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Organisers: Dr Megan C. McNamee (University of Edinburgh), Dr Sarah Griffin (Winchester College)

'Circular Thinking' is a two-day online event devoted to the drawing compass (or ‘pair of compasses’), an essential tool of the premodern artist that came to represent divine Creation in Jewish and Christian (both Greek and Latin) exegetical traditions. Although now associated primarily with architecture, the compass was a transmedial instrument, integral to a range of artisanal operations. According to the artists’ handbooks of Theophilus and Cennini, the instrument was ready-to-hand, yet evidence of its premodern use is relatively thin. Called circinus in Latin for the action of ‘going round’, circles and arcs were rarely its final output, but intermediary guides often lost in the making process or intentionally erased. Compass work can thus be classed as ‘invisible labour’— work that contributes to the making of an object, but remains difficult to detect in its finished form. It is also dynamic labour that defies easy description in traditional print media, a problem compounded by a general lack of familiarity with the tool and the habits of hand and mind that it engenders. In the recent past, children handled compasses in school, their deployment de rigueur in elementary education. Today, this is no longer true. Through discussion and the close study of historical evidence, 'Circular Thinking' seeks to impart a more precise understanding of the compass’s varied form(s) and uses — in the measurement, scaling, copying, the generation of diverse shapes in two and three dimensions — and, with this, its symbolic force. 


Circular Thinking Lecture: Thursday, 10 June 2021, 5.30–7:00pm
Professor Robert Bork (University of Iowa): 'Circles Below the Surface: The Role of the Compass in Premodern Creativity': MORE INFORMATION

Circular Thinking Short Papers and Panel Discussion: Friday, 11 June 2021, 5:30-7.00pm
Dr Sarah Griffin (Winchester College), Professor Jean-Marie Guillouët (University of Burgundy, Dijon), Dr Stephen Johnston (History of Science Museum, University of Oxford): MORE INFORMATION

This event is made possible through generous funding by the Leverhulme Trust.

image: © The British Library Board (Add MS 47682, fol. 2r)