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Rachel Weiss: Picturing Earth’s History in Early Modern Views of the Alps, 1444-1655


Following the first topographically accurate depiction of the Alps in Konrad Witz’s The Miraculous Draught of Fishes (1444), artists of mostly Northern European origin moved through the Alps in increasing numbers and created pictorial records of the enigmatic terrain they encountered. Lacking artistic conventions or precedents for illustrating mountains, artists experimented with varying mediums, techniques, vantages, and formats. They deployed the unruly generative capacities of the drawn line, exploited the striations of the print matrix, played with the seepage of watercolors, and layered oil paints and glazes to make sense of this new pictorial option, all the while training their keen observational gaze on landscape features with which natural historians were not yet concerned. Although they were certainly engaged in geological inquiry, early modern naturalists were more preoccupied with the study of minerals and fossils than with the morphology of mountains. Workshop // Rachel WeissIt was not until the publication of pioneering studies by Athanasius Kircher and Nicolas Steno in the second half of the seventeenth century—after the Alps had already undergone extensive interrogation by artists—that mountains came to be regarded as scientific phenomena. My project therefore fastens on early modern representations of the Alps as antecedents to and catalysts for the emergence of new ideas in geological thinking, specifically ideas around the formation of mountains and the age of the earth. I propose that artists performed a kind of “graphic geology” whereby picturing the mountains was also a means of questioning their ontology, and that the proliferation of Alpine imagery prepared the way for naturalists to absorb mountains into scientific discourse.