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New York's San Gennaro Festival (Photo: Joe Buglewicz)

New York’s San Gennaro Festival (Photo: Joe Buglewicz)

New York’s annual Feast of San Gennaro festival is celebrated every autumn in Manhattan’s “Little Italy” district. This year’s festival will be the 89th occurrence of this religious holiday which originated in Naples and came to New York with the great wave of Italian immigrants who migrated to the Big Apple in the 19th century (and who give the city so much of its character). In 2015 the celebration begins on Thursday, September 10th. [Mock Gasp!] Hey, that’s today!

San Gennaro's golden Bishop’s mitre made of 3,300 diamonds 164 rubies and 198 emeralds

San Gennaro’s golden Bishop’s mitre made of 3,300 diamonds 164 rubies and 198 emeralds

To celebrate San Gennaro, here is the ceremonial miter worn by the saint’s statue in the original festival which has been a major part of life in Naples since the 14th century (at least). According to folklore, the saint was originally a Roman martyr named Januarius killed during the Diocletian persecutions.  He occasionally intercedes to prevent Vesuvius from destroying Naples (or to otherwise help out the city which is under his care). Since the middle ages, various monarchs, nobles, popes, and sundry bigwigs have donated jewelry to the saint—who has accumulated a tremendous collection which is (probably incorrectly) said to rival the English crown jewels in value.

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San Genaro’s jewelry is housed in a vault in the Museum of the Treasure of St. Gennaro, itself located beneath the arcade of the Cathedral of St. Gennaro. The most famous and important pieces are the necklace (with a jeweled cross from Napoleon) and the ampule (whatever that is), but this blog is concerned with crowns–and this fantastically jeweled miter has a reasonable claim to such status since it is “decorated with 3,964 diamonds, rubies and emeralds.”

The seventeenth century polymath Robert Hooke was immensely influential in popularizing science.  His seminal work Micrographia, published in 1665 was the first scientific book to become a best seller.  In the volume, Hooke described various plants, animals, and manufactured objects as seen through his hand crafted microscope.  Crucially, the book contained vivid and detailed engravings which allowed the public to see what Hooke had seen. Many of the illustrations folded out to become larger than the book thus further emphasizing the nature of microscopy.  Hooke was the first to coin the word “cell” because he thought that the constituent components of plant tissues resembled monk’s cells.  By changing the way that people apprehended the world Micrographia laid the foundation for the amazing microbiological discoveries of Antonie van Leeuwenhoek.  In addition to biological specimens, Hooke included illustrations of objects like the sharpened ends of needles and pins (which looked blunt under his microscope’s magnified lenses).  This helped the general public to comprehend how truly different the microscope’s vantage point is from that of the naked eye.

A page from the Huntington Library's copy of Micrographia (photo by lemurdillo)

Micrographia also contains Hooke’s speculations concerning combustion, which he (correctly) believed involved combining a substance with air. Hooke further posited that respiration involved some key ingredient of air–and he was thus well on the way towards discovering oxygen.  Unfortunately these ideas were not well understood by the seventeenth century scientific community.  Hooke’s contemporaries were also challenged by his assertion that fossils (such as petrified wood and ammonites) were the remains of living creatures which had become mineralized.  Hooke reached this conclusion based on microscopic study of fossil specimens and he believed that such fossils afforded clues about the history of life on the planet—including the history of species which had died out.  Needless to say such concepts were challenging to the theological community of the time.

A fold-out engraving of a flea from Micrographia

I am writing about Hooke because I saw an original copy of Micrographia at the Huntington Library in San Marino, California (I wrote about their exquisite gardens in the last post).  The book was part of a remarkable collection of original scientific books and documents, which was itself a part of a larger repository of rare books, handwritten letters and original manuscripts. The Huntington holdings include a Guttenberg bible, a fifteenth century illuminated manuscript of the Canterbury Tales, and innumerable original printings, correspondences, and manuscripts. I chose to highlight Hooke’s work because I have always been fascinated by how different the world looks through a microscope (above is Hooke’s engraving of a flea’s features–which can be compared with an earlier post about contemporary electron microscopes) however the real epiphany I took from viewing the collection was a larger one.  Even before the internet came to act as a sort of hive mind for humankind, we had a collective memory and source of communication—the printed word.   In addition to its magnificent gardens, the Huntington reminded me of how that worldwide shared network of ideas slowly developed. Viewing the bibliophile’s treasure trove at the Huntington library demonstrated the continuing purpose of libraries as museums and places of thought and discovery– even in a world where the entire text of a rare book like Micrographia can be found online.

A visitor regards a reproduction of Hooke's microspcope next to the Huntington's copy of Micrographia (From "Case Study of an Exhibition" by Karina White)

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