Renaissance science on display in Harry Potter’s World at USF

When I heard that USF’s Shimberg Health Sciences library was hosting a National Library of Medicine (NLM) exhibit on Harry Potter, my inner geek rejoiced. Literature and science simply don’t cross paths much these days, and when they do, I get a little excited. Apparently, librarians across the country feel the same way I do, because they have really embraced this opportunity. Harry Potter’s World: Renaissance Science, Magic, and Medicine has been touring the country since 2009, stopping at over 300 educational venues — mainly schools and public libraries, before arriving at USF this weekend.


The travelling portion of the exhibit consists of six banners, each filled with interesting facts about Renaissance Science and how it ties in with the Harry Potter story. But, unfortunately, that’s it. None of the ancient Renaissance text that inspired this exhibit actually tour with it. The artifacts, decorations, and special events are left to the hosting libraries, and most of them don’t have access to such ancient texts.


At USF, the six banner exhibition was accompanied by a party, complete with themed refreshments and a five-piece band playing from the Harry Potter soundtrack. To say it was the geekiest party I’ve ever attended would be an understatement, but how often do you get to party in a library? The sheer novelty of it alone made it worth the trip.

So what’d I learn?

1. Mandrakes are real, but they don’t cry in real life. Not surprisingly, the plant grows in England, and its roots kind of do resemble a person. In a Renaissance text – Hortus Sanitatis, 1491 – the illustrator specifically drew the plant’s root in the shape of a woman.

2. Nicholas Flamel was a real person. He was a famous alchemist, obsessed with living forever and turning shit (read: ordinary metals) into gold. People said he’d created the Philosopher’s Stone, a stone that would turn common metals into gold and grant the owner eternal life. There’s no evidence he ever had a stone like this, of course, but it makes for a good story.

An alchemist in his laboratory. Oil painting by a follower o

An alchemist in his laboratory. Oil painting by a follower of David Teniers the younger. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

3. People used to believe in unicorns, dragons, and basilisks. I know I usually use all original photos here on Florida Illustrated, but I guess unicorns don’t exist (I know, shocker), so I had to use this painting instead. I wonder: Was life more fun when we believed in unicorns and dragons, or was it scarier?

ca. 1602 — The Maiden and the Unicorn by Domenichino — Image by © Alinari Archives/CORBIS

4. Magic and science used to go together like peanut butter and jelly. No, the National Library of Medicine did not say it in those words. However, the exhibit does mention that magic and science were often combined in Renaissance texts. Example: Giambattista della Porta’s Magiae naturalis, 1558.

By Matias Garabedian from Montreal, Canada (Peanut butter and jelly sandwich)

5. Apothecaries were the true potion masters of the Renaissance. We call them pharmacists now. Food for thought: Is there really much of a difference between what magic calls a potion and what chemistry calls a solution?


6. Lindt Lindor truffles can be turned into golden snitches. All you have to add are wings. Yeah this has nothing to do with science, but aren’t these cute?


7. 1 pretzel stick + 1 piece of cheese = 1 edible broomstick. Check out the video from kidspot below if you want to make them at home…and the transition from science over to party snacks is complete.

If you would like to learn more about the science behind the exhibit, check out the National Library of Medicine’s online exhibit gallery here. If you’re more interested in Harry Potter-themed party snacks, you’re in luck, because Pinterest totally has you covered in that department.

You can view Harry Potter’s World: Renaissance Science, Magic, and Medicine at Shimberg Library (USF) through March 24, 2018.

Categories: Arts & Culture, TampaTags: , ,

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