Month: May 2013

Astronomical Museum in Eger

The northern Hungarian town of Eger is famous amongst Hungarians as the place where István Dobó defeated the invading Ottoman forces in 1552. For historians of science, Eger is interesting for its Esterhazy Károly College. Originally Bishop Eszterhazy had hoped to establish a university in Eger, but he was unable to secure approval from the emperor. So, instead, in the 1760s he founded instead a teachers’ college, which continues to train teachers today. Inside there is a wonderful Baroque library with a rich collection of early modern books and a few manuscripts. The Astronomical Tower at the college houses a small astronomy museum.

The tower at the Eszterhazy Károly College  houses a small astronomy museum.
The tower at the Eszterhazy Károly College houses a small astronomy museum.

The astronomy museum includes a number of old telescopes and a handful of naked-eye instruments. The room is divided by a meridian line, which was, apparently, designed and constructed by the astronomer Maximilian Hell. In addition to designing this room and the meridian line, Hell was the first director of the Vienna Observatory (for a recent study, see Nora Pärr’s Maximilian Hell und sein wissenschaftliches Umfeld im Wien des 18. Jahrhunderts. Pärr’s dissertation is available from the Universität Wien or as a book).

The meridian line inside the astronomy museum.
The meridian line inside the astronomy museum.

The tower is capped by a camera obscura, also designed by Hell in 1776. While there are a number of camera obscuras in various stages of decay across Europe, Eger likes to claim its is one of the oldest functioning instrument. If you climb to the top of the tower, you get a chance to see it in operation. The instrument has nearly a 360° view of the town, except where part of the tower’s roof obstructs the view. While the images are sharp and clear, the description offered by the person operating the camera is a bit fuzzy on details and needs to be taken with a grain of salt.

A Foucault’s pendulum hangs in the center of the tower’s stairwell:

A Foucault’s pendulum hangs in the tower.
A Foucault’s pendulum hangs in the tower.

The Astronomy Tower, its observation room with Hell’s meridian line, and its camera obscura suggest the importance of observatories as markers of scientific knowledge. It was also a way to connect Eger to Vienna, the cultural, intellectual, and administrative capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

While the Astronomy Tower and its small museum is hardly reason to travel to Eger, if you find yourself in the area it’s worth a visit, despite Rick Steves’s dismissal of them as just “some dusty old stargazing instruments and a meridian line in the floor.”

Astrological Sugar Packets

Those wacky people over at Wiener Zucker have once again commemorated signs of the zodiac on their sugar packets (see earlier versions here). It is an interesting marketing technique that must work, or at least must not harm the company. I don’t really understand why it would work, but that’s why I’m not in marketing. Anyway, here is the packet for Cancer:

The zodiacal sign of Cancer from Wiener Zucker’s astrological marketing campaign.
The zodiacal sign of Cancer from Wiener Zucker’s astrological marketing campaign.

According to Wiener Zucker:

Der Krebs ist ein äußerst gefühlvoller Mensch. Aufgrund seiner sensiblen Art ist er bei seinen Mitmenschen sehr beliebt. Doch wenn ihn jemand angreift, kann er sich sehr wohl verteidigen.

Rough English translation:

A Cancer is a very sentimental person. Due to this sensitive nature a Cancer is very popular with friends and colleagues. However, when somebody attacks, a Cancer fights back vigorously.

This is astrology in its most banal form, though I suppose I shouldn’t expect profundity on a sugar packet. I think I can, however, expect visually pleasing. Regrettably, these don’t seem as nice as the Polish stamps.

Plague Columns in Central Europe

Plague columns, or Marian and Holy Trinity columns, dot Central Europe—partial lists can be found on the German wikipedia pages for Pestsäule and Mariensäule. These columns were often three sided to represent the Holy Trinity, dedicated to the Virgin Mary, and decorated with various saints. Wealthy citizens, fraternities, and even emperors commissioned and erected plague columns to thank God for ending a plague epidemic. During the Baroque period these columns became important symbols of Counter-Reformation Catholicism.

One of the more famous plague columns stands in the Graben in Vienna. In 1679 a major plague epidemic broke out in Vienna. By the time it ended, nearly 80,000 citizens had died. To celebrate the end of the epidemic, Emperor Leopold I commissioned a Pestsäule. After more than a decade, the column was finally inagurated in 1693 (if you can read German, skip the anemic English wikipedia page and read the German one). Two decades later, Emperor Charles VI commissioned Karlskirche to celebrate the end of yet another plague epidemic.

The plague column in the Graben in Vienna.
The plague column in the Graben in Vienna.

In Košice, Slovakia, there is a smaller plague column toward the north end of the central square. It too celebrated the end of a plague epidemic, one that gripped the city in 1709-1710. Although smaller than its ornate cousin in Vienna, the plague column in Košice is nice example of Baroque Catholicism. These plague columns, particular those dedicated to the Virgin Mary, were key instruments of Counter Reformation authority.

The plague column in the central square in Košice, Slovakia.
The plague column in the central square in Košice, Slovakia.

But plague columns date back centuries. In the former cemetery in Klosterneuburg there is a Gothic plague column, often called the Tutz-Säule. The local citizen Michael Tutz dedicated this column in 1381 to celebrate the end of a recent plague epidemic.

The Tutz-Säule in the former cemetery at Klosterneuburg monastery.
The Tutz-Säule in the former cemetery at Klosterneuburg monastery.

These plague columns raise questions about the roles monuments play in shaping histories and our understanding of the past. At the same time, comparing contemporary columns highlights the visual and cultural tropes that were meaningful at the time. And comparing later columns with earlier ones helps us see how those tropes changed.