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A new exhibit considers antique encyclopedias

One of the show's great pleasures is its juxtaposition of disciplines and eras

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Outlawed for candor: Diderot and D'Alembert's Encyclopédie
  • Outlawed for candor: Diderot and D'Alembert's Encyclop├ędie

Pitt's Frick Fine Arts Building, a tasteful Florentine villa, is small compared to the hulking Carnegie Institute or the soaring Cathedral of Learning, both nearby. But don't be fooled. Right now, everything in the world is on display in its University Art Gallery.

Not everything exactly, but rather Reconfiguring Disciplines: Fragments of an Encyclopedia. The exhibit displays historic encyclopedias and similar volumes, intended to illuminate a particular field, or even all the world itself.

Sebastian C. Adams's Chronological Chart of Ancient, Modern and Biblical History, from 1876, is exemplary. The combination of timelines and illustrated images is a yard wide, but unrolls to nearly 30 feet. The precise attempt to correlate the era's archaeologically catalogued artifacts and classically based historians with names and events from the Christian Bible — all of "world history" — is overwhelmingly detailed; you could almost miss how the United States emerges from biblical rather than European history. That contrasts with how Diderot and D'Alembert's 28-volume Encyclop├ędie (1772), shown here through its remarkably detailed copper engravings, was initially outlawed for the candor of its political and philosophical critiques of both church and state.

One of the show's great pleasures is its juxtaposition of disciplines and eras. For example, Cowpers' The Anatomie of Human Bodies (1698), with its still-shocking illustrations of flayed corpses, is displayed near Cellarius' Harmonia macrocosmica (1660), by which the author aims to illustrate the universe on large, two-page spreads of swirling celestial diagrams. Cesare Cesariano's 1521 version of the Vitruvian Man, less evocative than Leonardo's famous iteration, but remarkably authentic, makes the logical connection.

In the same room, images from the Hubble telescope are projected on one screen in seeming real time, while abstract photographs of scientific principles by 20th-century modernist Berenice Abbott, such as waves and sine curves, emerge on others. You may presume that humanity is the center of the universe, but your understanding of the cosmos will depend entirely on your means of measurement and illustration.

Working with gallery curator Isabelle Chartier, faculty and graduate students from Pitt's Department of the History of Art and History of Architecture (where I have studied and taught) assembled the show with rare and valuable but underappreciated books borrowed from nearby libraries and other repositories. The result is both a scholarly achievement and a popularly satisfying visual treat.

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