Henry Putnam University Professor and Director of the Shelby Cullom Davis Center for Historical Studies, Princeton University
Anthony Grafton, Director of the Davis Center for Historical Studies at Princeton University, is one of the most distinguished scholars of Renaissance humanism active today, with over a dozen books on various aspects of early modern European culture. But Grafton's reputation extends well beyond the halls of university history departments. His witty and erudite studies encompass such unlikely topics as the footnote and the forgery, as well as staple figures of Renaissance history such as Leon Battista Alberti and Giovanni Pico della Mirandola. He ranges from the history of art and literature to the technical details of chronology and science. A regular contributor to The New Republic and The New York Review of Books, Grafton commands a broad swathe in the world of learning, extending from his home-base in Renaissance Europe up to studies of the nitty-gritty of historical scholarship in post-Enlightenment culture.
Despite the oceanic scale of his learning, it is still possible to pinpoint some central features of Grafton's work that project like a chain of islands on a map of physical relief. His early work on the humanist scholar and student of chronology Joseph Justus Scaliger allowed Grafton to reassert the significance of Renaissance men of letters on the modern understanding of history. The same emphasis was developed further in Grafton's well-known Defenders of the Text (Cambridge, MA; Harvard University Press, 1991), where he argued not only for the significance of Scaliger, but also for that of Angelo Poliziano, Isaac Casaubon, and several other humanists who applied the tools of textual criticism and skill in ancient languages to the understanding of historical documents. Grafton's work in this area has been widely recognized, as in his acquisition of the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for history that was awarded for his co-authored New Worlds, Ancient Texts (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993).
But the significance of the early modern rediscovery of the classics forms only one focus of Grafton's work. Closely related to his interest in chronology is another field, astrology, which has featured prominently in his more recent work. Grafton's groundbreaking study of a sixteenth-century Italian physician and astrologer, Cardanos Cosmos (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999), demonstrated the centrality of astrological modes of explanation to Renaissance thought in general. The importance of astrology as an explanatory tool is also brought out in a number of Grafton's essays on important figures in the history of science such as the famous neoplatonist Giovanni Pico, who debunked celestial prognostication, and the equally renowned astronomer Johannes Kepler, who tried to rehabilitate astrology after Pico's devastating attack on it (see Grafton's Commerce with the Classics, published by the University of Michigan in 1997).
Closely related to Grafton's work in the cultural history of astrology is his current research project, on the role of magic in Renaissance Europe. The two topics that he will address in the Patten lectures, the legend of Doctor Faustus and the occult philosophy of Heinrich Cornelius von Nettesheim, consider figures who not only acquired renown for their mastery of the natural magic acclaimed in early modern culture, but who were also widely reviled for their supposed involvement with the devil. Grafton's work on this subject promises to throw new light on a difficult topic in the history of European culture at a time when charges of magic were connected with the heated turmoil surrounding the Reformation, Counter-Reformation, and the birth of modern science.