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Chrysalis: Maria Sibylla Merian and the Secrets of Metamorphosis

Chrysalis: Maria Sibylla Merian and the Secrets of Metamorphosis

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by Kim Todd

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Today, an entomologist in a laboratory can gaze at a butterfly pupa with a microscope so powerful that the swirling cells on the pupa’s skin look like a galaxy. She can activate a single gene or knock it out. What she can’t do is discover how the insect behaves in its natural habitat—which means she doesn’t know what steps to take to preserve


Today, an entomologist in a laboratory can gaze at a butterfly pupa with a microscope so powerful that the swirling cells on the pupa’s skin look like a galaxy. She can activate a single gene or knock it out. What she can’t do is discover how the insect behaves in its natural habitat—which means she doesn’t know what steps to take to preserve it from extinction, nor how any particular gene may interact with the environment. Four hundred years ago, a fifty-year-old Dutch woman set sail on a solo scientific expedition to study insect metamorphosis. She could not have imagined the routine magic that scientists perform today—but her absolute insistence on studying insects in their natural habitats was so far ahead of its time that it is only now coming back into favor. Chrysalis restores Maria Sibylla Merian to her rightful place in the history of science, taking us from golden-age Amsterdam to the Surinam tropics to modern laboratories where Merian’s insights fuel new approaches to both ecology and genetics.

Editorial Reviews

The New Yorker
In this spellbinding biography, Todd interweaves the life of Maria Sibylla Merian, a German artist and naturalist who became famous in the seventeenth century for her engravings of caterpillars, with the intellectual and scientific history of metamorphosis. At a time when theories of spontaneous generation were popular, and when most naturalists contented themselves with specimens pinned behind glass, Merian believed “in what could not be encased—the moment-by-moment shifts.” Her work led her to Amsterdam, where curiosities arriving on trading ships prompted her, at the age of fifty-two, to sell her belongings for passage to Surinam. The engravings of the bugs she saw there brought the strange, delicate environment of the Americas to vibrant life, and revealed the complexities of insect mutation and regeneration. Todd points out the difficulties—competing theories and superstitions, exceptions for every rule—faced by natural scientists in Merian’s day, and hears their echo in modern-day entomology.
Publishers Weekly
Metamorphosis has long fascinated humankind, but few people more than Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717), who spent her life illustrating this mysterious process in insects. Merian grew up in Germany, married, had two daughters, left her husband to join a Labadist (pietist) community in West Friesland, moved to Amsterdam and, at age 52, traveled to Surinam to search for insects. Beyond that, little is known about this remarkable woman except for a few letters and her beautiful engravings and watercolors, most of them published in her books on insect metamorphosis. Todd (Tinkering with Eden) fleshes out her biography with colorful descriptions of Merian's world and the people she knew, emphasizing that she was as exceptional in her art as in her life. Unlike other naturalists at the time, she depicted insects together with their host plants, an innovation that influenced many later 18th-century students of insect life. Merian fell out of favor in the 19th century, but today, when scientists have come to appreciate the importance of environment to insect development, her star is rising again. Todd's vivid account should do much to further the renewed interest in this unusual woman and her pioneering approach to insect illustration. 8-page color insert not seen by PW. (Jan.) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Women's contributions to science have historically been overlooked or discredited, and we are left with the impression that women played no role in the field's advancement. Such was the case for the gifted naturalist Maria Sibylla Merian (1647–1717), whose watercolors and text documented the (still-mysterious) process of metamorphosis at the turn of the 17th century. Though her work was valued at the time, it was discredited in the 1800s. Drawing on Merian's work and personal documents, Todd (Tinkering with Eden) sheds new light on the history and contributions of this absolutely amazing woman. Not only did her interest in science fall outside normal gender roles but Merian also traveled at the age of 50 as far as Surinam from Europe to study her beloved caterpillars. Admittedly filling in some blanks where no documentation exists, Todd explains that all we really need to know about the woman can be seen through the passion of her work. Todd's writing itself is lush, almost poetic, whether she is describing the science of metamorphosis or Merian's own personal metamorphoses throughout her life. Highly recommended for all public and research libraries.
—Marianne Stowell Bracke
Kirkus Reviews
An extraordinary portrait of an artist and amateur naturalist who explored the teeming life of the Amazon and helped lay the groundwork for our present-day understanding of ecology. Daughter of a prominent Frankfurt publisher of illustrated books, Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717) mastered the art of drawing and engraving while studying the metamorphosis of silkworms. She went on to paint the larvae of butterflies and moths and to raise important questions about the role of intermediate life forms. With a detective's eye, PEN/Jerard Fund Award-winner Todd (Tinkering with Eden, 2001) has pieced together the life of this neglected genius who charted the micro-world of insects. While male contemporaries considered a species in isolation, Merian looked at its relationship to the environment, its sensitivity to change and its long-term survival strategies. Todd gives equal time to Merian's own metamorphosis. The artist abandoned her husband and took up residence in an austere Pietist community in the Netherlands. She sold her paintings to support her mother and her daughters. She befriended naturalists, scientists and collectors in Amsterdam during its Golden Age, produced a popular book on caterpillars and at age 52 set off for the Amazon to document new species and collect snakes, iguanas and geckos for resale back home. Merian sold everything to finance her journey, braving tarantulas and yellow fever to produce a landmark work. After her death, Peter the Great purchased her paintings and field notes, which later languished in vaults until long after the Russian revolution. European publishers pirated her prints and displayed them out of order, misrepresenting her main ideas. Todd's longoverdue re-examination of Merian's work shows the extent of her scientific contributions and reminds us how much of our early understanding of biology depended on the keen eye of the amateur. This bold, wide-ranging text also considers the theological view of metamorphosis, the controversy over spontaneous generation, Merian's connection to other accomplished women of her day, her opposition to slavery in Surinam and her reliance on Amerindians to bring her specimens. A breathtaking example of scholarship and storytelling, enriched by ample illustrations of Merian's work.
From the Publisher


"Todd's book is a portrait of the metamorphosis of an age, a society, and a woman whose passion to see the world through the metaphor of moths and butterflies would not abate. The illustrations reproduced in this fine biography affirm Merian's vision; the range of Todd's research and the eloquence of her writing give that vision voice."--Maurice Manning, BookForum

"In this spellbinding biography, Todd interweaves the life of Maria Sibylla Merian, a German artist and naturalist who became famous in the seventeenth century for her engravings of caterpillars, with the intellectual and scientific history of metamorphosis."--The New Yorker

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Read an Excerpt

The Most Noble
of All the Worms
How many creatures walking on this earth
Have their first being in another form?
—Ovid, Metamorphoses
Frankfurt am Main, 1647– 1665
A  nother pupa, another time. Cocoon walls, thick with silk, wrapped their contents tight. Inside, the organs altered. The mouth disappeared. The white body darkened, turned dusky gold. Pressed between the wings, the antennae waited to sense the morning.
 At a table near dawn, the girl watched and gripped her paintbrush. She’d woken early enough this day to catch the adult moth dissolving the silk strands and pushing them aside. Other times she got up too late or waited and waited, grown cramped from sitting still. How to capture the thin threads swathing the oval, the precise folds of the pupa? Once out, the moth changed so fast, shifting from second to second as it dried. It was hard to move her wrist quickly enough to make the black lines of scrabbling legs.
 This pale silkworm, its dowdy moth, drew her in. At thirteen, she may have felt her own innards alter, traced a finger over a face now unfamiliar in the mirror. It’s the time when the young most anticipate a spectacular transformation, hoping for a future saturated with color, shimmering with iridescence. But she had chosen to focus not on some gaudy butterfly, but this dowdy little insect. Those strands, so thin, so strong, that wrapped the cocoon, tied the worm to stockings, and skirts and hair ribbons, bound it to daily life. It was a practical choice, though no one could call this activity practical. She labeled the silkworm “the most useful and noble of all worms and caterpillars.”
 Between chores, she cared for her subjects. In the chill of early spring when the mulberry leaves were not yet in bloom, she raised the caterpillars on lettuce. She built them cone-shaped paper houses where they could spin their cocoons, covering the insects if a storm threatened. Thunder made them ill. So many things could go wrong: a room too cold, leaves wet and rotten, eggs that collapsed and failed to hatch, a clumsy finger brushing scales off the wings.
 But eventually she captured the whole process, egg to adult. It was an odd picture, not like any her stepfather showed her—full still-life paintings where a moth might echo a color used on a flower petal, or more humble engravings where beetles and butterflies of many species crowded together. Just the simple insect, alone with all its stages. The wings, crumpled like paper, not fully dry. The adult tipped forward, as if still finding its legs. A tiny caterpillar, no longer than a thumbnail, inching across the page. A larger version, fat on mulberry leaves, made of bleached white segments, large as teeth. The pupa lay curved and motionless, wrapped like a mummy in its hard casing, covering the knots of nerve as they came undone to reform in another shape.
 As she rinsed her hands and rubbed her brush to clean it, she probably couldn’t say what pulled her to gather all these parts and paint them together, condensing and stopping time for a moment. More likely her thoughts jumped to the unknown striped caterpillar she glimpsed along the riverbank, whether she could find another, how to raise it, when she could do it again.
While curiosity could be suspect, even dangerous, in a girl, Maria Sibylla Merian was born into the ideal household for an inquisitive mind. Her father, Matthaus Merian the Elder, owned a thriving Frankfurt publishing house, specializing in books illustrated with lavish pictures and maps engraved by him, his children (including Matthaus the Younger), his sons-in-law, and apprentices.
 Maria Merian’s early childhood would have been punctuated by the clatter of the printing press, the heart of the business and family enterprise. Peering into the workshop, she could watch her father or brothers selecting type or planning the next season’s catalog. Trays of metal letters of different fonts and sizes lay jumbled on shelves. Printed sheets hung overhead like laundry out to dry. Murmurs of conversation of visiting artists and buyers curled in the corners of rooms. Hired workmen in smocks bustled around the printing press itself, a hulking machine that looked like a bookcase straddling a table, often braced with boards against the ceiling, with scissors and a hammer dangling off the front. On the table lay three boards hinged together, like a triptych on its back. One man smeared ink on the letters arranged in a tray, called a “coffin,” that made up one of the three sections. The other put the paper on the middle board, cushioned with blankets or padding. The final panel, just a hollow frame, contained another piece of paper, with holes cut for the text to go through. It sopped up any spills. The frame folded over the paper, which folded over the coffin, and one man slid the whole stack under the press. Then he grabbed the handle called the devil’s tail and screwed a plank down to meet the coffin, banging the text against the paper. This way, they produced 200 pages an hour.
 The press’s ability to spread information so rapidly made it invaluable but also gave it the taint of subversion. The business depended on the dreaming up of fresh ideas, always a risky endeavor when the only reading material above suspicion was the Bible. Some had doubts about whether anyone but ministers should read even that. A refuge for scientists, religious minorities, and visionaries, a publisher’s workshop drew free thinkers of every stripe. Whether the writers wanted to publicize discoveries about the mechanism of the human heart or incite a religious revolution, they needed the type, the paper, and the press, to have any influence. The astronomer Johannes Kepler, when he wasn’t contemplating the orbits of planets or the movement of the tides, lingered at the printers where his books were in progress, looking over tables and evaluating illustrations. It was a coffee house before anyone in Europe drank coffee, where the heady brew was ink. The Merians themselves had their own secrets. The whole extended family comprised refugees from one place or another. The publishing house was launched in the late 1500s by the de Bry family, Calvinists who fled Belgium when Catholics took over. Theodor de Bry, the founder and noted engraver, passed the company on to his son Johann Theodor de Bry. As a young man, Matthaus Merian, originally from Basle, worked for Johann Theodor and eventually married his daughter, Maria Magdelena. Though Matthaus wasn’t the most obvious successor (he had moved away and other sons-in-law were more involved in the day-to-day operations), de Bry’s widow must have respected his business instincts, because she helped ensure that Matthaus took over theprint shop when his father-in-law died in 1623. Matthaus split the company assets (backlogs of books and engraved copper plates) with another son-in-law, but Matthaus got by far the more valuable share.
 When his first wife died, Matthaus quickly remarried, wedding Johanna Sibylla Heim. About Johanna Heim, not much is known: her family were Walloons (French-speaking residents of a region of Belgium), who moved to Hanau, where her brother served as a preacher. Since Hanau was a Calvinist city, the Heims were probably also fleeing religious persecution. By the time Johanna and Matthaus’s daughter, Maria Sibylla, was born in April 1647, many of Matthaus Merian’s older children from his first marriage were adults, skilled artists themselves. The youngest in a family with two half brothers and two half sisters in their twenties, a half sister in her late teens and another half brother who was twelve, the young Maria Merian risked being underfoot.
 Later, biographers writing just after she died would say this youngest daughter was her father’s favorite, that as the toddler raced around with outstretched fingers, he prophesied Maria would ensure the name “Merian” lived on in fame. They said her mother worried over her odd and dirty interest in insects, an obsession thought to have been launched when Johanna looked at a collection of bugs while Maria was in her womb. Sensitive and porous, the pregnant body let in all sorts of impressions—sight of a lame beggar could result in a child with a damaged foot and an unmet desire for strawberries could leave a strawberry-colored mark.
 Other rumors said Merian raised her caterpillars in the attic and stole a tulip from a neighbor’s garden to paint. And that the neighbor was so enchanted by her artwork, that he forgave the girl for taking the flower and asked only for the picture in exchange. Who knows if it’s true? But it shows what admirers wanted to believe about the girl who would become such an exceptional woman: Her rule-breaking and blazing talent were apparent from the first.
 Whether or not Matthaus Merian recognized his artistic gifts in his youngest daughter, he would surely have recognized his face. The planes of the cheekbones, the long nose, the mouth—a little too wide, a little too thin—that looked clamped down on some funny secret. The likeness was as apparent as if an engraving had been run through the printing press twice, with a few revisions, with a span of years in between, but the main lines clear and unaltered.
Copyright © 2007 by Kim Todd All rights reserved. No part of this publication may
be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher. Requests for permission to make copies of any part of the work should be submitted online at www.harcourt.com/ contact or mailed to the following address: Permissions Department, Harcourt, Inc., 6277 Sea Harbor Drive, Orlando, Florida 32887-6777. Illustrations are from Erucarum Ortis, Alimentum et Paradoxa Metamorphosis, a compilation of three of Maria Sibylla Merian’s books published in 1718 and are courtesy of Dover Publications.

Meet the Author

KIM TODD’s previous book, Tinkering with Eden, received the PEN/Jerard Fund Award and the Sigurd F. Olson Nature Writing Award, among others. She has an MFA in creative writing and an MS in environmental studies from the University of Montana. She lives in Missoula, Montana.

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Chrysalis: Maria Sibylla Merian and the Secrets of Metamorphosis 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Eclectic-Erie More than 1 year ago
One of the most interesting books I have read in a long time; thoroughly researched and intelligently written. I you like Dava Sobel you will enjoy Kim Todd!