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Portraying scientists: Galileo and perceptual portraiture

By Nicholas Wade


Perceptual portraits represent people in an unconventional style. The portraits themselves are not always easy to discern – the viewer needs to apply the power of perception in order to extract the facial features from the design which carries them. The aim is both artistic and historical. They generally consist of two elements – the portrait and some appropriate motif. The nature of the latter depends upon the endeavours for which the portrayed person is known. In some cases the motif is drawn specifically to display a phenomenon associated with the individual, in others it is derived from a figure or text in one of their books, or apparatus which they invented.

These portraits and motifs have themselves been manipulated in a variety of ways, using graphical, photographical, and computer graphical procedures. I believe that such perceptual portraits both attract attention and engage the spectator’s interest to a greater degree than do conventional representations. It is hoped that this visual intrigue enhances the viewer’s desire to discover why particular motifs have been adopted, and in turn to learn more about the persons portrayed: it is intended to be an instance of art serving science.



Nicholas Wade is co-author, with Marco Piccolino, of Galileo’s Visions: Piercing the spheres of the heavens by eye and mind. They have also presented a broader spectrum of perceptual portraits that trace the history of neuroscience from the sixteenth to the twentieth century.

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Image credit: Nicholas Wade and Marco Piccolino

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