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An Arctic Case Study: Humanism in Real Time
November 2018 – History of Science Society Annual Meeting

This paper addresses questions about the current shape of the humanities raised through two experimental jewelry arts workshops held at a vocational school in the Canadian Arctic. These workshops investigated the idea of an artisanal epistemology in early modern enquiries into the natural world in relation to contemporary modes of indigenous knowledge production. In the Inuit cultural context, the acquisition and dissemination of knowledge is not rooted in textual traditions, but bodily embedded in oral histories, craft technology, and land stewardship. Through this lens of indigenous interaction with Renaissance scholarship, this paper reflects on the utility of reconstruction and material literacy as present-day history of science methodologies in which scholarly textual interpretation meets physical research, as well as the nature of cultural heritage in shaping material practice. This cross-cultural knowledge exchange also engenders a wider reflection about the turn within the humanities to increasingly greater emphasis on interdisciplinary research and multidisciplinary collaborations, in which breaking down disciplinary silos poses big challenges. How do our actions and values as scholars shape the intellectual heritage that we are creating right now, in our own historical moment? How might new collaborative practices between humanists, artisans, and scientists reorient this? Who is knowledge for, anyway?


Matters of Form: Jewelry Styles and Motifs
October 2018 –  Antique Jewelry & Art Conference, hosted by Newark Museum

In 1856, the architect and design theorist Owen Jones published The Grammar of Ornament, an authoritative design sourcebook that reflected Jones’ ideas about key principles in architecture and decorative arts, and which drew from diverse historical sources. This lecture takes Jones’ work as a point of entry for considering jewelry history and technology from a global perspective in looking at design in the context of form, function, and materials across time and culture.


The Afterlife of Atalanta fugiens
May 2018 – Scientiae, 6th Annual Conference, University of Minnesota

Atalanta fugiens (1618) is a musical alchemical emblem book by the German physician and alchemist Michael Maier that blends art and science into a paean to wisdom achieved through alchemical practice. To communicate an interlocking program of alchemical philosophy and technology, Maier fused together three distinct genres of publication: hermetics, emblematics, and secular vocal music. Atalanta fugiens is thus engineered as an interactive, multimedia work that engages the senses of sound and sight in order for the reader to find and solve the clues that Maier hid amid its various components, and to thus discern his core message: that the pursuit of alchemy is the true path to wisdom.

This paper is about the recovery of lost intellectual values around an epistemology of playfulness through a re-evaluation of Atalanta fugiens. It considers shifts in the reader’s use and reception of Maier’s multimedia alchemical project sixty-five years after his death apropos of its reissue in 1687 without the music. An examination of this edition, retitled Secretioris naturæ secretorum scrutinium chymicum (The Alchemical Investigation of the Most Secret Nature of Secrets) presents a fascinating counterpoint to Maier’s original 1618 publication as a fundamental alteration of his intentionally ludic and multi-sensory experience of the book. This tale of two editions illuminates a reorientation in early modern notions of the nature of knowledge and probes the deep changes that this shift engendered, in which an outcome is the separation of the humanities and the sciences, and subsequent disciplinary divisions about what knowledge is and should be.

Maier was a polymath, yet hitherto scholarship around Atalanta fugiens has reflected disciplinary specialization, resulting in silos of studies. This examination of Atalanta’s afterlife extends to its digital (re)presentation, and deliberates on questions about current modes and future possibilities of knowledge production and application, in which humanists also tell a science story.


‘Publish or Perish’: The Digital Edition in Academia
March 2018 – Renaissance Society of America 64th Annual Meeting

Innovation is a current watchword in humanities research and publishing. Even though it resists definition, it is the sine qua non for funding applications, CFAs, and book proposals; committees are on the lookout for “new” and “ground-breaking approaches” in scholarly production. Yet academia is still primed to privilege the monograph with regard to tenure-track hires, tenure evaluation, and promotion. Why? My paper responds to this in considering some meta career issues around digital publication from a postdoctoral perspective — specifically, apropos of my work on Project Atalanta, the born-digital edition of Michael Maier’s musical alchemical emblem book, Atalanta fugiens (1618). As an example of an early modern multimedia text, digitization makes Atalanta‘s interpretation uniquely possible, allowing for a new kind of scholarly play with the text that resonates with Maier’s original intentions. How should Project Atalanta be evaluated, and can this digital edition be commensurate with a monograph? What’s at stake for a junior scholar?

RSA Panel: “‘Tear the Books Apart’ — Digitizing Michael Maier’s Atalanta fugiens (1618)”


Chymistry in the Archives: Gershom Bulkeley’s Alchemical Notebook Collection at the Hartford Medical Society Historical Library (1635-1713)
April 2017 – Cain Conference Chemical Heritage Foundation, “Chemistry in the Early Americas”

Almost three decades have passed since Thomas Jodziewicz published the library inventory of the prominent Connecticut physician and politician, Gershom Bulkeley (1635-1713) in the Transactions of the American Philosophical Society. Jodziewicz, a historian of American studies at the University of Dallas, had encountered Bulkeley during his doctoral research on seventeenth-century Connecticut town-general court relations in the 1970s; something about Bulkeley’s apparent “orneriness” came through in the records and caught his attention. While Jodziewicz’s interest in Bulkeley centered on his political and medical work, Bulkeley’s library list of over 300 works reveals his deep involvement in contemporary medico-alchemical debates and experimental practices.

Bulkeley’s books have long since been dispersed, but a significant collection of his notebooks remain in the Hartford Medical Society Library (HMS) at the University of Connecticut Health Center in Farmington, CT.

Five years have passed since the HMS digitized select alchemical manuscripts by Gershom Bulkeley in their holdings. Rich in bibliographic references, some of which contain technical sketches of alchemical equipment, Bulkeley’s alchemical notebooks at the HMS are an unmined trove of information, a portal into the library and laboratory of a colonial practitioner. Presented by HMS Librarian Jennifer D. Miglus and historian of early modern alchemy Donna Bilak (Columbia-CHF Scholar), “Chymistry in the Archives” explores Bulkeley’s working practices and participation in seventeenth century trans-Atlantic exchanges of medico-alchemical knowledge through the lens of his extant writings, and considers current challenges in making this collection broadly accessible to the academic community. And yes, there will be notebooks on hand…

Co-presented with Jennifer D. Miglus


Vials and Vinaigrettes: The Manipulation of Odour in 18th-century French Science and Society
March 2016 – Dutch-Belgian Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies (DBSECS)

Smells are a natural product that is recreated artificially in scientific and societal contexts. This paper considers 18th-century French theories of olfaction from the twinned perspectives of contemporary intellectual and behavioural structures to look at continuities and discontinuities in the production and use of odours.

On the one hand, scientific views around the materiality of odours were changing: chemists such as Romieu, Prévost, Fourcroy, and Berthollet proposed and demonstrated that odours were elicited by volatile airborne particles. This signalled a shift in the material understanding of the chemical and psychological causality of smell. Its newly found corpuscular nature provided smell with an experimental accessibility that allowed for the investigation of smells as transmitters of infections and therapeutic remedies in public perception. While experimental ideas of control and purification started to characterise odour as a scientific object, this reification also led to a prolonged disassociation of research on the causal materiality of odours from studies of their psychological and merely subjective effects.

On the other hand, the social role of smell in feminine ideals of beauty and behaviour drew upon popular understandings of the airborne nature of smell. In this context, the therapeutic manipulation of air was administered through objects of personal adornment like the vinaigrette, i.e. a small container with a perforated top containing pungent aromatic substances used as an inhalant to stimulate or restore consciousness – a physiological reaction that was enacted as a codified form of etiquette. Our collaborative exploration illuminates the blurred boundaries of smells as an epistemic and cultural object in this period. In what ways did popular conceptions of odour and air connect with contemporary scientific inquiry, or, conversely, limit it?

Co-presented with Ann-Sophie Barwich


Possum Tales: Inside the Story of a Painted Puzzle by Australian Artist Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri (1932-2002)
May 2015 – Nunavut Arctic College

In 1992, Australian artist Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri was asked by his friend, art dealer Peter Los, to “paint his very best picture” for him. By then in his 60s, Possum had become one of the most famous contemporary artists from the Northern Territory’s Western Desert area, working in an acrylic painting style known as dot art, a genre rooted in the  Aboriginal tradition of depicting dreaming stories on the ground. What Clifford Possum in fact painted for his friend was not only an extremely conceptual visual autobiography, but also a pointed political statement about aboriginal nationalism whose meaning is only now emerging, thirteen years after the artist’s death. This talk takes us on a journey into the world of Australian aboriginal culture and cosmology through the exploration of the meaning embedded in the colours and patterns depicted on this canvas, to uncover why Clifford Possum’s “very best picture” has been a mystery until now.


Diamonds, Death, and Flowers: Jewelry Genres in Renaissance Portraits
July 2014 – 37th Annual Antique Jewelry and Art Conference

Renaissance portraits typically express a particular narrative about the sitter told to the viewer by way of objects, dress, and the composition of the portrait itself.  Yet depictions of jewelry in a given portrait are more than just decorative embellishment: study of its form and function opens up new ways of understanding the broader socio-cultural trends and developments that shaped this period. Through analysis of the jewelry design, materials, and construction featured in a select group of portraits, this talk takes us beyond what we see on the painted surface, giving us an insider’s look into the vital role that jewelry played in European society and culture, as well as how jewelry can be understood as a tangible expression of the time and place of its creation.


Blast From the Past: 1950s Atomic Age Jewelry
April 2014 – Christie’s Education, New York

A piece of jewelry is the material embodiment of the culture and society in which it was created, expressed through its design and fabrication techniques. Atomic jewelry is the designation used for the 1950s modernist genre of jewelry that featured stylized representations of the atomic energy symbol. An artifact of Cold War culture in America and Europe, this jewelry style encapsulates the public’s fascination and fears about nuclear power and testing in the wake of WWII. This talk brings to light the interconnectedness of the decorative arts with science, politics and society in the 1950s through the exploration of the vogue for atomic-themed jewelry that emerged at that time.


Jewelry in Renaissance Portraits by Agnolo Bronzino (1503-1572), Florentine Painter Extraordinaire
July 2012 – 35th Annual Antique Jewelry and Art Conference

Agnolo Bronzino was an artist who worked in the opulent ducal court of Cosimo I de’ Medici (r.1537-1569) and he participated in the brilliant intellectual culture of the Florentine literati, whose leading lights he captured in his oil-on-panel portraits. But Bronzino didn’t just paint the sitter’s likeness. Each of his portraits expresses a specific narrative about the sitter told allegorically through such compositional devices as architectural elements, furniture, clothing – and the sitter’s jewelry. Accordingly, this lecture explores the concealed messages that Bronzino embedded in the jewels featured in the following three portraits: the “Young Man” (1530s, Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY), Eleonora di Toledo (ca.1539, National Gallery, Prague), and the portrait of Lodovico Capponi (1550-5, Frick Museum, NY).


Plague, Death, and the Transit of Mars: An Astrological Analysis of John Allin’s November 1665 London Letters to Rye
November 2013 – Rye Castle Museum

John Allin (1623-1683) was a Harvard-educated Puritan cleric, physician, and alchemist, who had been Rye’s minister of the Gospel during the Interregnum. When political opponents forced him to leave town in December 1664, Allin beat a hasty retreat to London, just months before the city was to be decimated by the worst plague epidemic in its history. What we know about Allin’s reactions to the outbreak comes from his Restoration correspondence with his two friends in Rye, Philip Frith and Samuel Jeake, and this talk explores an intriguing episode that took place this season 348 years ago. On 14 November 1665, as the plague raged in London, Allin had ascertained through astrological calculation that “a very mortal day” was approaching him. Understandably concerned, Allin sought verification from his friend Jeake, a noted astrologer. The story that unfolds from the ensuing flurry of Allin’s dispatches from the city provides fascinating insight into “Death’s Visitation” to London, as told through his letters to Rye.

The Allegorical Laboratory: Process and Technology in Michael Maier’s Alchemical Emblem Book, Atalanta fugiens (1617)
July 2013 – 24th International Congress of History of Science, Technology and Medicine

Michael Maier’s extraordinary alchemical emblem book, Atalanta fugiens (1617) is best known to historians of science for its fifty exquisite engravings of emblems that visually render the hermetic vocabulary. But the Atalanta’s emblems are also paired with scored music for three voices – Atalanta, Hippomenes, and the Golden Apple, the three alchemical protagonists in Maier’s work who represent the elemental triad of Mercury, Sulphur, and Salt. Maier’s work has yet to be studied in its multimedial totality; moreover, scholarship generally considers the Atalanta as a fantastical allegorical expression of hermetic philosophy. This paper presents evidence demonstrating that the Atalanta fugiens is an allegorically enciphered manual whose synthesis of music, image, and text fully articulates the alchemical system and delineates the laboratory procedure (and in certain emblems, apparatus as well) used by adepts attempting to produce the philosophers’ stone, the great panacea that would restore prelapsarian perfect health and longevity to humankind. This paper considers the intersection of alchemical theory and the technologies that defined early modern alchemical laboratory operations as both premise and framework for Maier’s creation of this unique alchemical treatise. From this perspective, the Atalanta fugiens opens up new dimensions to our understanding of pre-modern scientific practice.


Colonial Chymistry: The Case of John Allin, Minister-Physician in Woodbridge, New Jersey, 1680-1683
July 2012 – Three Societies Meeting: 7th Joint Meeting of the British Society for the History of Science, Canadian Society for the History and Philosophy of Science, and the History of Science Society

This study considers the re-export and application of medico-alchemical knowledge to colonial America via John Allin (1623-1683), a Harvard-educated Puritan alchemist whose trans-Atlantic career spanned Interregnum Rye, Sussex; Restoration London; and, ultimately, Woodbridge, New Jersey. Introduced to alchemy at Harvard College, Allin became a medical practitioner and a respected operator within London’s dynamic medico-alchemical milieu during the 1660s and 70s. Upon answering the call to be minister at Woodbridge, Allin returned to America at the height of his intellectual talents, bringing with him empirically gained scientific knowledge and an extensive library, the product of long-term collecting. As minister of the gospel and town physician, Allin’s participation within Woodbridge’s community involved the spiritual and physical wellbeing of its members; a contemporary of such other minister-physician Harvard alumni as Michael Wigglesworth and Gershom Bulkeley, Allin’s service in this regard is representative of his formal education. This paper analyzes Allin’s 1684 Woodbridge administration to address questions of impact and continuity around his iatrochemical work: i.e. Allin’s exercise of theory and practice in quotidian concerns around maintaining the health of people under his immediate care, and his pursuit of chrysopœa for the betterment of humankind, as he sought metallic transmutation to render the panacea he believed would eradicate human disease. However, in what ways, if any, did Allin’s knowledge system contribute to medical pathways pursued by ensuing generations of physicians in America? Or did the iatrochemical genealogy that defined John Allin’s ideas and professional activities effectively end with him and his peers?

No.115 Piccadilly, London: The Revivalist Jewelry of Carlo Giuliano and the Victorian Culture of Curiosity
April 2012 – Christie’s Education, New York

In an age of astonishing technological and industrial advance, the Victorians were fascinated by history. As railroads and steamships joined together countrysides and continents in pursuit of commerce, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood turned to medieval and Renaissance art styles and themes in their paintings that industrialists avidly collected, while contemporary archaeological excavations in Italy together with the Grand Tour (the fashionable, educational trip undertaken by affluent and/or aristocratic members of polite society) fueled the Victorian enthusiasm for exploring the cultural legacy of classical antiquity. It is within this moment in time that the vogue for revival-style jewelry emerged – medieval, Renaissance, and Archaeological – the idiom in which the Italian-born goldsmith Carlo Giuliano (1832-1895) worked, at first under the auspices of other renowned jewelers, and then for himself after 1874 at No.115 Piccadilly, his retail shop in London. This talk explores the cultural context surrounding the popularity of revivalist jewelry through the creations of Carlo Giuliano, whose exquisite pieces continue to be sought after today.

The Laboratory Construct of John Allin, Puritan Alchemist in Restoration London
September 2011 – University of Cambridge, Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities (CRASSH) “Alchemy and Medicine from Antiquity to the Enlightenment”

John Allin (1623-1683) was a Harvard-educated Puritan minister in Interregnum Rye until politico-religious Restoration policies forced him to take refuge in London, where he carved out a living as a dissenting minister, solicitor, unlicensed physician, and alchemist. While in London, Allin also acted as a book agent and purveyor of news and goods to his colleagues Philip Frith and Samuel Jeake in Rye. These three friends were connected by shared esoteric interests whose ultimate goal centred on creating the philosophers’ stone. To this end, Allin maintained a private laboratory in his living quarters in London, which he also used to manufacture chymical medicines for profit, and he sourced and sent chymical equipment from London to Rye at the behest of Frith and Jeake. Drawing from Allin’s correspondence and library list, this paper examines how Allin’s theoretical framework and empirical practice of alchemy informed his own chymical outfit, and directed the advice he gave to his friends in their endeavours to set up a laboratory in Rye. By exploring the junction of intellectual and material culture in Restoration science, this study also shows how Allin’s synthesis of contemporary scientific trends translated concepts into practices, and identifies changes in the manufacture of chymical apparatus in London during the 1660s and 70s. These lines of inquiry connect to a larger, complex narrative of British scientific culture wherein the exercise of diverse, and sometimes competing, knowledge systems by chymical empirics operating in both city and province influenced how society perceived, and used, science.

Flora Bejewelled: Horticulture, Jewelry and the Victorian Language of Flowers
July 2011 – 34th Annual Antique Jewelry and Art Conference

The 19th century marked a great age of horticultural interest within Victorian society, from botanical expeditions that brought plants from all over the British empire, to the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew where they were they were studied and admired by the public and professionals alike, and via nurseries that sold cultivars for display in the Victorian home. During this time, floral jewelry enjoyed immense popularity in England. Significantly, it was connected to a highly sophisticated language of flowers whereby sentiments were expressed through floral arrangements – thus, floral jewelry was given and worn as tokens of love and friendship. This talk explores the fascinating relationship between botany, fashion, and etiquette, and their influence on 19th-century floral jewelry design in England, which translated the expression of human emotion into jeweled bouquets.

I. Petals and Metals: Floral Jewellery in France, England and America, 1600 – 1960
January 2010 – Toronto Botanical Garden

Explore the beauty of jewellery and discover its relationship with exotic bloom cultivation and elite collecting practices in France, England and America across three and a half centuries. This lecture also considers ways that botany, contemporary fashion and etiquette, and technological developments influenced floral jewellery design and production.

II. Reconfiguring Eden: European Garden Design, 1500 – 1800
January 2010 – Toronto Botanical Garden

Early modern garden design was laden with meaning as the dwelling place of gods and goddesses, or as an exotic plant museum. But above all, the garden was a declaration of status amid European nobles and wealthy merchants. Discover how classical mythology informed European garden design in this period, learn about the influx of plants into Europe from the New World and the East, and explore reasons behind the shift from formal parterre layout to the picturesque landscape that characterized 18th-century garden aesthetic.

III. Plant vs. Plant: John Evelyn, Joseph Paxton and Urban Planning in the (Pre)Industrial Age
January 2010 – Toronto Botanical Garden

We are not the first epoch to confront environmental issues. In 1661, the Royal Society Fellow John Evelyn published his radical call for urban reform in London, the Fumifugium – an invective against industry-related pollution that proposed girding the city with a fragrant hedge among other horticultural solutions. This lecture explores Evelyn’s ideas and how they resonated within the 19th-century public park movement in England and America which emerged in response to the Industrial Revolution.

Stewards of Nature: An Analysis of Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s Seasons
May 2007 – 10th Annual Mediterranean Studies Association International Congress

Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s “Seasons” is a series of oil-on-wood paintings that was commissioned by Antwerp merchant Niclaes Jongelinck, and completed sometime in 1565. Generally believed to include six works, five panels are extant and located in various American and European museums: Harvesters, in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Haymakers, in the Roudnice Lobkowicz collection, CZ; and Gloomy Day, Return of the Herd, and Hunters in the Snow, in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna. Each painting is associated with a specific season whose particular time of year is signaled by the kinds of human labours depicted within the panel’s scene. When viewed as a panoramic cycle (missing painting notwithstanding), Bruegel’s “Seasons” unfolds as a beautiful story about the passage of Time, expressed through the landscape’s composition as well as through the peasants’ labours and leisures which serve to mark seasonal transitions from one panel to the next. Despite their prominent placement in the panels’ foreground, the peasants represented in Bruegel’s cycle, however, are not necessarily the primary subject matter. Rather, Bruegel appoints these people a supporting position, depicting them in their role as the stewards of Nature, illustrated by the ways in which they care for the terrestrial world, and reap Nature’s bounty. From this perspective, Bruegel renders Nature as macrocosm, and portrays the human element as microcosmus, as the people are intimately connected to their surroundings through the labours/leisures illustrated in the details and minutiae of the Seasons’ artistic arrangement. Accordingly, this paper explores ways in which Bruegel’s “Seasons” encapsulates sixteenth-century notions of cosmology and environmental care through analysis of the cycle’s artistic structure and composition, as well as material features within the panels themselves.

Bronzino’s Portrait of Lodovico Capponi, and the Case of the Missing Codpiece
March 2007 – Renaissance Society of America 53rd Annual Meeting

Agnolo Bronzino’s oil-on-panel portrait of the Florentine aristocrat Lodovico Capponi (painted ca. 1550-1555) was acquired by American industrialist Henry Clay Frick in 1915. Frick was an avid art collector with an internationally renowned reputation; after 1914, he housed his art collection at his New York residence on Fifth Avenue, and both the mansion and collection were bequeathed to the public upon his death in 1919. However, the portrait of Lodovico Capponi that decorated the interior of Frick’s home had been altered from that which is on view today at the Frick Collection – Capponi’s (very prominent) codpiece had been overpainted, and only restored to its full glory in 1949. This paper explores the raison d’être behind the overpainted codpiece in terms of how its alteration reflected 19th/early 20th century notions of etiquette, as well as attitudes about art and collecting.

Emblematic Jewellery in Bronzino’s Portrait of Eleonora di Toledo, 1539
April 2005 – Renaissance Society of America 51st Annual Meeting

Agnolo Bronzino’s oil-on-panel portrait of Eleonora di Toledo (Narodni Galerie, Prague) is intimately related to the Duchessa’s marriage to Cosimo de’ Medici, which took place in Florence in the early summer of 1539 at the behest of Charles V. Painted around the time of the wedding, Eleonora’s portrait depicts a complex and nuanced visual programme meant to be understood in emblematic terms as a nuptial document that commemorated the union between Eleonora and Cosimo, which, in turn, formally united the Medici’s with Spain. Accordingly, this paper explores ways in which Bronzino’s encoded artistic arrangement of the Duchessa’s jewellery and sartorial decoration both embodies and reflects the decorative programme of the ducal couple’s sumptuous wedding festivities (resonant with explicit themes aimed at heralding a new branch of the Medici dynasty through this marriage), and how the portrait functions to present the viewer with an important marital testimonial.

Analysis of Bronzino’s Portrait of a Young Man
March 2005 – Exploring the Renaissance 2005 International Conference, The Huntington Library

This paper examines Bronzino’s “Portrait of a Young Man” (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), and takes a fresh look at this oil-on-panel painting created ca.1535-40. The sitter is an unidentified aristocratic Florentine youth whose stance and fashionable attire is the epitome of Cinquecento courtly qualities; analysis of the portrait from this perspective alone yields a bounty of information for the cultural and art historian. There is, however, a material aspect of this painting which requires investigation, for Bronzino’s portrait also contains an image within the image, detectable by means of x-radiography, which vests the painting with a hidden subtext. Consequently, the portrait’s x-rays (taken by the museum in the 1930s) reveals more than what meets the eye on the painted surface, and serves to shed new light on this masterful work as well as on the artist who created it.




© Donna Bilak and (2012–2021)