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Mathematical Treasure: Cort's Arithmetica and Geometria

Frank J. Swetz (The Pennsylvania State University)

Cornelis Cort (1533-1578) was a noted Dutch engraver. His image of Arithmetica, the muse of arithmetic, holding court, was published in Antwerp in 1565. It probably was one of a series of seven engravings denoting the “Seven Lively Arts,” of which the Quadrivium, the mathematical curriculum studied by a learned person in the Middle Ages, was a part. The caption in translation says:

This art brings joy through the contemplation of numbers, [which is] the clever mastering of their hidden mysteries.

Cort’s accompanying engraving of Geometria shows her involved in determining a distance on the earth. Besides astute observers, she is surrounded by geometrical measuring instruments. The snake and frog have symbolic significance yet to be determined. The caption reads:

To investigate the spaces (or distances) of places pertains to geometry, and [so does] the height, length, and width of bodies.

Assistance with the translation of the Latin was provided by Dr. Michael Twomey of Ithaca College.

Images used by the permission of the Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington, D.C.

Frank J. Swetz (The Pennsylvania State University), "Mathematical Treasure: Cort's Arithmetica and Geometria," Loci (March 2014)