Northern Illinois University

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Mary Quinlan-McGrath
Mary Quinlan-McGrath

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News Release

Contact: Mark McGowan, NIU Office of Public Affairs
(815) 753-9472

February 3, 2006

NIU professor writing book on Renaissance artists
who tried to portray search for secret codes of stars 

DeKalb — Astronomers in Renaissance Italy believed the stars contained codes from God that could unlock the secrets of nature.

These same celestial influences could bestow cosmic harmony and strength to cities and buildings and give protective forces to clothing and jewelry.

Many pieces of art consequently were created (and often commissioned) to depict this quest for celestial understanding, and NIU art professor Mary Quinlan-McGrath is working to make modern sense of it all.

The National Endowment for the Humanities has awarded $40,000 to Quinlan-McGrath to write a book on art and astrology in 15th and 16th century Italy. She will make at least one trip to Italy for research, and expects to complete her manuscript by year's end.

“People believed all the signs we need to know are in the universe, and that if we were only smart enough, we would be able to better read the mind of God,” says Quinlan-McGrath, chair of the Division of Art History within the NIU School of Art. “They made tables of the planets and stars. Great mathematicians and astronomers used these in the belief that they were helping other people, such as the local doctor counseling patients or the local priest counseling parishioners.”

Quinlan-McGrath's interest was sparked when she wandered into a villa in Italy built and once owned by Agostino Chigi, one of the country's wealthiest men. Inside she found frescoes – colors added to a wet plaster wall before it dries, creating a permanent work of art – created by the artist Raphael and others that tried to explain the significance of the heavenly bodies.

At first, she simply wanted to learn what the works meant.

Her initial research combined mathematical data from Renaissance texts with evidence from legal, medical, religious and literary works of the era to suggest the meanings and functions of the most important 16th century artworks with astrological content. The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, one of Europe 's leading newspapers, proclaimed this work “groundbreaking.”

“Now,” she says, “I want to study these works within the broader context of how they understood nature and how they understood the creator.”

As strange as it all might sound 500 years later, and despite the continued production and popularity of horoscopes, the notion of astrology in early modern Europe “mesmerized the poor and the rich, the educated and the uneducated alike.”

They believed that tracking maps of the heavens for their times of birth and their moments of conception would predict how their lives would unfold. They thought buildings constructed as the stars directed would enjoy protection from God.

“It's been fascinating,” she says. “Explaining the deeper implications of astrology within the material culture of Renaissance Italy will be a significant contribution to early modern studies.”

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