‘Subtle Inventions and Marvellous Innovations’: ‘Abbas ibn Firnas, Craft, and Intellect in al-Andalus

In this talk I explore connections between the exact sciences and visual culture, taking as a point of departure the career of ‘Abbas Ibn Firnas, (d. 887), a courtier and polymath in the Andalusi Umayyad court at Córdoba (r. 756-1031). A well-known intellectual, musician, and poet in his time, Ibn Firnas is celebrated today as a key figure of the early Islamic scientific revolution. He is especially famous for conducting an aeronautics experiment, which eminent technology historian Lynn White, Jr. called the first successful human flight, and which has been commemorated by NASA. In my talk I focus on the earliest and fullest Arabic account of his career as the designer and maker of fine scientific instruments for the Cordoban rulers. I discuss this account in tandem with the earliest extant Andalusi objects of science that are also art, considering what these reveal about a dialogue between craft and intellect, between making and knowing, in early Islamic Spain.

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