Vision: A Resource for Writers

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Website Review:

Institute and Museum of the History of Science

By Bonnie R. Schutzman
Copyright 2007 by Bonnie R. Schutzman, All Rights Reserved

If your writing relies on detailed and thorough worldbuilding, the website of the Institute and Museum of the History of Science (Istituto e Museo di Storia della Scienza, or IMSS) at should be on your list of resources.  Whether you need to know what tools were available for your protagonist to survey the enemy encampment, realistically explain how to use a sextant to set a course at sea, or understand the science and technology of a Roman town, you can find it in this website. 

The IMSS is physically located in Florence, Italy, in an 11th-century palazzo on the Arno, near the Uffizi galleries.  It houses the scientific instrument collection gathered by the Medici and Lorraine families starting from the sixteenth century, plus more recent additions and a large selection of documents and original texts.  Much of the material is available through the website; the Multimedia Catalog in the Museum section points to the interactive and video content. 

Virtual Visit lets you scroll through pictures of the entire permanent collection, room by room.  Sure, you know your mage is an alchemist who uses an alembic to boil his potions -- but do you know what an alembic dome looks like?  (Hint:  A collection of animations demonstrate how instruments such as celatones (, Archimedean screws (, Volta's electrical-phlogopneumatic pistol (, and a wide variety of drawing and surveying instruments might have worked.

In the Exhibits section, you'll find a trove of themed analysis on topics ranging from ancient Roman glass to the role of court scientists in the Renaissance.  These exhibits explore the social and cultural context of scientific and technical developments.  Most exhibits include supporting text, illustrations and animations, and digitized documents related to the subject.  Some of the more interesting exhibits include: 

*  "Vitrum," which examines the role of glass in Roman science.  In addition to obvious uses for drinking glasses and flasks, glass enabled clear instruments.  This triggered the investigation of the optical properties of prisms, and allowed alchemists such as Bolos of Mendes and Mary the Jew of Alexandria to embrace the chemical neutrality of glass for their experiments. 

*  "The Line of the Sun," a virtual tour of sundials and other light-oriented features of Florence. 

*  "Ancient Gardens from Babylon to Rome," which describes not only the gardens and the plants that grew in them, but also the various functions -- sacred space, herb garden, retreat -- and changes over time. 

*  "Michael of Rhodes," the service record of a young mariner in the fleet of Venice in the early 1400's.  A document viewer shows original pages from the manuscript, along with translations to English and modern Italian.  The display provides a wealth of information about trade, shipbuilding, and navigation.  

If you're interested in original research, most of the exhibits and tutorials include an abundance of links that can lead you far astray, into museum catalogs, other Italian government agencies, libraries, and documents in dozens of languages.  You can also browse or search the digital library, which allows you to view contents online or download for later.  Most of the manuscripts and printed works are in full image format, allowing you to see the original artwork and script as well as acquired stains and smudges -- fascinating in itself.  The collection includes many ancient scientific, mathematical, and technical manuscripts as well as online catalogs and searchable directories of other museums, announcements, and proceedings of various conferences dealing with the history and significance of science.  It also contains links to dozens of other websites and indexes. 

The website announces upcoming exhibits and events; if you plan to be in Florence in December, you might want to catch "The Accademia del Cimento in the European Context," a conference about a group of court scientists after Galileo. 

The IMSS website is not always an easy site to use.  Its organization can be non-intuitive.  Fascinating information turns up in apparently unrelated places.  For instance, information about plumbing in Pompeii is found in a sidebar to the Roman gardens exhibit (  Also, random sections haven't been translated yet.  The original documents appear in the original languages, so to make full use of the resources, you should be able to read Italian, French, German, Latin, Greek, and even Hungarian.  But the wealth of information and context makes it more than worth investigating for worldbuilding details that will give your work deep authenticity. 

And behind that door, in the Babylonian hanging garden -- look, it's a plot bunny!