Vial Movies

The Driving Forces of Nature and Their Visualization

In: Nuncius
Stefan Laube Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin Institut für Kulturwissenschaft Germany Berlin

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Sergei Zotov University of Warwick Centre for the Study of the Renaissance UK Coventry

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In the 16th and 17th centuries vials played a prominent role in the visualization of nature’s driving forces as recreated in the laboratory. While in technical drawings the vial was often depicted as empty, there were also elaborate images—mainly pertaining to alchemical knowledge—in which vessels were filled, usually not with actual liquids, but with allegorical scenes. Vials functioned as visual devices, as virtual stages in illuminated manuscripts as well as in engravings in books—contrary to the reality in the laboratory where heat-resistant stoneware was normally used. This study focuses on a lavishly illustrated manuscript—Coronatio naturae—which circulated in numerous versions throughout Europe in the 17th century. The second part of this article presents the manuscript in detail, while the first part examines the serial “vial portraits” that appeared in books and manuscripts—the principal medium of alchemical communication at the time. It will be argued that the visualization of the individual stages of the alchemical process has an additional, inherent dimension of movement that can be described as cinematographic.

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