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Encyclopedias, Maps, and Scientific Illustrations


Scientific Illustration

Scientific illustration represents aspects of science through visual means, particularly through observations and subsequent renderings of the natural world. The emphasis in scientific illustration is on accuracy and utility, rather than on aesthetics, although scientific illustrators are skilled artists and often known for aesthetic values. Their main areas of work are biological and anatomical illustrations and technical drawing for the engineering fields. In order to accomplish a good survey of visual communication design in this field, samples from cartography (which is not held to be a field of scientific illustration in the strict sense of the word) and pages from 18th century Encyclopedias have also been included into the contents of this page.

Scientific illustration was an important part of scientific communication prior to photography, but has retained its importance through selective renderings rather than lifelike accuracy, such as illustrations of stellar phenomena that are not visible to the human eye, or medical illustrations, which highlight particular parts of a system.

Historically, biological illustrations have been in use since the beginning of man's exploration and attempts to understand the world around him. In the Alexandrian era (356 – 323 BC), the Greek physician Herophilus performed public dissections and recorded his findings. In the 1st century AD, Pedanius Dioscorides compiled the De Materia Medica, a collection of medicinal information and recipes, containing illustrations of about 600 plants in all. In the early 1600s, the explorer Étienne de Flacourt documented his travels to Madagascar, and illustrated the unique fauna there, setting a precedent for future explorers as world travel became a more feasible reality.

Going back to earlier periods in history, Egyptian frescoes seem to point at scientific depictions. There are, of course, many herbariums and medicinal books in Medieval Europe that were illustrated with drawings; but it is with the onset of the renaissance and especially the baroque and the age of the enlightenment, bringing about the spirit of scientific accuracy and of research that scientific illustrations really came into their own.

Anatomical Illustrations


No matter how extreme Vesalius's drawings below may seem, they do have a historical basis in the medieval / Renaissance anatomical drawings called the "wounded man" that can be seen in the gallery above.

During the Renaissance Leonardo DaVinci famously sketched his observations from human dissections, as well as his studies of plants and the flight of birds. In the mid-16th century, the physician Andreas Vesalius compiled and published the De humani corporis fabrica, a collection of textbooks on human anatomy superior to any illustrations that had been produced until that point.

Andreas Vesalius (1514 - 1564) was a Flemish anatomist and author of one of the most influential books on human anatomy, De humani corporis fabrica (On the Workings of the Human Body). Vesalius is often referred to as the founder of modern human anatomy. Vesalius' name is also referred to as Andreas Vesal or Andreas van Wesel, depending on the source.


Botanical Illustrations

Botanical illustration is the art of depicting the form, color, and details of plant life. The practice can be traced back to sometime between 50 and 70 CE when an illustrated book titled De Materia Medica was created by Greek botanist Pedanius Dioscorides to help readers identify plant species for medicinal purposes. The eighteenth century saw many advances in the printing processes, allowing colors and details of drawings to appear even more accurate on paper. As interest in botanical publications increased, the role of botanical illustrator came to be considered a respected profession. In botanical illustration / plant illustration the emphasis is on the scientific record and botanical accuracy to enable identification of a plant. Conventional botanical illustrations are made from live plants or herbarium specimens to illustrate a botanical text.

Sydney Parkinson: The voyage of HMS Endeavour (1768-1771), under the legendary Captain James Cook (1728 - 1779), was the first devoted exclusively to scientific discovery. This link below will you to a site that presents most of the botanical drawings and engravings prepared by artist Sydney Parkinson before his untimely death at sea, and by other artists back in England working from Parkinson's initial sketches.

Born in Scotland, Parkinson came to London in 1766 and was soon after engaged by Banks to work at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, where he worked for a year before before joining the Endeavour. One of two on board artists, neither of whom survived the voyage, Parkinson died at sea shortly after leaving Java.

Botanical drawings of Sydney Parkinson from the voyages of the HMS Endeavor.

Illustrations of Flora and Fauna in the 17th and 18th Centuries

Johann Wilhelm Weinmann (1683-1741).

William Curtis (1746 - 1799).

Pierre Joseph Redouté (1759-l840).


The Art of Cartography

The history of cartography refers to the development and consequences of cartography, or mapmaking technology, throughout human history. Maps have been one of the most important human inventions for millennia, allowing humans to explain and navigate their way through the world. When and how the earliest maps were made are unknown, but maps of local terrain are believed to have been independently invented by many cultures. The earliest surviving maps include cave paintings and etchings on tusk and stone. Maps were produced extensively by ancient Babylon, Greece, Rome, China, and India. The earliest maps ignored the curvature of Earth's surface, both because the shape of the Earth was uncertain and because the curvature is not important across the small areas being mapped. However, since the age of Classical Greece, maps of large regions, and especially of the world, have used projection from a model globe in order to control how the inevitable distortion gets apportioned on the map.

In the Renaissance, with the renewed interest in classical works, maps became more like surveys once again, while European exploration of the Americas and their subsequent effort to control and divide those lands revived interest in scientific mapping methods. Peter Whitfield, the author of several books on the history of maps, credits European mapmaking as a factor in the global spread of western power: "Men in Seville, Amsterdam or London had access to knowledge of America, Brazil, or India, while the native peoples knew only their own immediate environment" (Whitfield). 


Martin Waldseemüller (1470 - 1522).

Gerardus Mercator (1512-1594) "The Mercator Atlas."

Gerardus Mercator, the German-Netherlandish cartographer and geographer with a vast output of wall maps, bound maps, globes and scientific instruments but his greatest legacy was the mathematical projection he devised for his 1569 world map. The Mercator projection is an example of a cylindrical projection in which the meridians are straight and perpendicular to the parallels. As a result, the map has a constant width and the parallels are stretched east–west as the poles are approached.

Abraham Ortelius (1527 - 1598) "Theatrum Orbis Terrarum."

Abraham Ortelius (1527 – 1598) was a Brabantian cartographer, geographer, and cosmographer. He is recognized as the creator of the first modern atlas, the Theatrum Orbis Terrarum (Theatre of the World). Along with Gemma Frisius and Gerardus Mercator, Ortelius is generally considered one of the founders of the Netherlandish school of cartography and geography. The publication of his atlas in 1570 is often considered as the official beginning of the Golden Age of Netherlandish cartography. He was the first person proposing that the continents were joined before drifting to their present positions. 


Celestial Maps

Celestial maps originally conceptualized the arrangement of planetary bodies in our star system as being arranged in concentric spheres that were based on the prevailing world view. The classical Greek system depicted the Earth at the center, surrounded by bounded spheres carrying the visible heavenly bodies. On printed two-dimensional maps beginning with the Renaissance, these spheres were shown as concentric rings. For mathematical calculations of positions in the sky, these orbits were called deferents, on which the planets moved around the center Earth in smaller revolving epicycles, or in eccentric orbits where the Earth was not positioned at the exact center.

The history of celestial cartography as depicted through star and solar system maps has paralleled the history of science (particularly astronomy) and the evolving human conceptualization of the heavens. Although beautiful maps were produced, in some cases decorated with playful putti flying in Baroque splendor, these maps were meant to accurately depict the heavens, both in terms of stellar location and planetary surfaces. 

Johann Bayer (1572 – 1625) "Uranometria."

Astronomical maps by Julius Schiller, 1627 (left) and Stanislaw Lubienicki, 1668 (right).



Encyclopedias have existed for around 2,000 years, although even older glossaries such as the Babylonian Urra=hubullu and the ancient Chinese Erya are also sometimes described as "encyclopedias".

The earliest encyclopedic work to have survived to modern times is the Naturalis Historia of Pliny the Elder, a Roman statesman living in the 1st century AD. He compiled a work of 37 chapters covering natural history, architecture, medicine, geography, geology, and all aspects of the world around him. This work became very popular in Antiquity, and survived, with many copies being made and distributed in the western world. It was one of the first classical manuscripts to be printed in 1470.

The beginnings of the modern idea of the general-purpose, widely distributed printed encyclopedia precede the 18th century encyclopedists. However, Chambers' Cyclopædia, or an Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences (1728), and the Encyclopédie of Diderot and D'Alembert (1751 onwards), as well as Encyclopædia Britannica and the Conversations-Lexikon, were the first to realize the form we would recognize today, with a comprehensive scope of topics, discussed in depth and organized in an accessible, systematic method. Chambers, in 1728, followed the earlier lead of John Harris's Lexicon Technicum of 1704 and later editions (see also below); this work was by its title and content "A Universal English Dictionary of Arts and Sciences: Explaining not only the Terms of Art, but the Arts Themselves".

Tables from "Cyclopedia."

Cyclopaedia, or, A Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences (folio, 2 vols.) was an encyclopedia published by Ephraim Chambers in London in 1728, and reprinted in numerous editions in the 18th Century. The Cyclopaedia was one of the first general encyclopedias to be produced in English.

Pages from "Encyclopédie."

Encyclopédie, or "Encyclopedia, or a systematic dictionary of the sciences, arts, and crafts" was an early encyclopedia, published in France beginning in 1751, the final volumes being released in 1780. The editor-in-chief Denis Diderot (1713 – 1784) was a French philosopher and writer, a prominent figure in what became known as the Enlightenment.


Architectural and Technical Drawings

L'Architecture Francoise (1752-1756).

The famous work entitled "French Architecture" was written and illustrated by Jacques-François Blondel between 1752-1756. The most significant churches, royal mansions, palaces, hotels, residences and other buildings of Paris, as well as holiday homes and castles on the outskirts of Paris and in other parts of France, built by the most celebrated architects". The full work contained 498 large-sized illustrations by celebrated architects showing panoramic views and detailed interior and exterior decoration composition drawings of 18th century notable buildings churches, royal palaces, monuments, parks, etc. A range of architectural styles can be viewed, and many of these buildings no longer exist or been remodelled, such as the Palace of Tuileries which was destroyed by fire in 1871. The initial four volume work was published by Charles-Antoine Jombert, one of the leading French printer-publishers of the 18th century.

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