Spot the Gull

Peter Campbell

  • The Eye of the Lynx: Galileo, His Friends and the Beginnings of Modern Natural History by David Freedberg
    Chicago, 513 pp, £35.00, December 2002, ISBN 0 226 26147 6

David Freedberg’s new book is illustrated with wonderful, detailed drawings and engravings of plants, fungi, fossils, birds, insects and animals – nearly all made in the 17th century. Freedberg is an art historian; the starting point of his book is a dream he had sometime before 1986 in which Anthony Blunt appeared holding a drawing of an orange. The dream led him to the drawings that Cassiano dal Pozzo commissioned from Vincenzo Leonardi, which were the basis of the engravings by Cornelis Bloemart that illustrate Hesperides, a monograph on citrus fruit by the Jesuit priest Giovanni Battista Ferrari, published in 1646. (Freedberg’s book demands that one remember many names.) The drawings, kept in a cupboard in Windsor Castle, were among ‘hundreds of the finest natural historical drawings’ he had ever seen.

Most of the Windsor drawings come from the thousands acquired by Cassiano – patron of Poussin, antiquarian and natural philosopher. Among them were those he had acquired from the widow of Federico Cesi, along with his library and scientific collections. In 1603, Cesi (eventually Prince of Acquasparta), then 18 years old, founded a body he called the Academy of the Lincei. Although the Academy is now remembered (if at all) because Cesi became Galileo’s devoted and ardent supporter, the energies of its members were directed as much towards botany and zoology as physics and astronomy. It was named after both Lyncaeus, ‘the most keen-eyed of the Argonauts’, and the lynx – a small, sharp-eyed creature (even if it looks more fierce than far-seeing in the woodcut that appears on the Galilean and other Lincean title pages). Cassiano’s ‘paper museum’ – drawings of antiquities formed a large part of it – is now spread among public and private collections. Among the natural history drawings, which are what Freedberg is concerned with, are many which show odd, misshapen or otherwise anomalous specimens. For example, the citrus fruit group includes ‘hybrids, monstrosities, elephantine citrons with phallic growths, wrinkly and rugged lemons, and oranges with tuberous and tumorous excrescences . . . some with finger-like projections, others with one fruit enclosed by another as if pregnant’. The bias towards things difficult to classify – monstrous fruits, fossilised wood, fungi – is evidence of more than an interest in the bizarre.

Natural history illustrations like these, beautifully made and carefully observed, could seduce one into thinking that understanding must follow hard looking: that one will not only be able to identify things like those in the drawings with more certainty, but also grasp the place each kind of plant, mineral or animal has in the natural order. The story Freedberg tells – or rather one of them, for his history is multi-stranded – ends with the realisation by Cesi and other members of the Academy that hard looking is not enough. The detailed specificity of drawings like those of citrus fruit – which put the question ‘just what is a lemon if it can be all these things?’ – actually hinders the process of classification. ‘The essential tension in all of Cesi’s work in these years,’ Freedberg writes –

and therefore in all the Lincean projects – was between the desire to record and describe everything (on the one hand), and the need to reduce and classify (on the other). But he came to realise that the more extensive, descriptive and veristic visual representation became, the greater the need to avoid what was merely secondary in the appearance of objects.

Cesi was not a mathematician. His attempt to map all creation, like that of the medieval Ramists, set out relationships in synoptic tables and trees. Eventually they were printed as the final section of the most extensive Lincean publication, a description of the plants, animals and minerals of Mexico known as the Tesoro Messicano. To turn the pages of Cesi’s tables, in which close-set type is boxed and bracketed into categories, is to experience in equal measure wonder at his diligence and despair that such an expenditure of energy and ability added virtually nothing lasting to the subject he ardently pursued.

The Academy began with just four members: Cesi himself, Johannes Heckius, a Dutch doctor of uncertain temper (Cesi had to rescue him from a Roman prison where he was being held for the murder of an apothecary), Francesco Stelluti and Anastasio de Filiis. Responsibility was divided. Cesi did botany, Heckius philosophy and metaphysics, and so on. Their way was not easy. Cesi’s father objected violently to the Academy, and did all he could to destroy it: at one point he had Heckius (who had in fact left Holland to escape Protestantism) arraigned for heresy. But they survived, collecting, naming, dissecting, examining, theorising and corresponding incessantly.

On the evening of 14 April 1611, a group of eight friends, all learned in one field or another (a doctor, a philosopher, botanists, mathematicians – not all members of the Academy) were brought together by Cesi in the garden of Monsignor Mavasia on the Janiculum in Rome. There they met Galileo, who demonstrated his new telescope. ‘All night long,’ Freedberg writes,

they looked at the stars, the moon and the planets through the telescope, waiting for the clouds to clear and discussing each new sight with increasing enthusiasm. As day broke, they trained the telescope on the three simple lines of Sixtus V’s inscription above the door of the papal palace . . . way across Rome. They read it clearly as if to verify the perfect efficacy of the instrument . . . But still, as they all well knew, this would not satisfy their many opponents who believed that while it was good for the magnification of things on earth, the telescope was deceptive and distorting when it came to celestial phenomena.

You could look, record and theorise. But you also had to be aware that you were pulling on a string which could unravel the whole picture of the Universe and man’s place in it. A memorable field trip to Mount Gennaro is described both in a letter from Cesi to Galileo and in the animal section of the Tesoro, which was written by Johannes Faber, a German Lincean. This expedition was not very different from one you might find written up in the annual report of a modern natural history society, except that it ended up in a palace not a pub. ‘Fourteen years ago,’ Faber wrote,

after exercising ourselves in the examination and researching of plants for most of the day, we sat down at sunset. Our bones were almost broken from fatigue (though it was not an unpleasant fatigue), and in the company of our Prince, most devoted and expert in botany as in all other sciences, we refreshed ourselves with a snack. Finally, when night came, we repaired to the castle of the Prince . . . and we revived our physical energy at a sumptuous banquet, restoring our minds, too, with sweet nourishment – that is to say with most pleasant conversation and with philosophical problems.

The events may seem familiar. The world they took place in is not. The Linceans were like children who surreptitiously lifted a corner of loose wallpaper and found another, more coherent pattern underneath. The parents ceased to be amused when they saw that they were threatened with wholesale redecoration. So they had to be appeased. Why not combine natural history and flattery? The jubilee year of 1625 was ‘the moment to celebrate the power of the Papacy, the triumph of the Catholic Church over the German heresies, and the glory and prosperity of Rome under the Barberini’. The Linceans contributed three publications on the Barberini emblem, the bee: Melissographia, an engraved broadsheet eulogising both the Barberini Pope and their own keen-eyed work, showing magnified bees (front, back, sideways and dissected head parts, surrounded by bay leaves and the Papal keys and tiara), was the first printed illustration to have been made with the aid of a microscope. Apes Diana was a scholarly investigation of representations of bees on ancient coins. ‘Little,’ Freedberg says, ‘better exemplifies the confluence of classical learning and natural historical exploration than the ways in which the Lincean panegyrics to the chaste morals of the Pope were used to allude to the problem of the reproductive system of bees.’ More astonishing is the Apiarium, a huge broadsheet. Seven columns of text surround a bracketed synopsis, the whole headed as being from one of Cesi’s ‘frontispieces’ to his ‘Theatre of Nature’ – a wildly ambitious project to map all Creation. The 19 botanical synopses were eventually printed in the Mexican volume. Here, as elsewhere, Freedberg’s willingness to come to grips with a mass of print which even contemporaries found too much is extremely impressive. ‘In truth,’ Fabio Colonna wrote, ‘the reading is really difficult and troublesome.’ What he finds among the learned classical citations and modern scientific observations is that the Pope is like the king bee (the biology still needed to be sorted). ‘If you should irritate his sting, flee,’ one caption reads; but elsewhere the Apiarium ‘anxiously proclaimed’ that ‘the benignity of bees heads off both innate and acquired faults.’ The bottom line is Galileo’s need for the Pope’s protection.

Much in The Eye of the Lynx is hard to get your mind around. For one thing the Linceans were so very learned. The Tesoro was, to judge by Freedberg’s description, too compendious to be coherent and its authors too keen to put in even distantly relevant information. At the time it still seemed worth looking for useful connections between ancient texts, theology, philology, metaphysics and natural science. The best we have to offer now is science fiction – admirable in its way, but still only a game. Freedberg’s scholarship is deeply impressive: a passing reference to the elegance of Faber’s Latin style underlines a critical intimacy with the mass of intractable material in which the evidence of the Linceans’ science is embedded. What he has extracted and displayed provides a portrait of a way of thinking that demonstrates the lynx’s wiliness and cunning as well as its sharpness of sight.

‘Natural history’ in Freedberg’s subtitle points to a distinction. Gathering and describing, sustained by curiosity and habits of close observation, formed a large part of the Academy’s undertakings, but science is characterised by risk-taking and hypothesising – and the members of the Academy were wary. Freedberg speculates about suppressed hypotheses – did Cesi really never suspect that his tree fossils had once been real trunks? The fate of Galileo encouraged caution.

But natural history has its own history, too, running alongside the history of science (or rather a little behind it, for it draws on scientific discoveries). It is, at least, a discrete precursor of much biology and even astronomy. Darwin was a natural historian as well as a scientist; medical diagnosis is still very like natural history – a matter of noticing symptoms and making prognoses even when the explanation for what is happening is obscure. Barbara McClintock’s attention to her fields of maize was that of a natural historian; so was Alexander Fleming’s observation of the mould on his Petri dish.

Galileo’s telescope had shown that the heavens were interestingly imperfect. He made drawings which revealed that the Moon had mountains, and he saw Jupiter’s moons. But behind the imperfections his close looking had uncovered, there was a mathematical structure whose operation was simpler and more elegant than that of the creaking spheres of Ptolemaic astronomy. The appetite for close observation was fed by the need to describe and classify specimens coming from the Americas. Telescope and microscope were revealing worlds beyond and within what was familiar. The modes of explanation that were current made little distinction between natural philosophy and theology – Cesi and his colleagues could still hope that classical texts and theology would be relevant to modern observations – but it was also clear that there were things in the natural world which were not to be found in Aristotle, Galen or Discorides. ‘Apart from their strong personal affinity nothing joined Cesi to Galileo as closely as Cesi’s ever more strongly held conviction that Aristotle and the whole Peripatetic school could no longer be relied upon to provide definitive solutions – either to the structure of the heavens or to the contents and order of life on earth.’

In the pre-evolutionary history of botany, a book with illustrations indicates that practical knowledge is on offer. Illustrated herbals gave much space to the medicinal properties of plants. When, in the middle of the 18th century, Linnaeus rationalised the binomial sysyem (already adumbrated by Lincean botany), he was particularly dismissive of pictures. Yet natural historians, particularly amateur ones, need them.

Take the behaviour I saw recently on the lawn outside the Royal Pavilion in Brighton, where a big, fearless gull – one of those which scavenge bin bags as voraciously as cats and foxes in London – was running very fast on the spot. I stood in mizzling rain and watched it. First, it did its stamping dance, then it picked up something to eat, then stamped some more. Was it imitating heavy rain to bring up the worms? A good observer would have stayed longer, but even my passing pleasure in a creature behaving oddly made me a typical, if very amateur, naturalist.

Observation is followed by identification. There should have been no doubt about the name of the bird. I had only to look, remember, flick through the pages of the field guide, find the gull section and identify the one I had seen. The mature Herring Gull was, I thought, like mine – a big, grey-backed bird. But things are not as simple as I supposed. From a taxonomic point of view, the Herring Gull’s status is complicated. In Britain it is a species defined in one way. Carry on round the Northern hemisphere and you find the look of the local specimen changes gradually until, on the far side of the circle, it becomes identical with – merges into – what is, here in Britain, a separate species: the Lesser Black-Backed Gull. Moreover, and more to the point, the Yellow-Legged Gull, which is now regarded as a full species, used to be listed as a subspecies of Herring Gull. Not having checked the colour of its legs, not even having established that it really was too big to be the otherwise similar Common Gull, left me with an observation but no species to tie it to.

So just trying to slot an observation of what seemed novel behaviour into the extended account, which is condensed into succinct entries in the field guide, brought me up against the problem which has dogged taxonomy from the beginning and which stymied Cesi: what traits are significant in making a division between one kind of bird, plant, rock or cloud, and another.

Ordinary language does the job of distinguishing kinds rather well. The common names of British birds refer to so few species that birdwatchers rarely need any others. Herring Gull is easier to remember than Larus argentatus, and equally unambiguous. Problems arise only when you go deeper into the zoology, and ask that names represent relationships more precisely. All species of tit are small birds of similar appearance, but zoologically they are of more than one family. Amateur botanists, on the other hand, need binomials to distinguish the many species in a common genus.

Although the order that the Linnaean system brought to botany was only incidentally based on natural relationships – by concentrating on the sexual parts of plants, the systematist was able to ignore, for purposes of classification, other characteristics – Linnaeus believed there was a logic to the natural world. When evolution became the basis for a new natural ordering, the higher Linnaean classifications came to be understood as labels for branching in the phylogenetic tree. There are those today who argue, not without reason, that the Linnaean system should be replaced by a new classification which follows these evolutionary relationships, determined by genetic affinity and fossil evidence, exactly. The tools of natural history – the field guides and so on – use (and even add to) the science that Cesi lacked to sort out species. They have not killed off the Lincean desire to look with all possible attention. The appetite Freedberg’s book celebrates is still there.