Course Highlight: ART 447: Siegecraft: Architecture, Warfare, and Media

May 8, 2023

Professor Carolyn Yerkes’ ART 447: “Siegecraft: Architecture, Warfare, and Media” examined warfare as the subject matter for art and architecture in the early modern world. Yerkes asserts that “Siegecraft was an art more complex than painting, more powerful than sculpture, and more monumental than any building in the early modern world.”  In fact,  she makes the case that the period known as the Renaissance was defined as much, if not more, by brutal and collective warfare than it was by the rise of the individual.

“Siegecraft was an art more complex than painting, more powerful than sculpture, and more monumental than any building in the early modern world.” —Professor Carolyn Yerkes

The course drew students from various disciplines including art history, practice of art, architecture, and political science. Its compelling reading list included Albrecht Dürer’s Instructions on the Fortification of Cities, Castles, and Towns, the notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci, and Machiavelli’s The Art of War, but even more riveting were the visits to Princeton’s collections to see works firsthand and learn from a variety of guest speakers. “I think that the highlight of the course for me has been the diversity of modes in which the course has been taught. Professor Yerkes is wonderful at playing the roles of the interviewer to guests and the teacher or curator for us," said John Raulston Graham ‘24. 

Dr. Pamela Long is surrounded by students as they test a trebuchet

Dr. Pamela Long demonstrates the trebuchet in Green Hall's corridor (Photo/Maureen Killeen)

Thanks to a Humanities Council Magic Grant, Yerkes was able to organize four guest presentations. “An aspect of the class that was extremely interesting was all of the guest speakers that Professor Yerkes brought in to talk about their areas of interest and specialization,” said architecture student Keith Zhang ‘24. These included A&A alumnus Professor Elizabeth Kassler-Taub ’10 (Dartmouth College), Professor Emanuele Lugli (Stanford University), and Professor Matteo Valleriani (Max Planck Institute for the History of Science).

Dr. Pamela Long, independent historian and A&A’s Spring 2023 Robert Janson-LaPalme Scholar-in-Residence, led a conference in April called "The Lure of the Machine in Medieval and Early Modern Europe."  She brought her expertise to a session dedicated to building and demonstrating the trebuchet and examining its use in sieges.

 

Students work together to build a trebuchet

In foreground from left: Ayinde Bradford, Sofia Hernandez, Lola Constantino, and Hannah Su work together to build a trebuchet under the instruction of guest speaker, Dr. Pamela Long (Photo/Maureen Killeen)

Professor Carolyn Yerkes at head of table lectures to students

Professor Carolyn Yerkes discusses Jacques Callot's prints of the siege of Breda from the Princeton University Art Museum’s collection (Photo/Kirstin Ohrt)

Yerkes’ own breadth of knowledge drew high praise from students from various disciplines. “Professor Yerkes is one of the most knowledgeable people that I have gotten to know here at Princeton, and she is so multifaceted,” said Zhang. “She teaches in the Department of Art & Archaeology but she has a Master of Architecture degree, and that is one of the reasons that I chose to take her course. I knew that her knowledge in both early modern art and her interests in siege would work great together in not only giving the students a great look into siege architecture but the relations of that to other implications during the time.”

Graham observed, “As an architecture student, it's very interesting how common the same forms and bodies of architectural knowledge moved throughout Europe.“

A&A senior Annabelle Berghof concluded, “In class discussions, I was often surprised by the extent to which warfare, art, and architecture were connected in the early modern period.”  

“I think that the highlight of the course for me has been the diversity of modes in which the course has been taught. Professor Yerkes is wonderful at playing the roles of the interviewer to guests and the teacher or curator for us.” —John Raulston Graham ’24 

CAPTION: Professor Elizabeth Kassler-Taub examines maps of Malta in two manuscripts with students crowded around
Professor Elizabeth Kassler-Taub ’10 examines maps of Malta, which represented an ideal case study in sieges because of its geographic position between Sicily and Africa, and because of its intensive fortification campaign following the Ottoman siege of 1565 (Photo/Kirstin Ohrt)

Seeing works firsthand was a primary component of the course. “Highlights of the course included our multiple visits to Special Collections in Firestone, where Gabriel Swift helped us a lot by pulling amazing material, as did Eric White, who showed us early indulgences, many of which were used to fund crusades,” said Yerkes. “Gabriel was a close collaborator throughout the semester,” she continued,  “with lots of ideas for material that I was teaching with for the first time, including portolan charts, and the Folke Dahl collection of early newsbooks. In the latter case, the students spent time going through archival boxes of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century pamphlets, prints, and printed news circulars—material that I don't think any researchers have used yet.”

"Students spent time going through archival boxes of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century pamphlets, prints, and printed news circulars—material that I don't think any researchers have used yet.” —Professor Carolyn Yerkes

Students clearly appreciated Yerkes’ providing so many opportunities to see works firsthand. “I think the most significant way that [the course] has impacted my studies is that it has taught me to work closely with an object,” said Graham. 

Four students are bent over old texts

From left: Hannah Su, Anabelle Berghof, Natali Kim, and Benjamin Gelman examine siege map indices of Princeton University Art Museum’s collection (Photo/Kirstin Ohrt)

“I was continually amazed by how much we could draw from a single image when we all sat down and spent some time looking at it in Special Collections,” echoed Berghof. “Seeing objects in person is always an incredible educational opportunity,” she continued,  “but Professor Yerkes really has a gift for asking questions that direct you to draw out unexpected and fascinating details from works of art.”

Four students gesture at map on the wall

Jon Charette, Keith Zhang, John Raulston Graham, and Michael Kim examine a siege map from the Princeton University Art Museum’s collection (Photo/Kirstin Ohrt)

The course left lasting impressions that students from various disciplines will carry forward. “Professor Yerkes has inspired a desire in me to work more with materials from this period, especially prints,” said Berghof.  Graham observed, “The depth of research required for this course’s paper has taught me skills that are applicable in other major pieces of independent work that I will have to do before graduating. Having not often worked with primary source material that is this old, I have had a new experience in this course.“

“I was continually amazed by how much we could draw from a single image when we all sat down and spent some time looking at it in Special Collections" —Annabelle Berghof '23