Paula Findlen is a historian of science and technology at Stanford University. Her research focuses on the cultural and social history of science in early modern Europe, with an emphasis on Italy. She is the author of several books, including “Possessing Nature: Museums, Collecting, and Scientific Culture in Early Modern Italy” and “Athanasius Kircher: The Last Man Who Knew Everything.” She is a recipient of numerous awards and honors, including a Guggenheim Fellowship and the Pfizer Prize from the History of Science Society. In addition to her academic work, Findlen serves on the editorial boards of several journals and is a frequent speaker at conferences and symposia on the history of science.
As a historian of science and technology, Paula Findlen is particularly interested in the way science and culture interacted in early modern Europe. her research on Italy during that period has been widely recognized for its insights into how scientific ideas and practices were shaped by the cultural context in which they were developed. Her books, articles, and lectures have helped to deepen our understanding of the history of science, and have earned her many accolades and awards. Paula Findlen continues to be an active member of the academic community, serving on editorial boards and participating in conferences and symposia.
Please enjoy our interview with Paula Findlen…
What are you reading at the moment and are you enjoying it?
I just picked up The Wandering Mind: What Medieval Monks Tell Us About Distraction by Jamie Kreiner, published this year. Kriener invites us to think of our own preoccupation with distraction in the digital age from the vantage point of medieval monks trying to find their own quiet space and cultivate quiet habits (even when they’re not in the desert but the heart of a bustling medieval metropolis) to contemplate, reflect, and worship.
It’s charming, erudite, and quite effective in getting you to see that long before the computer, the iPhone, and social media were invented, the mind has always wandered. In other words, a great read – and different take on the Middle Ages than most popular books in this area.
When you think about your childhood, what book comes to mind?
Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery. Part of my family is from northern Maine and rural Nova Scotia. We would take trips to Prince Edward Island before the bridge was built so you went by ferry. My older female relatives seemed the living embodiment of who Anne would have become later in life. The cadence of her speech, the Victorian world Anne-with-an-e came from, her love of poetry and recitation brought alive my great-grandmother’s world that she was also describing to me. The stories she told and her passion for elocution (the Victorian equivalent of being a performance artist) helped me understand the way in which the past inspires both fiction and history.
How did you first become interested in history?
I first encountered the past as living memory in the stories my oldest relatives told, at least on my father’s side of the family. My great-grandmother would talk about her uncles who served in the Maine Regiment during the Civil War, my great-grandfather’s work helping to build the Canadian railroad and Halifax harbour, the first time she used a flush toilet, talked on the phone (she still had a party line), road in automobile, and so forth. It made me appreciate how much technology transformed the world within a century.
The life she led in Sunny Brae, Nova Scotia in the 1970s when we visited regularly constantly evoked the past, including her girlhood in the woods and farms of northern Maine which sounded like something straight out of Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder, then a popular tv show. We talked a lot about those she loved and remembered, especially all the siblings who died young and the son she lost in infancy. She made me appreciate the beauty and precarity of life and the fact that the dead are always with us.
I was equally struck by the lack of interest in the past on the other side of my family who were more recent emigrants from southern Italy. They certainly had a story but no desire to tell it and they lacked the tools of literacy and education to easily unlock it.
My maternal grandparents probably had no sense that it would matter to anyone beyond themselves. That was certainly my mother’s view when we talked about this right after Ellis Island opened to the public, on the ferry ride to a place our relatives passed through multiple times; later, when I introduced her to our cousins after I got to know them because I was spending a lot of time in Italy, this conversation came back to me. Like so many immigration histories, it was a painful story that had not yet resolved itself, a past to bury and forget.
My Italian grandparents always seemed to belong more to that world than my own, in their language, habits, and attitudes. An old postcard of their wedding in Carpineto Romano circa 1932 was a silent piece of the past, filled with ancestors and living relatives whose names we didn’t fully know, let alone their stories. That fascinated me. I went in search of this mute past, inspired by the noisy past.
The fact that my paternal grandparents lived in Rome from 1957 to 1963 when my grandfather was the agricultural attaché at the American embassy assigned to the Marshall Plan, made me even more fascinated by Italy. They described in vivid detail the glamorous, cultured world of the postwar Italian economic miracle captured on screen as la dolce vita and the modernization of Catholicism during the Second Vatican Council.
Can you imagine having that experience after growing up in rural Acadia?!? It bore absolutely no resemblance to the Third World Italy my maternal grandparents emigrated from. And yet they were a short train ride apart. Neither exists today but we can reconstruct their histories.
If you could wrap up a single book and gift it to yourself as you turned 18 – which book would it be and why?
It would have to be The Return of Martin Guerre by Natalie Zemon Davis, a history of peasant
life in sixteenth-century France. This book has a deep imprint on the field of early modern history. Reading it on the train from Chicago to Oakland, as I was about to started graduate school at UC Berkeley, reminded me why I wanted to learn the historian’s craft. It is written more beautifully than many novels and demonstrates the historian’s gifts of knowledge, empathy, and imagination.
There are certain pages in this book where you should pause and ask yourself — how did Natalie Zemon Davis realize this was the best way to make a small amount of incomplete evidence become meaningful? Her ability to evoke a flesh-and-blood person whose life contained all the dramas of daily life, magnified under the extraordinary circumstances of a peasant imposture and a trial, is unparalleled. The sooner you encounter this kind of book, the more you appreciate why history matters.
If you could travel back in time to interview one historical figure, who would it be and why?
It’s so hard to choose! I have so many questions I’d like to ask my favorite inhabitants of the planet of the very dead and gone. Was Leonardo satisfied with his adult self-education or did he hope to learn more? Did Camilla Erculiani, a sixteenth-century Paduan apothecary who got in trouble with the Inquisition for writing one book on natural philosophy, really write a treatise on the soul and if so what did it say? Why did Giordano Bruno laugh during his trial and laugh again while he burned for his heresies in Rome’s Campo dei Fiori?
Did Galileo really understand the consequences of pushing the boundaries of science and faith with his Copernican astronomy and do it anyway? Did Athanasius Kircher believe he had deciphered the hieroglyphs? How did Giovanni Bordoni understand his life as a Tuscan male servant seeking love and freedom after leaving behind a prior life as Caterina Vizzani, a Roman girl working in her father’s shop pursuing forbidden passion with a childhood friend? The past contains many answers, but until we ask the right questions their meaning eludes us.
If I must pick just one, it’s definitely Laura Bassi. I have spent a good portion of my career reconstructing her career as an experimental physicist, professor, wife, and mother in eighteenth-century Bologna. By now I have a good feel for what the written record can and cannot tell us. And I still have many questions for Bassi.
Did she dislike how often people emphasized her exceptionality as a woman scientist with institutional recognition and a paying career? How did she perceive her partnership with her husband Giuseppe Veratti, not just at the time of the marriage in 1738 but in the ensuing decades as their family grew while they built their laboratory? Why was she so reluctant to publish the many research papers she presented annually at the Bologna Academy of Sciences? Did she ever think of encouraging other women to pursue science so that what seemed exceptional in one generation might eventually become a new norm? What kind of film would she like of her life?
In her long career Bassi had many interesting students, but they were all male. She was very aware of other scientific women such as Émilie du Châtelet, Maria Gaetana Agnesi, and Anna Morandi Manzolini – in Morandi’s case in the same city as an artist-anatomist – yet there is no indication that she had sustained relations with any of them. Why? Her sons studied with her and her husband and the youngest, Paolo Veratti, became a scientist. By contrast, Caterina, her only daughter to survive infancy, did not follow her mother’s path, dying shortly before she was about to become a nun in the convent of Corpus Domini in Bologna. Whose decision was this?
Which book has had the biggest impact on your career so far? How did it impact it?
Without a doubt, it has to be The Origins of Museums: The Cabinet of Curiosities in Sixteenth- and Seventeenth-Century Europe by Oliver Impey and Arthur MacGregor, published in 1985 from a conference to commemorate the Ashmolean Museum’s three hundredth anniversary in 1983. Shortly after it appeared, I found a copy at the Seminary Coop at the University of Chicago. It was very expensive – too much on my graduate student budget.
In the bookstore, I skimmed its many essays on early modern collectors, collections, and museums. It was (and still is) an abundance of riches – a book filled with excellent, accessible scholarship, diverse subjects, and an amazing bibliography. I checked out the library copy and xeroxed the entire book, reading it more slowly and deliberately. Despite the price, I decided I really had to have my own copy, but it was selling out fast. Finally, a family member who was in London gave me The Origins of Museums as a gift the following Christmas. I don’t know if she realizes just how important that gift became.
I had already been interested in cabinets of curiosities and the role of the Renaissance in the invention of the museum, but in the mid-1980s the subject was still relatively unmapped terrain other than the classic study of the Wunderkammer by Julius von Schlosser, in German and long out of print.
Today the literature on collecting and museums is enormous and museum studies is a well-defined field. There are historical reconstructions of cabinets of curiosities in many museums, contemporary artistic installations such as Mark Dion’s that remake the cabinet for our own times, online publications such as Atlas Obscura, and an eclectic array of digital archives, blogs, etc. that function as virtual cabinets online.
In 1985, Impey and MacGregor’s pathbreaking book seemed like the Lonely Planet guide to a past I absolutely had to visit. Their book introduced me to scholars I subsequently came to know personally, pointed me to their work in variety of languages, and showed me the kinds of sources and archives to explore. I have been doing this ever since, with great pleasure.
The opportunity to give the inaugural Gilbert Lecture in the History of Collecting at the Victoria & Albert Museum in 2017, in conversation with Arthur MacGregor, has been one of the most enjoyable and meaningful moments of my career. The event was in honor of the book he co-edited with Impey and the journal they founded, Journal of the History of Collections. I published my first article in their first issue so it will always have a special place in my heart.
You are known for your fascination with the Renaissance period in Italy, which three books would you recommend to someone on this topic?
I still recommend The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy by Jacob Burckhardt. Published in 1860, it is the second book (Jules Michelet’s being the first in 1855) to use the word “Renaissance” to describe an era. Nowadays we write about this subject with twenty-first century perspective but I think it’s always good to ask ourselves why someone thought this topic was so urgent and important that it was worth an entire book a century and a half ago. Why did the Renaissance matter to him and how did he define it? The conceptual clarity of his best chapters – for instance, the one on “The State as a Work of Art” – and panoramic sweep of the whole is hard to beat.
Understanding the Renaissance through some of its signature figures – Francesco Petrarch, Niccolò Machiavelli, Isabella d’Este, Pietro Aretino, Baldassare Castiglione, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo Buonarotti, Vittoria Colonna, Veronica Franco, Caravaggio, Sofonisba Anguissola immediately come to mind so take your pick! Within this genre, I’ll recommend Leonardo by Martin Kemp. Kemp has spent his life studying and thinking about Leonardo. This short book offers an excellent introduction to key themes in Leonardo’s life and work. Some people might prefer to read a modern edition and translation of Leonardo’s notebooks which is also a great starting point, but Kemp will help you make sense of them if you read him first.
My final recommendation is a little known source from this era –The Fat Woodworker by Antonio Manetti. Without giving it all away, I’ll simply say that this cruel joke was one of the most popular short tales (novelle) in fifteenth-century Florence. It involves real-life luminaries, Brunelleschi and Donatello, and more obscure inhabitants. The city itself is a protagonist. You can walk through the heart of this Renaissance city, book in hand. Fundamentally, it peels away the layers of culture and meaning that embellished Florence to reveal some cold hard truths about its people.
What’s the best book you’ve read in the last 6 months?
I recently finished Short Life of the Shadow Catcher: The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis by Timothy Egan. Egan is a great nonfiction writer who loves the American West. He does serious research but writes better than most historians; I periodically pick up his books for sheer pleasure and literary inspiration since all historians are nonfiction writers, whether we know it or not. Egan’s Shadow Catcher is a love letter to his Seattle, the age of photography, a vanishing West, its catastrophic effects on Native Americans, private obsessions and public indifference. Having taught his daughter Sophie, now a well-known food and health writer who loves Italy, I also think of her when I read his books!
What is the book that you feel has had the single biggest impact on your life? What impact did it have?
I’d have to say Homo ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture by Johan Huizinga. Originally published in Dutch in 1938 by a great medieval historian who is far better known for The Waning of the Middle Ages, Homo ludens is an undefinable book from a disciplinary perspective. It’s not a history though it is historical. I might describe it as a form of historical and cultural anthropology but I just noticed that you can buy it as a sociology classic, so you see the point. You should read it looking at Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s Children’s Games (1560) which was surely one of the artifacts (along with Erasmus’ pointed sense of humour) that inspired Huizinga to write his book.
I have always delighted in satire, jokes, irony, and play in all forms. Huizinga shows us why to take play seriously. He wrote his book during the disquieting years that saw the rise of Nazi Europe, including the German occupation of his own country in 1940. There is something very thoughtful, subversive, probing, and nostalgic about his essay on play. His generation lost their innocence during World War I and lost it again in the next war. Huizinga would be arrested by the Nazis, lose his position at Leiden, and die in 1945 just before the Netherlands’ liberation. He was a great, creative mind who gives us license, as scholarship, to play seriously in our own times.
You also have a keen interest in women’s history and the relations between gender. If someone wanted to introduce themselves to this topic, which book would you recommend and why?
At this moment, I’m going to pick Stranger in the Shogun’s City: A Japanese Woman and Her World by Amy Stanley. Many people have heard of this book because it has won so many awards and garnered a great deal of publicity. I like it for the same reasons I admire Davis’ The Return of Martin Guerre. Stanley uses a very incomplete and fragmentary archive of the kind of woman we normally don’t get to know – not a queen and certainly no Marvel Action superheroine – and she gives her hardscrabble existence meaning, purpose, and agency. She makes us want to experience Edo before it became Tokyo, and see it from the vantage point of a woman from a remote northern village who comes to the big city and lives life on the raw and naked edge. That is a great feat of scholarship, writing, and historical understanding.
What books or subject matter do you plan on reading in the next year?
I’m in the middle of a collaborative project on the Florentine merchant Francesco Carletti, one of the interesting early modern global travellers. Between 1594 and 1602, Carletti circumnavigates the globe, from West Africa to the Spanish Americas, Philippines, Japan, China, and India. He spends three years litigating with the Dutch who confiscated his goods when they captured the Portuguese ship near the island of Saint Helena, taking him back to Europe from Goa. Carletti finally returns to Florence in 1606, having lost most of his worldly possessions but with a lot of knowledge and a great story to tell. I’m reading anything related to where Carletti went, who and what he encountered, really anything that opens his sparse and at times banal comments about everything from maps, books, oceans, nature, cities, markets, language, writing to slavery, sex, food, medicine, and curiosities. I’m immersing myself in the world ca. 1600, with great pleasure.
Finally, if you were to write an autobiography – what would it be called?
I think I’d wanted to call my autobiography, History Comes in a Box. My paternal grandmother had a small box of family memorabilia. It contained a few daguerreotypes, photos from the next generation in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, and the deed to the Maine farm that an Irish ancestor, Annie Findlen, signed with her X since she couldn’t write and probably couldn’t read. That document was such a great example of how we appear and disappear in the archives. When she bought property – there is still a Findlen farm in Fort Fairfield, ME today – she became temporarily visible. I loved the way my grandmother evoked family, memory, and history with tangible artifacts of the past, and I absolutely loved this box. When I began to work regularly in archives and museums, I realized that history comes in many different boxes. Each box tells its own kind of history.