religious belief, mental health and the appreciation of the arts and literature. Although Willis decided to attribute many of the mind’s functions to the immortal soul, his argument that even some of our thoughts and feelings are caused by the mechanics of the brain was controversial, and powerful.  It provided people with new ways of thinking about the causes of pleasure and pain, as well as mental disturbance, in turn leading them to develop theories about art and mental illness that have powerful legacies today.  I will explore some of these in future posts.

A Letter from Aretino to Michelangelo, September 1537: ‘The World has Many Kings but only one Michelangelo’

I am not a historian of the Renaissance, but this year I am teaching a ‘special subject’ (based on lots of original documents and objects from the time) about the Renaissance in Florence and Venice, 1475-1525. When reading the letters written on the subject of painting and sculpture by Pietro Aretino I have, as I mentioned in my last post, been struck by his attempts to paint pictures in the minds of his readers with words.  In my last post I gave an example of Aretino’s attempt to paint a scene in Titian’s mind (perhaps to encourage Titian to paint something similar with brushes, paints and canvas?).  Here, I want to share with you an amazingly bold letter in which Aretino sought to influence Michelangelo‘s composition of his famous Last Judgment, which Michelangelo painted in the Sistine Chapel (a chapel in the Pope’s palace in Rome) over the years 1536-1541.  Michelangelo must have been some way along with the work when he received Aretino’s letter of September 1537.

At the opening of the letter Aretino praises Michelanelo for his mastery of outlines and it is fascinating that he seems more preoccupied here with the placement of figures in the scene than in his later letter to Titian, which focuses on colour. Aretino wrote to Michelanelo long before anyone knew what the final painting would look like. But in this letter he seems to be trying to put a scene into Michelangelo’s mind, as if to anticipate or inspire the work. What follows is an astonishingly powerful word picture, a piece of preemptive ekphrasis:

Venice, September 1537:

‘I see Antichrist in the midst of the rabble, with an appearance only conceivable by you. I see terror on the faces of all the living, I see the signs of the impending extinction of the sun, the moon and the stars.  I see, as it were breathing their last, the elements of fire, air, earth and water. I see Nature standing there to one side, full of terror, shrunken and barren in the decrepitude of old age. I see Time, withered and trembling, who is near to his end and seated upon a dry tree-trunk. And while I hear the trumpets of the angels setting all hearts astir, I see Life and Death in fearsome confusion, as the former exerts himself to the utmost in an effort to raise the dead, while the latter goes about striking down the living. I see Hope and Despair guiding the ranks of the good and the throng of evil-doers. I see the amphitheatre of the clouds illuminated by the rays which stream from the pure fires of Heaven and on which Christ sits enthroned among His legions, encircled by splendours and terrors. I see His countenance refulgent with brightness, and as it blazes with flames of sweet and terrible light it fills the children of good with joy and those of evil with fear.’

Aretino, Selected Letters (translated by George Bull) (1976), pp. 110-111

How do you think Aretino did?  We can always compare this extract from his letter (which goes on a bit longer) to Michelangelo’s own completed fresco:

A Letter from Aretino to Titian, May 1544

People often assume that painting and poetry serve completely different artistic purposes; you represent static moments in time with images and tell narrative stories with words. However, the idea that you need images in order to paint is quite a modern one. In the ancient world and Renaissance poets were expected to be able to paint with the words.  Meanwhile, painters often aimed to tell narratives in painting. This is summed up by the Latin expression ‘ut pictura poesis‘, taken from Horace’s Ars Poetica. Poets often tried to evoke painting in their poetry, and this sort of poetry is known as ‘ekphrasis‘.

This is an extract from a letter written by the Italian poet Pietro Aretino to his dear friend the artist Tiziano Vecelli,  better known as ‘Titian‘. In the letter Aretino beautifully describes the colours that he saw in the sky when he one day looked out on to Venice’s Grand Canal. You can even pick out in Aretino’s words a visual stylistic sensibility that is close to Titian’s own. That is, he takes great interest in the effects of colour.

Venice, May 1544:

‘As I am describing it, see first the buildings which appeared to be artificial though made of real stone.  And then look at the air itself, which I perceived to be pure and lively in some places, and in others turbid and dull.  Also consider my wonder at the clouds made up of condensed moisture; in the principal vista they were partly near the roofs of the buildings, and partly on the horizon, while to the right all was in a confused shading of greyish black.  I was awestruck by the variety of colours they displayed: the nearest glowed with the flames of the sun’s fire; the furthest were blushing with the brightness of partially burned vermilion.  Oh, how beautiful were the strokes with which Nature’s brushes pushed the air back at this point, separating it from the palaces in the way that Titian does when painting his landscapes!’

Aretino, Selected Letters (translated by George Bull) (1976), pp. 225-6.