University of Cambridge > > Departmental Seminars in History and Philosophy of Science > 'For the sake of ornament': iconography in Tycho Brahe's Astronomiae instauratae mechanica

'For the sake of ornament': iconography in Tycho Brahe's Astronomiae instauratae mechanica

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In 1598, having lost the favour of the Danish king and consequently the vast income that supported his astronomical observatories, Tycho Brahe published his Astronomiae instauratae mechanica. Dedicated to Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph II and circulated among the highest nobility in Europe, this lavish publication provided detailed descriptions and illustrations of Tycho’s astronomical instruments in an attempt to procure patronage. These instruments have long been celebrated by historians of astronomy for their innovative design and capacity for precision measurement, yet their often highly decorative appearance, apparent from the striking images provided in the Mechanica, is frequently dismissed as mere ornament. By considering a selection of instruments, I will argue that far from being an irrelevant luxury, the iconography employed by Tycho was in fact a vital means of self-presentation, through which he attempted to convey not only his superiority as an astronomer, but the underlying worth of his endeavour. His instruments thus provided a particularly appropriate medium through which to appeal for financial support. This argues for a more sophisticated appreciation of Tycho’s instruments and instruments in the Renaissance more generally, not simply as tools of precision measurement, but also as vehicles for self-expression and promotion.

This talk is part of the Departmental Seminars in History and Philosophy of Science series.

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