THE ALLEGORY OF ARITHMETIC AND A PYTHAGOREAN PUZZLE
While researching the Greek philosopher-mathematician Pythagoras I came across a fascinating 17th century painting by French artist Laurent de La Hyre.
The painting shown here is The Allegory of Arithmetic from a series of three allegories by the painter that includes Music and Grammar. Each of La Hyre's allegories is rich in visual cues, but only The Allegory of Arithmetic points to some hidden mystery left for the viewer to unravel.
Given the Renaissance fascination with syncretic or occult symbolism, La Hyre's painting draws upon an older source for its motifs, an emblem book by the Italian writer Caesar Ripa entitled Iconologia. Popular in Europe during the 16th and 17th centuries emblem books like the The Iconologia provide, as Ripa expresses it in his extended title, "Various images of Virtues, Vices, Passions, Arts, Humours, Elements, and Celestial Bodies"-- a visual shorthand for grasping complex ideas and a guidebook to virtuous behavior.
Ripa's arithmetic emblem shows a young woman in a classical setting, perhaps a temple, working intently with a numerical table containing various sums. Her robe is decorated with musical notes, linking the study of mathematics with that of music. Embroidered on the hem of her garment are the words "Par" and "Impar", Latin for even and odd numbers.