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The Scientific Revolution (1550-1700)

Revival of the Study of Nature (16th Century)


The New Astronomy (1510-1600)


During the sixteenth century, the Renaissance focus on understanding reality led to a revival of the study of nature. Interest in the fields of botany and anatomy grew rapidly. Adding to this interest, many new observations and specimens were brought back to Europe from the newly opened and explored New World. Artists of the Renaissance sought to better understand their subjects in the world around them, and thus studied the structures, functions, and habits of plants extensively. The medicine of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries emphasized the use of vegetable remedies, and physicians were often the foremost botanists of the time because of the need to distinguish between many plants, foreign and domestic. Books began to appear in which plants were described and portrayed with great skill, and some of the botanical figures of the sixteenth century are considered among the best ever produced.

Botany first 'flowered' in Germany in the early sixteenth century. Otto Brunfels was the first to produce a major work on plants. However, he fell victim to a blunder made by many botanists of the time. In reverence for the ancients, whose botanical studies were widely revered, he attempted in his study to compare his findings to those of the Greeks and Romans. The differences in plant life produced by the variation in geography meant that comparison was futile, and confusion resulted in the field of botany, clouding the work of many of Brunfels' immediate followers. The most remarkable German botanist of the early period was Leonard Fuchs. Fuchs produced a guide to collecting medical plants that is considered a landmark in the history of natural observation. His woodcut prints are the most beautiful and accurate of the period. However, Fuchs did little work concerning plant geography or classification, which he left to his followers.

Many of the same trends that led to the development of botany also provoked the study of anatomy during the sixteenth century. The founder of modern anatomy was Andreas Vesalius of Belgium. As a student and professor in Belgium and Paris, Vesalius was educated in the anatomical works and theories of the ancient Greek physician Galen, whose views on anatomy had long been the standard in Europe. Vesalius questioned Galen's authority, and when he became professor in Padua, Italy in 1537 he immediately instituted sweeping reforms in the study of anatomy. Whereas students of anatomy had traditionally read the works of Galen and read descriptions of dissections, Vesalius was not content simply to read. He instituted a more hands-on style of instruction and study, all the while working diligently on his masterwork, On the Fabric of the Human Body, which he published in 1543 at the age of 28. It is considered the first great modern work of science, and the foundation of modern biology. Vesalius made unprecedented observations regarding the various shapes and sizes of the human skull, and also compares human skulls with the skulls of dogs, foreseeing anthropological themes that would not become widely studied until centuries after his time. Vesalius' drawings and descriptions of muscles are so accurate and unique that modern scientists return to them even today.


The beginnings of the Scientific Revolution owe much to the spirit of inquiry that arose during the Renaissance. The reverence for the works of the ancient thinkers unearthed, among other things, the botanical studies of the ancient period, which immediately provoked interest in comparison. Additionally, the quest for realism in Renaissance art led to the study of plant and animal structures, as artists labored to better comprehend the forms and functions of their subjects. Indeed, Leonardo da Vinci, the great artist of the Renaissance, may also be considered the first great anatomist, involving himself heavily in the dissection of cadavers to gain a better understanding of the workings of the human body. Leonardo and others also showed great interest in plant life, sketching plants and raising questions about the minute structures and intricate functions of vegetable life. The rise and spread of printing during the Renaissance played a further part in garnering interest in the physical world, as students of nature could publish and circulate their observations and theories throughout Europe. The Renaissance awakening to the great beauty and diversity of nature led to the scientific study of that beauty and variety.

Despite advances, botany was still shackled by the same restrictions that commonly inhibited the advancement of science during the early Scientific Revolution. Though the revival of botany was owed in part to the study of the ancient botanists, the reliance on the ancients for authority was quite damaging to the field. Like many other scientific fields during the same period, it had been centuries since anyone had questioned the standard set of botanical beliefs advanced by the ancients, and it was difficult to break away now. It is clear that if Otto Brunfels had not attempted to compare his work so closely to the work of the ancient Greeks and Romans, his findings would have been far more lucid and his followers could have moved forward in the field. However, he could not break from the influence of the ancients, and the result was confusion, in his own works and for his followers.

However, attitudes toward traditional authority were changing during the early years of the Scientific Revolution. The attitude taken toward Galen by Andreas Vesalius is representative of these changing perspectives. Men were no longer content to rely on ancient authority for the truth. Instead, they sought to do their own observation, and their own experimentation, in order to see for themselves what the truth might actually be. Vesalius was not alone in this emotion. He was simply an early member of a long line of scientists and philosophers who would see the works of the ancients not as the unquestionable authorities which they had been portrayed as during the Middle Ages, but rather as a foundation and guide for future progress.

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