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Magpie from the Met

Erin Maglaque, interviewed by Lauren Kane

This article is part of a regular series of conversations with the Review’s contributors; read past ones here and sign up for our e-mail newsletter to get them delivered to your inbox each week.


In our October 6, 2022, issue, Erin Maglaque reviews The Incomparable Monsignor, by J.L. Heilbron, a biography of the Veronese astronomer Francesco Bianchini, whose life and influential work—notably the use of an enormous telescope he built in the middle of Rome to view the face of Venus—spanned the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries.

Maglaque is a lecturer in early modern history at the University of Sheffield. Her first book, Venice’s Intimate Empire: Family Life and Scholarship in the Renaissance Mediterranean, used the archives of two sixteenth-century Venetian governors to explore the relationship of their domestic lives to the work of empire. She has also written for the Review on Renaissance queens and the brutal tensions between familial bonds and political duties. Maglaque’s mind thrills to connections we can make with the past—as she told me over e-mail this week—through details of the domestic and mundane, which are as important to her work as the machinations of sovereigns and courts.


Lauren Kane: When did you first become interested in early modern Europe as an academic specialization? What do you find rewarding or challenging about studying this period?

Erin Maglaque: When I was an art history major at Bard College, I got a job in the medieval department at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The job involved taking stacks of thick object files and transferring the information into a database. It was data entry, really, an unglamorous job but in the most glamorous place I could imagine. I entered information about thousands of objects into the database: shards of glass from crusader castles in Syria, pot sherds from the Egyptian desert decorated with fragments from Homer, fraudulent twentieth-century “Gothic” ivories of the Madonna. I learned about style, chronology, and technique, but mostly I learned that a period so often thought to be scarcely documentedwas actually incredibly rich in all kinds of visual, material, and textual evidence. These sources just required special skills to interpret: Latin, the modern languages of scholarship, paleography, methods of archival research, and so forth. Acquiring those skills is a serious challenge, but they have their own rewards, too. I met my husband in a medieval Latin class.

I think the job at the Met also made me a bit of a magpie. I have never felt a particular fidelity to one aspect of premodern history, one place, genre, or method, though of course graduate school requires you to specialize in those things. My best writing and criticism always comes from a feeling of being surprised rather than from a particular kind of expertise. Of course, in order to be surprised, you need to establish a sense of the typical, and that is precisely what graduate school is useful for. But it’s also so very important to remain alive to the unusual, and to strenuously resist any urge to explain strangeness away.

What attracts you to a subject, or makes you linger with a primary source when you’re doing research? Have you ever, in the course of research, encountered something delightfully unexpected?

I was once drawn to certain sources because they dramatized that combination of the alien and the familiar that is so characteristic of the early modern period. Bianchini’s life is full of examples of this tension. On the one hand, aspects of his life are totally unfamiliar to us now: a fluent speaker of Latin, a celibate scholar, a man who believed it was possible to discover the precise date of Creation. On the other hand, he was a student of the experimental science that we associate with Galileo, with secularization, with modernity. Mostly, though, he was human. When he looked through his telescope and saw the “rocky” surface of Venus—which was, of course, actually swirling clouds of gas—he saw what he wanted to see. All of us do this, in one way or another. Despite what divides us from the people of a premodern past—belief in demonic possession, say, or the humoural theory of the body—we are much more alike than different.

These days I am drawn to sources that resonate with my own preoccupations, which I suppose is another way of dramatizing the clash between the alien and the familiar. I have a toddler and childcare is hideously expensive, so in the archives I find myself reading accounts of women’s work and wondering how they worked and mothered at the same time. How did Tuscan peasant women manage to take in the harvest and breastfeed their babies? How did they balance piecework—making linen, doing laundry—with childcare? We know so very little about the ordinary, everyday lives of women and children (that is, the rural peasantry) in most of Europe.

While working in the archives of the foundling hospital in Florence a couple years ago, I found a wet nurse named Margherita complaining that the baby assigned to her by the hospital had learned how to stand, but then had promptly forgotten. Margherita had to cart him all around the farm on her hip while she did her other work: taking care of the chickens, making cheese. She insisted that the hospital increase her wet-nursing salary until the baby learned how to stand again. I admired her, and wrote an article about early modern women like her who insisted that care, that love, deserves a fair wage.

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What drew you to The Incomparable Monsignor?

I had just read Adam Ehrlich Sachs’s wonderful novel The Organs of Sense,so I was primed to find the comic potential in absurdly long seventeenth-century telescopes. The comedy was there (Bianchini falling down a hole on the Palantine Hill, literally tumbling into the past, and having to be winched up by his servants, for example), but like Sachs’s novel, there was also a beautifully earnest belief in knowledge, in scientific description, in something as simple and as devastatingly complex as observation. I wanted to know more about Bianchini and others like him who, in Heilbron’s words, knew how the universe would begin and end—that much was revealed in Scripture—but had endless questions about how to better understand what was happening in between.

Do you think that the common view that opposes the early modern church with science is inaccurate or anachronistic?

Yes, I do think the view that religion and science were locked in a purely antagonistic relationship is both inaccurate and anachronistic. The loveliest counterexample is Bianchini’s meridiana, the metal line he installed in the church Santa Maria degli Angeli in order to precisely track the position of the sun, and so to determine the date of the two equinoxes. Bianchini effectively transformed this sacred space into a scientific instrument, and yet the instrument itself further sacralized the space, since the date of the spring equinox is critical for determining the date of Easter. Bianchini’s life and work remind us that the divisions between disciplines—between religion and science, or, for that matter, between history, theology, archaeology, anthropology—are inventions of the nineteenth-century university. Disciplines would not have made much sense to Bianchini because for him, everything was equal proof of God’s handiwork. I am fascinated by perfection and the exhaustiveness of Bianchini’s work; how his faith gave him an unshakeable belief in the interconnectedness of all things, and an equally unshakeable belief in his own ability to describe it all.

Both of the reviews you have written in our pages are of biographies—the most recent one of a single man, with a supporting cast of characters, and the last of a book about four European queens. What do you make of biography as a way of illustrating and understanding history?

I like how Virginia Woolf imagined the art of biography: “subtle and bold enough to present that queer amalgamation of dream and reality, that perpetual marriage of granite and rainbow,” by which she meant the elusive combination of fact and imagination that brings a life to life on the page. Of course, she was writing about an ideal form of biography that did not yet exist. Does it now? I find that experimental approaches to biography that are written outside the discipline of history come closest to Woolf’s vision: Saidiya Hartman’s collective Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments, or Selby Wynn Schwartz’s After Sappho, for example.

And biographies have particular limitations as a form. Even when the supporting cast is as diverse and idiosyncratic as Heilbron’s, biography risks valorizing the individual at the expense of examining their relationships, codependencies, influences; they can chart lifetime-achievement narratives that do not map onto the plotlessness and messiness of a real lived life. Of course, the best biographies nimbly avoid those traps.

I think, too, that there is a perception in publishing that biographies are better-suited to a “general” audience, or that general readers are attracted by historical biographies even if they aren’t especially interested in reading broader thematic accounts of a period. It is practically axiomatic in public history writing that one must avoid the kinds of arguments and debates that are more usually tackled in thematic histories. The life story, the unexpected hook, the unsolved mystery: these are supposed to be what the general reader wants. Yet I find those approaches presume an audience that doesn’t exist, that is, an incurious one.

I’d like to give you a chance to say more about your “favorite character” in Heilbron’s book, Maria Clara Einmart. Why did she stand out? What should we know about her?

Thank you for the opportunity! Maria Clara Einmart was an astronomer and an artist. She was the daughter and apprentice of an astronomer well-known in Nuremberg and the granddaughter of a painter, so she came by it honestly. She also married an astronomer. Maria painted the most beautiful astronomical illustrations of the observations she made through her father’s telescope, between 1693 and 1698 making 250 drawings of the phases of the moon. Pope Clement XII asked for copies. When Donato Creti came to make his nocturnal landscape paintings for the Vatican’s Tower of the Winds, he left a blank space in each one for a miniaturist to copy Maria’s illustrations into the night sky. So her observations live on in another painter’s hand, though she died tragically in childbirth at thirty-one years old, a year after her marriage. She also drew flowers, birds, and portraits of ancient women. These have all been lost. What did the portraits look like? I have tried to convince a friend who works in TV development that Maria’s life would make for far more interesting viewing than the usual (Tudor) suspects.

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