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What is an Academy? Early Modern Learned Societies in a Transcultural Perspective

International Conference in collaboration with the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities, 22.–23.05.2018


Conference poster.

Conference poster.
Bildquelle: Mel (Tacuinum Sanitatis) – Ms. 4182 – Biblioteca Casanatense (Roma). Design: melaniewiener.de

Bericht von Isabelle Fellner, Sebastian Strehlau und Martin Gehlmann

The international conference “What is an Academy”, jointly organised by the Collaborative Research Centre “Episteme in Motion” and the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and the Humanities and held in Berlin on the 22 and the 23 of May 2018, focused on early modern academies in a transcultural perspective and aimed at challenging certain broadly accepted assumptions about them. A number of questions guided the papers given at the conference, as put forward in the introductory statements by Anita Traninger, Ulrike Schneider, and Eun-Jeung Lee (all Freie Universität Berlin): What is it that makes an institution of learning an academy? Do we even speak of the same thing when we refer to academies? What are the structures, functions, and especially the forms of communication specific to academies and how did they differ from or converge with other institutions of learned sociability – humanist sodalitates, private learned circles, Masonic lodges, salons, or tertulias? Moreover, the conference focused on the relationship between academies and universities. Even though academies were often formed in a gesture of opposition against existing institutions of knowledge, universities nevertheless not only served as backdrop for the conception of academies but were thoroughly intertwined with their development. 

Although scholars in the last decades have begun to study academies in a comparative perspective, they have often tended to consider these institutions as regional (or national) modifications of a given institutional type. In contrast, the conference asked participants to explore how the specific features of academies were shaped by a dialogue between historical models and contemporary socio-cultural contexts. The conference was conceived in the framework of the Collaborative Research Centre “Episteme in Motion”, which, investigating processes of knowledge transformation in premodern cultures, is dedicated to showing how transformations of knowledge do indeed take place continuously even in societies that describe themselves and their cultural practices as stable. 

Françoise Waquet (Centre national de la recherche scientifique, Paris) opened the conference with a talk presenting the idea that even though they are "petits mondes de papier" (small worlds of paper), it is oral communication that defines academies. Academies, overall, are places where people speak, and people answer. Concentrating on learned societies of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in Italy and France, Waquet considered the highly formalised nature of the academies’ oral transmission of knowledge. Furthermore, she focused on the interactions between oral and written knowledge production in the academies. 

Claudia von Collani (Julius-Maximilians-Universität Würzburg) then discussed the scientific contacts between European academies and the Chinese Imperial court via the Jesuit mission in China. Von Collani focused on Joachim Bouvet (1656-1730), a mathematician who served as a personal teacher of Western sciences to the Chinese Emperor Kangxi (1654-1722). Moreover, Bouvet helped to create the court academy in Beijing teaching Western sciences and planned to establish the Apostolic academy, which was supposed to foster an environment for the conversion of the Chinese population through scientific means. Bouvet aimed at coordinating his plans with Leibniz and other European academicians, yet ultimately his efforts were futile. Bouvet’s undertakings represent an important and highly symptomatic attempt to transplant an early modern conception of an academy to a non-European environment. 

Dhruv Raina (Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi) concentrated on the role of the Jesuit mission in India and its importance in the transfer of knowledge from Europe to the Indian subcontinent and vice versa. Jesuits served as crucial intermediates between the world of Western academies, which they supplied with information about Indian sciences, languages, geographic features, etc. and the Indian learned public. They not only introduced the Christian message, but also Western knowledge of sciences and technologies by which they attempted to gain influence on local rulers and populations. According to Raina, Indian Jesuits thus created an “itinerant academy” with a vast network of informants and collaborators, which served as an extended arm of the European academies and advanced a missionary agenda.

In his talk, Arjan van Dixhoorn (Utrecht University, University College Roosevelt) challenged the so-called “Italian paradigm” and aimed at linking the origins of early modern learned societies to older local institutions of vernacular culture rather than to the Florentine and Neapolitan academies of the fifteenth century. Using the example of literary societies active in France, Germany, and the Netherlands since the late Middle Ages, he illuminated the origins and the lasting continuity of these institutions, stemming from local and often overlooked traditions. According to van Dixhoorn, transitions from informal literary societies to learned societies often occurred without direct connection to the academy model. As a prime example of this process, van Dixhoorn discussed the Chambers of Rhetoricians in the Netherlands which focused on the cultivation of wit and the fostering of the arts. As van Dixhoorn argued, they came to assume functions that in many ways made them resemble contemporary learned societies.

Christoph Markschies (Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin), giving the conference’s evening lecture, explored the possible fate of academies in the twenty-first century. In the first part of his talk he focused on the evolution of the Berlin academy in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, in particular with regard to its relation to the university, while the second part centred on its current position and future. In the age of the "Exzellenzstrategie" (Excellence Strategy) at German universities, Markschies asked the question of what use an academy still could be, given that by definition, it is an assembly of the "best heads", now courted by various institutions. Is the academy merely an expensive tradition, no longer able to perform the tasks it was originally conceived for? Markschies reached the conclusion that the academy will remain an important factor in the scholarly world if it is able to accurately define its tasks, revise its structure and act as a stabilising factor in the ever-accelerating race for fame and funding.

In her talk, Jane Everson (Royal Holloway, University of London) presented the main results of the “Italian Academies project” which led to the construction of the “Italian Academies Database (IAD)”. Everson’s research group was guided by three main questions: “where?”, “who?” and “what?”. Through these questions the group was able to determine certain key-features of early modern Italian academies. Italian academies were mainly formed by young and not (yet) culturally established members, which gave them a counter cultural appeal. According to Everson, this might also be an explanation for the use of the punning names academicians gave themselves in most of the Italian academies. Another characteristic feature was the widespread network of people affiliated with academies, such as printers, illustrators, and engravers, which helped to circulate the ideas and the specific types of knowledge negotiated within the academies. The IAD grants insight into these “social networks”.

Peter M. Lukehart’s (Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts, National Gallery of Art, Washington) talk focused on the history of the Accademia di San Luca in Rome and examined the changes in the academy’s educational program over time. The academy was initially founded by Pope Gregory XIII in order to ameliorate roman art. According to Lukehart, the three most salient points in the development of the Accademia’s educational program were the presidencies of Federico Zuccari (the first principe of the academy in 1593), Simon Vouet (1624-1627) and the reforms introduced by Giovanni Battista Mola (1662-1663). Lukehart depicted the Accademia di San Luca as a constantly evolving institution, which from its very beginning was particularly concerned with questions of education. Thereby, it became a model for other academies of art, especially the Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture

Helmut Jacobs (Universität Duisburg-Essen) examined Francisco de Goya’s ambivalent alliance with the academic movement of his time. After his initial negative experiences with the Academia di San Fernando, Goya was admitted to the academy in 1774. At only 39 years, he was made teniente director de pintura. Jacobs showed how Goya, in his theoretical reflections, nevertheless made a sharp distinction between the invención of a piece of art and its execution. Goya emphasized the importance of individual artistic creativity, which, for him, was a result of free and private observations. According to Goya, these private observations had no room inside the academy. Jacobs pointed out that for Goya, academies, as regulated educational institutes controlled by the state, could only provide students with a certain set of technical skills, but not with the artistic freedom necessary to develop their individual talent. According to Jacobs, Goya’s critical attitude is epitomized in some of the painter’s Caprichos

Thomas Kirchner (Deutsches Forum für Kunstgeschichte Paris) attempted to answer the question “What is an Academy of Art good for?” by focusing on the Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture, which was founded in 1648. According to Kirchner, the reasons for its foundation were predominantly political. In analogy to the Académie française, the foundation of the Académie royale was supposed to facilitate the centralization of the cultural and intellectual field in the service of the rising absolutistic state. Kirchner named two specific goals for the Académie royale. First, to break the influence of the guilds, which were still powerful players in the artistic landscape and difficult to control and regulate. And second, to establish a distinct national French art worthy of the political power of the French crown and able to represent its glory. To achieve this, the academy installed a regulated and “rationalized” educational program for young artists based on the belief that art could be learned and taught.  

Mordechai Feingold (California Institute of Technology) explored the ways in which the publication of Thomas Sprat's History of the Royal Society (1667) provoked an ardent debate about humanist culture and the kind of knowledge most worth having. Feingold analysed the assertions of various members of the Royal Society who claimed to endorse a new and superior body of knowledge. According to Feingold, the seventeenth century saw a concerted attack of these new natural scientists on the old text-based erudition, and a call for a new foundation for knowledge. Feingold confronted these attacks with the intense responses by numerous other scholars provoked by them and stressed that it was erudition, not the universities as institutions, that were the target of the scientists’ critique.