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.

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