Speaker: Joseph Dauben, Distinguished Professor in the Department of History, Herbert H. Lehman College and Ph.D. Program in History, The Graduate Center, CUNY
In 1607 the Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci (1552–1610), in collaboration with his colleague 徐光啟 Xu Guangqi (1562–1633), translated the first six books of Euclid’s Elements of Geometry into Chinese. Among those to take a serious interest in this work was the prominent mathematician 梅文鼎 Mei Wending (1632-1721), but his 幾何通解 Jihe tongjie (General Explanation of (Euclid’s) Geometry) eliminated most of the demonstrations and redrew many of the original diagrams. Several decades later, when the Jesuit artist Giuseppe Castiglione (1688–1766) collaborated with 年希堯 Nian Yixiao (1671-1738), a high-ranking official of the Yongzheng reign, to produce Chinese versions of Andrea Pozzo’s Perspectiva Pictorum et Architectorum (1693-1698), this reflected the fascination of the Yongzheng emperor (r. 1723–1735) in the trompe l’oeil effects of illusionistic perspective paintings. His successor, the Qianlong emperor (r. 1736–1795), also commissioned many such works, but imperial patronage did not result in popular success for the genre, and today only a handful of these Chinese perspective paintings, rarely seen, survive. Why were the basic elements of western mathematics, so essential for the Scientific Revolution, as well as the discovery of mathematical perspective that revolutionized western artistic vision (as exemplified by Pozzo’s magnificent illusionistic frescoes in the Jesuit Church of St. Ignazio in Rome, for example, and imitated by Giovanni Gherardini for the Beitang or North Church of the French Jesuits in Beijing), not similarly appreciated by Chinese intellectuals and artists? Are the examples of the limited reception of Euclid’s Elements by Chinse mathematicians and the general lack of interest in the principles of mathematical perspective in Chinese art in any way related? And does the answer to this question in turn shed any light on the Needham Question—the question Joseph Needham sought to answer through his monumental investigation of Science and Civilization in China—namely why was there never a Chinese scientific revolution?
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This event is part of the New York History of Science Lecture Series.
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The New York Academy of Sciences
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