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, and an epigram in German and Latin, with an accompanying “fugue,” i.e., 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 non-specialists 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 Atalanta’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, printing, and Michael Maier. 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 and/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 re-imagining Atalanta fugiens as a dynamic, multimodal publication came from two multidisciplinary, collaborative workshops that took an experimental approach to deciphering Atalanta fugiens. 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. A second workshop at Brown University followed, held on a very wintry weekend 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 funded 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.

Technical Specifications

The Furnace and Fugue web presence has been created using static page generators. All interactivity is handled on the client side using JavaScript and no server-side support is necessary after the site has been generated.

The digital edition of Atalanta fugiens is compiled from transcriptions of the original book, a copy of which is held in the John Hay Library at Brown University, and a contemporaneous English translation held at Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Both texts are encoded in XML using the TEI (Text Encoding Initiative) schema. They have been encoded as they appear on the page with the addition of regularized spelling to the English translation and expansions for Latin brevigraphs and abbreviations to the Latin. Detailed encoding notes are available in the XML files available on the GitHub text repository. The digital edition of Atalanta fugiens is converted from XML source files to HTML with the in-house, custom-coded site generator system Furnace, which is written in Python and uses XSL as its template language. The scholarly essays were built with the static site generator Hugo.

The music notation was created with Sibelius and exported to MEI (Music Encoding Initiative), an XML schema for representing the physical and intellectual characteristics of musical documents, using the Sibelius-to-MEI plugin. Because MEI is a format which is easily manipulated, it was possible to use the Verovio music notation engraving library to generate a web-ready vector notation in SVG and to extract the timing information needed to align audio with the interactive music display.

Indexing and display is handled by JavaScript libraries. Search functionality is provided by the Lunr.js library, with custom-built functionality to provide the context of search hits in the search result view. The faceted image search functionality was also built in-house. The digital edition uses OpenSeadragon for the zooming image viewer and MagickSlicer to create the image tiles. Additional animated effects and transitions in the digital edition, faceted image search, navigation menus, and interactive map use the GreenSock Animation API (GSAP), the GSAP ScrollToPlugin, ScrollMagic, and Tumult Hype Pro and the Waypoints JavaScript library, respectively. Detailed documentation on implementation can be found on the GitHub code repository.


Editors: Tara Nummedal and Donna Bilak

Digital Scholarship Editor: Allison Levy
Editorial Assistance: Dashiell Wasserman, Rebecca Krasner, Amanda Arceneaux

Design: Crystal Brusch, Studio Rainwater
Design and Production Assistance: Ben Tyler

Development: Adam Bradley, Jean Rainwater, Birkin Diana, Patrick Rashleigh, Jake and Company

Text Transcription: Elli Mylonas, Scott DiGiulio, George Elliott

Music Modernization and Transcription: Robin Bier and Graham Bier

Audio Recording: Loren Ludwig
Singers: Luthien Brackett, Fred Jodry, Donald Meinecke, Charlotte Mundy, Molly Quinn, Elisa Sutherland, James Taylor, Jonathan Woody

Digital Photography and Videography: Lindsay Elgin and Shashi Mishra

Additional Contributors: Brian Croxall, Liz Glass

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