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Prometheus and the Jesuit Physics

In one of the panels of the Colégio do Espírito Santo classroom, the scientific discipline of Physics is compared with The punishment of Prometheus, a theme with an enormous tradition among humanists since the work of Andrea Alciato.

In one of the panels of the Colégio do Espírito Santo classroom, the scientific discipline of Physics is compared with The Punishment of Prometheus, a theme with an enormous tradition among humanists since Andrea Alciato associated the figure with the Socratic adage: Quae supra nos, nihil ad nos [What is above us is nothing for us]. The main purpose of the Italian scholar was to advise the necessary limits to human knowledge.

In a stimulating text, the Italian historian Carlo Ginzburg described the evolution of the significance of the heroic myths of Icarus and Prometheus who, after the appeals of the Renaissance humanists, came to be displayed as a vigorous symbol of commercial spirit and scientific research in the seventeenth century.

Quae supra nos, nihil ad nos. Andrea Alciato. Emblemata / Les emblemes, Paris, 1584.
Quae supra nos, nihil ad nos. Andrea Alciato. Emblemata / Les emblemes, Paris, 1584.

The Jesuit François-Antoine Pomey, an influential French teacher and lexicographer, was also the author of a classic mythology textbook, the Pantheum Miticum, in which Prometheus, the prudent man, was the great creator of the arts and civilization. According to Pomey’s interpretation, both the eagle that eats his liver and the chains that constrain his body are not a punishment, but a representation of the constant effort he did as an astronomer in the Caucasus mountains.

In Évora’s tiles, the flames that surround the mountains, despite little conformity with the pictorial tradition, reinforce the identification of Physics with the mythical figure of Prometheus, who has stolen the fire from the skies to raise the spirit of his clay man.

To highlight his intentions, the author of the iconographic program of Évora added the verse rimando vivit [living in research] to the emblem. According to the Jesuit professor Bento Pereira’s dictionary, the Latin verb rimor means “to search diligently, to scan, to watch” and also “to cut and crack.” This choice of words builds the metaphorical context that compares the scientific examination process with the physical injury caused by the insatiable bird.

More subtly, the impediment to the knowledge of “the things above us” has become, in the tiles of the College of Évora, an epistemological lesson, where the interior of Prometheus’ body is the plain and proper field of physical investigations. 

Physica. Valentim de Almeida and Sebastião Gomes Ferreira, c. 1745. Colégio do Espírito Santo classroom. Teresa Verão

To the Jesuit teachers, this statement was considered essential to explain the scientific aspect of invisible and hidden forces present in new experiments and researches of phenomena such as magnetism and vacuum.

ESSENTIAL BIBLIOGRAPHY

BOLLAND, Johannes; TOLLENAERE, Jean de; HOSSCHE, Sidronius de; WALLE, Jacques van de & FRUYTIERS, Philip. Imago Primi Saeculi Societatis Iesu: a prouincia Flandro-Belgica eiusdem Societatis repraesentata. Antuérpia: Balthasaris Moreti, 1640.

GINZBURG, Carlo. “High and Low: The Theme of Forbidden Knowledge in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries” in Past & Present, 1976, n. 73, pp. 28-41.

MENDEIROS, José Filipe. Os azulejos da Universidade de Évora. Tiles of the University of Evora. Évora: Universidade de Évora, 2002.

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