In 1618, on the eve of the Thirty Years’ War, the German alchemist and physician Michael Maier published Atalanta fugiens, an intriguing and complex musical alchemical emblem book designed to engage the ear, eye, and intellect. The book unfolds as a series of fifty emblems, each of which contains a motto, a copperplate etching, an epigram in German and Latin, and an accompanying “fugue” — music scored for three voices. Each emblem/fugue set is followed by a Latin discourse in which Maier points to particular works from the alchemical corpus, providing bibliographic clues for the reader to use in unlocking the emblem’s hidden meaning. Historians of alchemy have long understood this virtuoso work as an ambitious demonstration of the art’s literary potential, an experiment with genre and the possibilities of the early modern printed book. More recently, scholars have noted that Maier’s emblems also encode actual laboratory materials and technologies, inviting us to revisit the book not only as a display of erudition and a paean to the philosophers’ stone but also as a puzzle, a tool that can be used to generate endless new insights into nature’s secrets.
Atalanta fugiens lends itself unusually well to experimentation with digital tools and technologies available today. Re-rendering Maier’s multimedia alchemical project as an enhanced online publication, Furnace and Fugue allows contemporary readers to hear, see, manipulate, and investigate Atalanta fugiens in ways that were perhaps imagined when it was created yet impossible to fully realize before now. An interactive, layered digital edition provides accessibility and flexibility to readers, presenting all the elements of the original book along with significant enhancements that allow for deep engagement by specialists and nonspecialists alike: a fully searchable English translation sourced from a seventeenth-century manuscript housed in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University; high resolution, zoomable images; newly commissioned, manipulable vocal recordings of the book’s music; a downloadable performance edition featuring modernized musical notation; and a multifunctional space that allows users to curate, save, and share their own selection and arrangement of Maier’s emblems. Furnace and Fugue makes possible the playful capabilities implied by Atalanta fugiens while also enabling and encouraging new interpretations of this early modern emblem book. Three short introductory essays invite readers to get acquainted with early modern alchemy, contemporary printing methods, and Michael Maier himself. Eight extended interpretive essays explore Atalanta fugiens and its place in the history of music, science, print, and visual culture in early modern Europe. These interdisciplinary essays include interactive features that clarify or advance the authors’ arguments while positioning Furnace and Fugue as an original, uniquely engaging contribution to our understanding of early modern culture.
The impetus for reimagining Atalanta fugiens as a dynamic, multimodal publication came from two multidisciplinary, collaborative workshops that took an experimental approach to deciphering the book. The first was held in March 2015 at the Chemical Heritage Foundation (renamed the Science History Institute in 2018) in Philadelphia. This workshop brought together rare books curators as well as experts in history, music, mathematics, and digital humanities to puzzle out — and perform — Maier’s book. The new ideas, debates, and general excitement that emerged from this interactive engagement with Maier’s text became the springboard for Furnace and Fugue. In the two extraordinary days that followed, fugues were sung on demand and Latin epigrams recited. One participant created playing cards of the emblems to experiment with the formation of different kinds of pairings; another held an impromptu Rare Books School session to explain the physical aspects of Maier’s book; and the workshop culminated with a truly magical moment, when participants gathered around four copies of Maier’s book on loan from neighboring institutions and sang music from Atalanta fugiens guided by the singers in the Othmer Library. A second workshop at Brown University followed, held in February 2016. About forty international scholars, students, and musicians, snowbound on the Brown campus, gathered to discuss and demonstrate some of the ways in which innovative digital engagement with Atalanta fugiens might open up Maier’s world to a contemporary readership.
Furnace and Fugue was developed under the auspices of Brown University’s Digital Publications Initiative, generously supported by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Additional support was provided by a Humanities Grant from the Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation, as well as a Richard B. Salomon Faculty Research Award and a Seed/Bridge Grant from the Social Science Research Institute at Brown University.