Mappign Science Rome

“The world is bound with invisible knots” is a quote from the 17th century Jesuit scholar Athanasius Kircher. He was speaking about magnetism, but I find it a useful way of thinking about the social structures that organize and discipline human interactions. In effect, how to visualize the invisible.

I am an artist, a designer, and an anthropologist. The intersection of these disciplines, as well as a career in creating media exhibitry for science museums, frames my work. In particular, the lingering question from Kircher about “what invisible knots bind us?” led me to conceive of a mapping science project in Rome which charts the layered histories and representations of science in the city.

Through observation and classification of the natural world, we as a species attempt to know, contain, and control the universe we inhabit. My projects are a series of experiments transcribing that knowledge construction. I recreate my own scientific methods, collections, and displays that parallel and critique scientific research, both contemporary and historical. I profess a certain amount of nostalgia for an age when the universe was conceived as fully knowable: a place in which everything could be named, collected, and displayed within a lifetime.  The structures of knowledge we employ inflect what we know about the natural world, and further – they circumscribe what we can conceive of knowing about ourselves within that world.

Further, the history of scientific classification is wrought with interesting contradictions centralized around the struggle between individual subjectivity and the ideals of rationality. The desire to collect and create meaning through classification can be traced in the city of Rome between Pliny the Elder’s encyclopedia of natural phenomena Naturalis Historia to the current biotechnology research at the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute (IPGRI).

My  anthropological “village” are the representations of science in the history of Rome, layered, assembled and scattered. Each point on my map will be annotated with thick description, a triangulation of how that object came to be, what it meant, and how it functions currently. I’m focusing on the shifts in thinking about the nature of Nature, as located within specific objects or moments in the physical city. These are filtered through my lens as an artist, a designer, and an anthropologist: what I see and the connections I make are informed by the stack of lenses through which I perceive. To return to Kircher: what invisible knots bind us?

Taking up an abstraction of the scientific process that even Pliny the Elder would recognize, I curated pathways across the city in three categories: Observing, Collecting, Comparing. Each of these is a path; each path contains a series of nodes, which could be a place or an object. A visitor can follow the Observing pathway from a reconstruction of Galileo’s first telescope at the American Academy in Rome, down the hill to a semi-panopticon prison, to the Academia dei Lincei where some of the first drawings from microscopic observation took place. In this small section of the path, we follow the thread of objectivity and observation as it twists and folds in each instance. First, the new view of the heavens and our place in it radically shifted with a look through Galileo’s telescope. A new kind of objectivity is established, the lens turned to the stars. Second, the view in the panopticon prison in inverted inwards, as prisoners begin to watch their own behavior, disciplining themselves as they are unable to tell if the guards are watching them or not. The lens turned inward. Third, the first drawings from microscope slides in the 17th century, where a mere drop of water held untold marvels and atrocities, rendered visible by the lens turned down into the minutiae of the everyday.

A conceptual thread ties these places together into a path. In Observing, how the nature of observation and objectivity itself changed. In Collecting, how collecting and collections were assembled and dispersed. In Comparing, how to compare elements and what was considered comparable shifting over time. Explore the different moments in the city, and their connections  - from an inlaid marble floor depicting human embryogenesis to a recreation of an Alchemist’s laboratory in a medical history museum. There are always more layers to excavate in Rome.


Adrian Van Allen
July 2011, Rome