The Atlantic Vision: Olaus Rudbeck and Baroque Science

The Atlantic Vision: Olaus Rudbeck and Baroque Science

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Ericsson, Gunmar

Olaus Rudbeck (1630–1702), professor of medicine at Uppsala University, is best known for his discover of the lymphatic system, a work of his youth. Besides anatomy, he made considerable contributions to botany and astronomy, was an eminent technician and master builder, and may be seen as one of the earliest Swedish entrepreneurs. In the four huge volumes of the atlantica, he endeavored to prove that Sweden had played a significant role in the history of the ancient world by identifying the Scandinavian peninsula with the island of Atlantic, described by Plato, and with numerous other fabulous paces described in classical literature, including the Hesperian island and the country of the Hyperboreans. According to Rudbeck, astronomy, time reckoning, and the art of writing with letters (runes) were the inventions of the ancient swedes, knowledge of which has spread throughout the rest of the world by the many conquests of the northern people.

That the atlantica has been discredited as the product of a chauvinistic and perhaps slightly crazy imagination in no way distracts from its impressive learning and paradoxical wittiness. Much of Rudbeck's modern approach in science and natural history is to be found here. His combination of philology with natural science and with natural history is not unique in the seventeenth century. Sir Isaac Newton and many other prominent men of science worked in both science and the humanities. And this gave a special character to the science of the baroque. Although modern in its mathematical and empiricist approach, it preserved much of the hermeneutics and interpretation typical of philology. The baroque scientist regarded nature as a book written by god, which implied that it was full of signs to be interpreted, riddles to be solved, and, above all, it was full of meaning. If the atlantica is studied in this light, it may in turn enlighten the intellectual character of the baroque.


“ . . . There are many commendable features of Eriksson’s book. The topic is virtually unknown to Anglophone readers and the material is intrinsically fascinating . . .” —Annals of Science

“ . . . Rudbeck lived during the period between ‘renaissance science,’ which interpreted texts, and ‘Newtonian science,’ which observed nature. Despite Cartesian inclinations, he was a man of faith, seeking the meaning of creation. Depicting Rudbeck as close to an ‘ideal type’ who was representative of what he calls ‘baroque science,' Eriksson discusses with profound erudition more well-known representatives of the science of the times. He means that the emphasis should be distributed evenly between the two concepts implicit in the central metaphor, ‘the book of nature." —Technology & Culture

“ . . . Eriksson argues that Rudbeck and others like him, far from being cranks, represent a main current of scientific thought in the seventeenth century. This movement is better characterized as baroque than as revolutionary, inasmuch as there is no clear break between the hermeneutics of the Paracelsians and the Baconians and the rigorous quantitative and experimental method that characterizes Enlightenment science.” —Scandinavian Studies