Collections Chat: Science & Jesuits

Image of Rev. Timothy Brosnahan from Father Donovan's pamphlet titled Rev. Timothy Brosnahan, S.J: Boston College President, 1894-1898, National Spokesman for Jesuit Liberal Education.

Image of Rev. Timothy Brosnahan from Father Donovan’s pamphlet titled Rev. Timothy Brosnahan, S.J: Boston College President, 1894-1898, National Spokesman for Jesuit Liberal Education, LD462.D65 1996 Ref.

In the Boston College Course Bulletin for 1894, President Father Timothy Brosnahan somewhat grudgingly affirmed a role for scientific education in the Jesuit system of learning:

“While recognizing, then, in education the necessity and importance of Mathematics and the Natural Sciences, which unfold the inter-dependence and laws of the world of time and space, the Jesuit system of education has unwaveringly kept Language in a position of honor as an instrument of culture.”

But language is also an instrument of science; Jesuits practiced science, and the Burns Library’s collections reflect this by holding a range of scientific works by Jesuits. In celebration of the Jesuit Scientific tradition, the Burns Library has partnered with the Special Collections Research Center of Georgetown University’s Lauinger Library to present two evening programs—the first here at Boston College in November 2011, and the second in February 2012 at Georgetown University. The dual events with our sister institution were an opportunity to talk about books, and to share early scientific Jesuitica with Boston College alumni in Boston and in Washington, D.C.

Title page from Lana Terzi's Del modo di fabbricare una nave che cammini sostentata sopra l'aria a remi ed a vele, quale si dimostra poter riuscire nella pratica.

Title page from Lana Terzi’s Del modo di fabbricare una nave che cammini sostentata sopra l’aria a remi ed a vele, quale si dimostra poter riuscire nella pratica, HB8651.I8 D57 1770 Jesuitica.

Amongst the Burns Library’s collections of scientific Jesuitica, works on Natural History, including astronomy and mathematics, are especially well represented. When Jesuit scientists looked to the skies, what did they see, and how did they put that knowledge to work? One example, Francesco Lana Terzi, S.J., has been described as the “father of aeronautics” on the basis of his seventeenth-century work on airships, Del modo di fabbricare una nave che cammini sostentata sopra l’aria a remi ed a vele, quale si dimostra poter riuscire nella pratica. Lana Terzi was an instructor of mathematics in Ferrara. The illustration shows a passenger ship with “balloons” made of thin copper foil. The spheres would contain a vacuum, and in theory be lighter than air, carrying the ship aloft. This 1784 edition was printed over a century after Lana Terzi’s initial publication of the design in 1670. Why, one might ask, did such a fantastic apparatus resurface after one hundred years? Perhaps due to renewed interest in flight: this edition was published  just one year after the first successful ascent of a hot air balloon carrying a sheep, a duck, and a rooster in Paris in 1783.

Illustration of an airship from Lana Terzi's Del modo di fabbricare una nave che cammini sostentata sopra l'aria a remi ed a vele, quale si dimostra poter riuscire nella pratica.

Illustration of an airship from Lana Terzi’s Del modo di fabbricare una nave che cammini sostentata sopra l’aria a remi ed a vele, quale si dimostra poter riuscire nella pratica.

There are several practical flaws to Lana Terzi’s design; perhaps more importantly for Lana Terzi, who lived through the Thirty Years War, the notion of ascending to the skies raised moral questions about the capacity for invention to do more harm than good; he had grave concerns about the use of his airship as a weapon, fearing that “no city would be safe from raids… iron weights, fireballs and bombs could be hurdled from a great height.” The vacuum pump which was necessary to the design of this airship was the subject of experiments by another Jesuit, Gaspar Schott, and the device had many practical applications. Why did Lana Terzi choose to write about fantastical airships? Historian Martha Baldwin has commented that “many Jesuit writers consciously labored to make their scientific discourses entertaining” in order to gain patronage for their work.  She notes that “this courtly audience explains in large part the proclivity towards experimental mathematics and fantastical machines seen in much Jesuit scientific writing”(Martha Baldwin, “Natural Philosophy and the Jesuit Quest for the Patronage of Printed Books in the 17th Century,” p 300, Jesuit Science and the Republic of Letters, MIT Press, 2002).

The exhibit, Binding Friendship: Ricci, China and Jesuit Cultural Learnings, was on display at the Burns Library from March 21st - October 31st, 2011.

The exhibit, Binding Friendship: Ricci, China and Jesuit Cultural Learnings, was on display at the Burns Library from March 21st – October 31st, 2011.

Like some Jesuit scientists, we in Special Collections are challenged at times to take the arcane – in this case scientific Jesuitica – and make it appealing and approachable to new users. How do we get researchers to see these works with new eyes? How do we use collections to engage with students and faculty? One example is a recent collaboration with Father Jeremy Clarke on the exhibit Binding Friendship: Ricci, China and Jesuit Cultural Learnings. Working with the Burns Library, Father Clarke tasked students in his class to curate an exhibit using the Jesuitica collections. The project explored the intersection between mission and science enacted by Jesuits such as Matteo Ricci in China. The library’s role as repository, learning space, and exhibit venue was crucial to the success of the first stage of the project, and our conservation and digitization titles relating to Jesuit science and mission in China will feed directly into the web-based version. The Ricci site will eventually feature a number of multimedia resources to demonstrate Christian mission history in Asia and the exchange of cultural and scientific information resulting from that work. The project demonstrates in a very tangible way that the Burns Library welcomes collaboration and is committed to increased discovery and access of its collections. Through engagement with faculty, participation in the curriculum, and an active exhibits and blog program, our collections take flight as we explore the stories behind these leather bound tomes, and reach out to connect students, faculty, and alumni with our rich collections.

  • Bridget Burke, Associate University Librarian for Special Collections, John J. Burns Library, Boston College

About John J. Burns Library of Rare Books and Special Collections at Boston College

The University’s special collections, including the University’s Archives, are housed in the Honorable John J. Burns Library, located in the Bapst Library Building, north entrance. Burns Library staff work with students and faculty to support learning and teaching at Boston College, offering access to unique primary sources through instruction sessions, exhibits, and programming. The Burns Library also serves the research needs of external scholars, hosting researchers from around the globe interested in using the collections. The Burns Library is home to more than 200,000 volumes and over 700 manuscript collections, including holdings of music, photographic materials, art and artifacts, and ephemera. Though its collections cover virtually the entire spectrum of human knowledge, the Burns Library has achieved international recognition in several specific areas of research, most notably: Irish studies; British Catholic authors; Jesuitica; Fine printing; Catholic liturgy and life in America, 1925-1975; Boston history; the Caribbean, especially Jamaica; Nursing; and Congressional archives.
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