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Years ago, David Freedberg stumbled across a group of drawings by the little-known Academy of Linceans, a seventeenth-century Italian group that took as its task nothing less than the pictorial documentation of all of nature. Moving across Europe, he encountered thousands of such drawings—of fossils, the species of the New World, or the heavenly bodies studied by the group's most famous member, Galileo Galilei. Profusely illustrated and engagingly written, this book reveals this crucial moment in the development of natural history.
In 1986, in a cupboard in Windsor Castle, I came across hundreds of the finest natural historical drawings I had ever seen (e.g., figs. 1.1-29). They showed a spellbinding variety of zoological, botanical, ornithological, mycological, and geological specimens. There were truffles, tubers, and sponges; minerals, gems, and fossil woods; flowers, animals, fruits, grasses, and vegetables of the Old World and New; an aviary, so to speak, of magnificently depicted birds, and a cornucopia of different kinds of citrus fruit, some ordinary, and some monstrous and misshapen. There were sheets that showed the details of animals, such as the claws, snout, and quill of a porcupine, the feather of a stork, and the webbed foot of a duck; other illustrations included a giant broccoli, a cluster of insignificant mushrooms, corals, shells, a page of worked asbestos, a frog in amber. There were nestlings, fetuses, bottle-imps, and a number of things I-and no one I consulted-could identify.
Most of the drawings were in color and masterfully precise and detailed. They seemed to come from the nineteenth century, but these were from the seventeenth. Who commissioned them and why? For what purposes were they made? What did the person-or persons-who commissioned them think to achieve? It all seemed to be a kind of megalomaniacal effort to document as much of nature as possible in visual form; but did the project these drawings entailed have some more specific limits, and was there some particular ordering principle at stake? Whatever the case, the drawings as a whole seemed to bear witness to an almost limitless faith in the possibilities of visual representation as an aid to understanding the world around us.
The first question was not difficult to answer. The drawings turned out to have belonged to Cassiano dal Pozzo, one of the best known antiquarians and collectors of paintings in Rome during the prestigious papacy of Urban VIII (1623-1646). French painter Nicolas Poussin's earliest supporter in Rome, Cassiano eventually owned more than fifty paintings by him. In his efforts to record all the surviving remains of classical antiquity, Cassiano commissioned many hundreds of drawings of ancient objects, fragments, and statues. These drawings he kept in twenty-three large vellum-bound volumes in what he called his "museo cartaceo" (paper museum). His residence in the Via dei Chiavari in Rome also housed a small museum of natural specimens and art objects, as well as a laboratory in which he made anatomies of animals and conducted chemical and other scientific experiments.
By 1985 most people had forgotten that Cassiano ever owned natural historical drawings and that he had a laboratory in which he conducted his researches into nature. His palazzo seemed to contain little more than the kind of cabinet of curiosity that was common at the time. Galileo, for example, used the image of a typical small collector's cabinet in order to illustrate how the apparently disjunct and piecemeal poems of Tasso were inferior to the grandly conceptual work of Ariosto. Tasso's works were strangely like the collection of an ometto curioso,
who has taken a delight in adorning it with things that have something exotic about them, either because of age or of rarity or some other reason, but are in effect bric-a-brac-a petrified crayfish; a dried-up chameleon, a fly, and a spider embedded in a piece of amber, some of those little clay figures said to be found in the ancient tombs of Egypt, and (when it comes to painting) a sketch or two by Bandinelli and Parmigianino and other similar trifles.
Was this really what Cassiano's collection was like? And was it in fact as aimless and piecemeal as all that?
To judge from two vivid seventeenth-century accounts of visits to Cassiano's house, this is just what one might have thought. John Evelyn, the English diarist, antiquarian, and student of nature, visited Cassiano on November 21, 1644:
On the 21 I was carried to a great virtuoso, one Cavalliero Pozzo, who showed us a rare collection of all kind of antiquities, a choice library, over which are the effigies of most of our late men of polite literature: That which was most new to me was his rare collection of the antique bassirelievos about Rome, which this curious man had caused to be designed in diverse folios: he showed us also many fine medals and among other curiosities a pretty folding ladder, ... and a number of choice designs and drawings. He also showed us that stone Pliny calls Enhydrus of the bigness of a walnut: it had plainly in it the quantity of half a spoonful of water, of a yellow pebble color, and another in a ring, paler than amethyst, which yet he affirmed to be the true carbuncle and harder than diamond ...
The antiquities were only to be expected, but for the rest-what a jumble! And so much was omitted, not least the great collection of paintings by Nicolas Poussin. Only the reference to the stones offers a hint of something more portentous.
The second description comes from 1663, six years after Cassiano's death. His collections had been preserved-and augmented-by his devoted brother and partner in collecting, Carlo Antonio dal Pozzo. In that year Philip Skippon visited their house, and it is from him, if we read carefully, that we gain a sense of some of the priorities of the collection. At first Skippon seems to convey an impression that is no less confusing than Evelyn's. In addition to the statues, medals, lamps, and other small antique objects (including several of the kinds of priapic lamps, small bronzes, and terra-cottas so beloved of antiquarians at the time), he also saw a large number of drawings. These were an extraordinary mix, and included a "picture of a boy that defended philosophical theses when but ten years old, now grown a most ignorant man" and "of a stone Priapus, the lower parts like a lion; figures of animals &c. hung round the glans."
But there was another group of drawings entirely. It contained four folios pictured with plants, well done. Many pictures of birds &c. in loose papers. The picture of an onocrotalus [pelican], phaenicopterus [flamingo].... In a book of birds, the picture of a white parrot ...
There were many more bird drawings too-another pelican, a toucan, an owl, and so on-as well as one of
a dolphin brought to the fish market in Rome.... Sagovius, a sort of jack-an-ape, with large white ears. An Egyptian mouse with long hind legs, and very short ones before. The plant that budded out of a man's side in Spain in 1626.... A little embryo about an inch and a half long fully shaped, which was observed to pant in menstruis. Seven books of John Heckius a German, wrote in his travels; he observed plants, insects, &c and was one of the Accademici Lyncei illum.... A chopping knife and a saw the martyrs were put to death with, were found in church-yards.... Ancient brass armour, very light, easy to be worn, and fitted.... The pictures of three mummies, which were in Pietro della Valle's possession.... The picture of the mummied leg at Cavaliero Corvino's. Matthiolus curiously painted. These books are painted very exactly, the heads, legs, and other parts of animals being distinctly drawn. The picture of Sada, Petrarch's mistress.
Here was work to be done. Where were all these drawings? Could they have had anything to do with those in Windsor? At least Skippon's description gave some idea of the substantial place held by drawings after nature in Cassiano's collection-even amid all those strange and seemingly random objects. Perhaps there was indeed some overarching idea behind them, rather more like Galileo's description of Ariosto than that of Tasso, whom he clearly preferred less.
I kept finding more drawings at Windsor; and later on in private and public collections elsewhere. Though the original group I came across in Windsor consisted of loose and sometimes rather dusty sheets, there were many more, in finer condition yet, bound into splendid late eighteenth-century volumes. These volumes turned out to have made for King George III after his acquisition of all of Cassiano's drawings in 1763. In addition there were also a few more modest volumes, clearly older than those bound for George III, in rather plain vellum bindings.
Four of the large volumes, each inscribed Natural History: Fossils, contained more than two hundred of the most precise drawings, mostly in pen and ink, of pieces of fossilized wood and other fossil phenomena; a fifth showed a wide range of gems, marbles, mineralogical specimens and geological curiosities painted in brilliant watercolors (fig. 1.18). There was also a splendid volume of bird drawings, of a similarly high quality, and clearly related to the surviving loose sheets (e.g., figs. 1.3-8; 1.44, 1.46).
Of the two vellum-bound volumes, one was an illustrated herbal inscribed "Erbario Miniato" on its spine; the other, still more modest, showed a large quantity of Central American plants, accompanied by their names in Nahuatl and charming descriptions of their medicinal uses. This was a copy of the famous work painted by a Nahuatl Indian for Philip II of Spain in 1563 and now known as the Codex Badianus (cf. fig. 9.3).
Slowly Skippon's description began to make more sense. Since many of the drawings in the Erbario miniato were accompanied not only by long texts explaining their names and outlining their medicinal qualities, but also by references to a particular edition of the famous sixteenth-century herbalist Mattioli, this was surely the "Matthiolus curiously Painted" recorded by Skippon. The volume of bird drawings was presumably one of those referred to by him; and so things gradually began to fall into place.
The loose drawings, at Windsor Castle and elsewhere, were generally of the highest quality, meticulously drawn in a sensitive and subtle range of watercolors and often varnished in gum arabic. Many seemed to be by a distinctive hand. Quite a few could be correlated with particular drawings mentioned by Skippon. There was a beautiful drawing of a dolphin, for example, still enclosed in the distinctive wash mount prepared for these drawings just after they entered the collection of George III (fig. 1.11). This was surely the specimen "brought to the fish market in Rome" before being drawn for Cassiano. Skippon referred to two drawings of a pelican: both reappeared at a 1988 sale of drawings that had once belonged to Windsor Castle (fig. 1.5). The drawing of the "phenicopterus" he mentioned is presumably one of several drawings of flamingos surviving in private collections (e.g., fig. 1.7). The sprightly owl, having been dispersed from the Royal Collection, was rediscovered; and the "little embryo about an inch and a half long which was observed to pant in menstruis" may well be one or the other of several such drawings still at Windsor Castle (cf. fig. 1.20).
Skippon was especially struck by the fact that in many of the illustrations the "heads, legs and other parts of animals were very distinctly drawn"; and indeed, as one goes through the drawings, one cannot help but notice this concentration on the parts of animals (as well, of course, as their presentation as a whole). One drawing vividly portrays the common or crested porcupine (fig. 1.1), another shows its snout, paws, ear, quills, and other anatomical details (fig. 1.2). One sheet depicts a European white stork (fig. 1.3); another its head; another a leg and a feather, both minutely detailed and with careful attention, as always, to color (fig. 1.4). One of the pelicans-the great white pelican-had its head portrayed with care (figs. 1.5-6); the flamingo, its legs, head, wings, and tongue (e.g., fig. 1.7). It is hard to think of any precedents-either for the sustained analysis of parts, or for the extraordinarily attentive care devoted to portraying them.
Just as Skippon's account suggested, there were many more drawings of birds, most of the same high standard of draftsmanship (e.g., fig. 1.8); of unusual animals such as the civet (fig. 1.9), the oryx (fig. 1.10) and the sloth; of fishes and other aquatic creatures (figs. 1.11-12); of local as well as exotic plants and fruits in great abundance; of leaves, grasses, and vegetables, including what is surely the most spectacular representation of a broccoli in the history of art (fig. 1.13). A water lily was shown in its various phases of transformation from flower to fruit (in fact two drawings now pasted onto the same sheet, fig. 1.14), while another sheet presented one of the earliest depictions of a healthy pineapple (fig. 1.15).
Who could not admire the subtlety and sheer beauty of the many drawings-several finely depicted on blue paper-of corals, sponges, fossils, truffles, tubers, and fungi (e.g., figs. 1.16-17); of fossil woods, concretions, aetites, bezoars, and mineralogical specimens of many kinds (fig. 1.18; cf. figs. 11.5-23)? If you needed a representation of how asbestos could be woven into fabric, you could find just such a thing here (fig. 1.19). There were pictures of deformed nestlings, sacs, fetuses, and egglike things that for a long time resisted identification (figs. 1.20-21). Many of the drawings were actually the first such representations ever, as, most notably, the drawing of little frogs in a piece of old American amber (fig. 1.22), shown with a kind of precision that still excites zoologists and paleontologists today.
A fair number of drawings clearly showed anomalous specimens; but was it only the elements of gigantism and monstrosity they displayed that inspired their production? This question seemed especially pressing in the case of one of the largest single groups of drawings, namely the spectacular series of drawings of citrus fruit. Here were oranges, lemons, and citrons in great abundance. Many seemed ordinary enough specimens; but then there were hybrids and monstrosities, elephantine citrons with phallic growths, wrinkly and rugged lemons, and oranges with tuberous and tumorous excrescences. One prodigious specimen followed another, some with fingerlike projections, others with one fruit enclosed by another, as if pregnant. Some did not look like members of the citrus family at all, while others seemed sooner to belong in a museum of marvels (figs. 1.23-29).
All in all there were no fewer than twenty-seven hundred drawings of natural historical subjects, some loose, others bound together. With the exception of the great efforts at visual documentation by the Bolognese doctor Ulisse Aldrovandi, there was no other collection remotely like Cassiano's from either the sixteenth or the seventeenth centuries.
Particular groups of drawings-especially the citrus fruit-raised further issues. For example: What lay behind so concentrated an effort at recording such a large number of what we would now regard simply as varieties of single species? How much of the precision in representing surface appearance was driven by the need to find an adequate basis for the classification of one or another puzzling specimen, or to separate one specimen from another that seemed closely to resemble it? The general classificatory thrust of these drawings could not have been clearer-and whatever system of classification there was seemed less encumbered with irrelevance than the rambling natural historical textbooks produced by Aldrovandi and his editors.
Questions such as these only became more urgent when, following the rediscovery of the Windsor drawings, several other of the groups of drawings mentioned by Skippon began to reemerge. For a start, four of the "books of John Heckius," the "German" member of the Academy of the Lincei, turned out to be preserved in the library of the old medical school in Montpellier. Just as Skippon noted, they contained a record of the "plants, insects, &c" that Heckius had seen in the course of his travels in northern Europe-the "&c" presumably referring to the many different kinds of butterflies, serpents, and spiders that drew his attention and that he chose to draw on the pages of his notebooks. But these were very crude drawings in comparison with those in Windsor.
In the early 1980s attention was drawn to a vastly more important group of drawings than those in Montpellier. Eight extraordinary volumes of plants and fungi, also from the collections of Cassiano and containing more than two thousand drawings, were found in the library of the Institut de France in Paris (figs. 8.20-40). These too had been acquired-perhaps simply confiscated-during the French occupation of Rome, this time by an officer of the revolutionary army in 1798.
Excerpted from The Eye of the Lynx by DAVID FREEDBERG Copyright © 2002 by David Freedberg. Excerpted by permission.
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A Note to Historians of Science
Introduction Saving Appearances
PART I - BACKGROUND
1. The Paper Museum
PART II - ASTRONOMY
3. The New Star
4. The Telescope: Imperfection in the Heavens
5. The Conflict of Truths
PART III - NATURAL HISTORY
6. The Chastity of Bees
7. The Microscope and the Vernacular
8. Plants and Reproduction
9. The Mexican Treasury: Taxonomy and Illustration
10. The Doctor's Dilemmas: Description, Dissection, and the Problem of Illustration
PART IV - PICTURES AND ORDER
12. The Failure of Pictures
13. The Order of Nature
14. The Fate of Pictures: Appearance, Truth, and Ambiguity