Unraveling the Mysteries of the Renaissance: My Unexpected Journey in the Medieval/Renaissance FOCUS Cluster

Guest post by Gabe Cooper, a first-year student from Columbia, SC. He intends to major in Economics with maybe a French minor and an Innovation & Entrepreneurship Certificate.


18th-century illustration of a caiman holding a false coral snake in its mouth.
A dynamic scene of a caiman holding a false coral snake in its mouth, from Maria Sibylla Merian’s Suriname Album.

What drew you to sign up for Scientific Revolutions: Music, Medicine, and Literature the Renaissance FOCUS program? And specifically Professor Tom Robisheaux’s class “Renaissance Doctors, Engineers, and Scientists”?

I discovered this FOCUS cluster almost completely by accident. I came up to Duke to visit during Blue Devil Days and chose to attend a lecture about unraveling the secrets of Leonardo da Vinci, knowing I had enjoyed learning about the Renaissance in the past but also not really knowing what I was getting myself into. When I walked into the lecture room, I was greeted by an eccentric, wise person; the epitome of a college history professor—this is when I met Professor Robisheaux.

Gabe Cooper

I was expecting the mini lecture to be simple—a lecture where Professor Robisheaux talked to us about Leonardo da Vinci. Instead, he tasked the class of newly accepted Duke students to unravel the mystery of Leonardo ourselves. How was the world connected for Leonardo da Vinci? What did his artwork, architectural designs, and a piece of music have in common? All these questions Professor Robisheaux asked us, and all that we had to answer were primary materials and each other. Suddenly, I was in the position to be the one who investigated and be the historian; Professor Robisheaux was just a guide.

This experience during Blue Devil Days drew me to sign up for this MedRen FOCUS cluster because Professor Robisheaux’s teaching style was unlike anything I had ever experienced before, and the lecture made me rethink everything I knew about Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. I wanted to explore this cluster further, and I am so glad I did.

As a student interested in the sciences, what did studying the Renaissance in a humanities program like the MedRen Focus teach you?

The MedRen FOCUS taught me that the distinctions we make today between different subjects in the sciences and the humanities are not as strong as I previously believed. Almost all the figures we studied with Professor Robisheaux were polymaths: Leonardo da Vinci was an artist, scientist, engineer, and courtier; Maria Sibylla Merian was an artist, biologist, and explorer; Paracelsus was a physician who understood medicine and the human body through art and his religious beliefs. Everything was interconnected during the Renaissance, and by studying this period in history, I’ve been better able to see the interconnectedness of the world around me.

18th-century illustration of spiders crawling on plant branches
A busy scene of Huntsman spiders, pink toe tarantulas, leaf-cutter ants, and a ruby-topaz hummingbird, from Maria Sibylla Merian’s Insects of Suriname.

What was it like encountering early printed books from the Renaissance for the first time?

It was stupefying to encounter early printed books because time seemed to have collapsed. These books were a physical representation of time—they had survived centuries before me and would likely survive centuries after me. But at the same time, the books were just books. They looked ordinary and you could still understand their pictures and sometimes even what they were saying. It was a weird dichotomy between awe and ordinariness, and I would highly encourage anyone to explore the Rubenstein Library’s collection.

What was your topic for the final paper in Professor Robisheaux’s class? What did you choose to write about and why?

My topic for my final paper in Professor Robisheaux’s class was centered around the question “How did art become the pinnacle of subjectivity that we know today?” I came up with this question because throughout Professor Robisheaux’s course, a key theme that emerged in our discussions was the fact that art was viewed as mainly objective during the Renaissance, with very set guidelines and procedures. However, while looking at De europische insecten at the Rubenstein Library during class one day, Maria Sibylla Merian seemed to stand out as an outlier. All of her work had very little commentary, a sense of chaos, and focused on the subjective, individual experience of nature.

And perhaps the most exemplary in accomplishing this switch to subjectivity is Merian’s Surinam Album, which masterfully displaying the wildlife of Surinam in the eighteenth century. This album, full of vibrant colors, intricate details, and dynamic scenes, gives the impression that Merian is tasking the viewer with making sense of what these scenes in nature mean, as if she is rendering them the scientist. I wanted to dive deeper into these themes in my final paper, using everything I had learned throughout the course to try to become a historian.

18th-century illustration of butterflies and caterpillar
Two Menelaus Blue Morpho butterflies fluttering around its caterpillar form on a Barbados Cherry, from Maria Sibylla Merian’s Insects of Suriname.

Any other things you would like others (especially future students!) to know about the FOCUS program or the Libraries?

One of the most valuable aspects of FOCUS is the relationships you make with fellow classmates and your professors. Meeting with Professor Robisheaux, Professor Kate Driscoll, Professor Roseen Giles, Dr. Heidi Madden, Ms. Rachel Ingold, and all of your classmates every week for dinner and field trips allows you to really get to know everyone in your FOCUS program. This is truly invaluable because when you take FOCUS as a first semester freshman, you are dealing with a lot of uncertainty. Who will be your friends? Are you going to achieve the same amount of success you did in high school? How do you deal with being on your own? Having a tightly-knit community that is provided by FOCUS makes the entire college transition much easier because you have professors and librarians that want to help you succeed and classmates who are going through the same challenges you are.

One thought on “Unraveling the Mysteries of the Renaissance: My Unexpected Journey in the Medieval/Renaissance FOCUS Cluster”

  1. Thank you for writing this, Gabe! I majored in MedRen after taking Magic, Science, and Religion with Professor Robisheaux. I found that class through serendipity as well – during drop/add, I had free time and my friend invited me to sit in on the first session with her.
    On a semi-related note, if you’re interested in art and advertising, in addition to the Hartman Center at the Rubenstein there are fascinating ads in the comic book and graphic novel collection.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *