Inventing the future

New acquisitions

A recently acquired set of prints shows what state-of-the-art technology looked like in Medici Florence.


Nova Reperta, or New Discoveries, is a series of 20 Renaissance engravings designed by Johannes Stradanus in the late 1580s in Florence and produced in Antwerp. Far less prosaic than this description suggests, these detailed works portray an extraordinary blend of mechanical invention, moral instruction and a boosterism about the future — with a nod to history — that Steve Jobs himself would have related to. Part reportage, part allegory and part scientific fantasy, they offer superb insight into everyday life in the late-sixteenth century.

The engravings show a range of technologies — and geographies — that we take for granted: America; a magnet compass; the printing press; iron clocks; distillation; silk; stirrups; a water mill; a windmill; an olive oil press; a sugar refinery; oil painting; eyeglasses; longitude; an astrolabe and engraving itself. War has not disappeared in the twenty-first century, but defence materiel no longer has a place for armour polishing and gunpowder, military innovations at the time. And antibiotics mean that thankfully, medicine no longer relies on guaiacum, a herbal remedy for syphilis that is the subject of one of the works.

The image shown here celebrates an invention all too familiar to those of us who are long- or short-sighted. In a market setting we see an eyeglass maker surrounded by merchants and shoppers — all of a certain age — seeing the world anew through their spectacles. The text below the image reads, ‘Also invented were eyeglasses which remove dark veils from the eyes.’

Nova Reperta, engraving by Philips Galle after Johannes Stradanus, Conspicilla (Eyeglasses), c 1588
Nova Reperta (Title Leaf)
Nova Reperta, engraving by Philips Galle after Johannes Stradanus, Impressio Librorum (Printing Press), c 1588

Nova Reperta has been fully digitised and is available to view online in the Library's catalogue.

This story appears in Openbook spring 2022.