Like Leather, like Snakes

Julian Bell

  • Eye of the Beholder: Johannes Vermeer, Antoni van Leeuwenhoek and the Reinvention of Seeing by Laura Snyder
    Head of Zeus, 448 pp, £14.99, December 2016, ISBN 978 1 78497 025 3

Frogs could be heard croaking, one hot spring day in 1688, in a ditch beside a meadow where Antoni van Leeuwenhoek liked, as he put it, to wander ‘for my amusement’. Peering down, he glimpsed spawn clinging to the pondweed. A servant must have been at hand, for Leeuwenhoek wrote: ‘I then had some of this green plant to which these Eggs were attached brought to my house.’ Later, in his study, he closed in with his razors and his microscope – an instrument invented some eighty years before, but which he was now deploying with unprecedented finesse. Having prised the eggs from the surrounding jelly, he noted that their outward covering mostly consisted of ‘small black dots’ – knobbly, ‘like shagreen leather’ – below which there lay ‘watery fluid, and an incredible number of globules, each of which globules again consisted of a large number of smaller globules, each of which had in its centre a larger globule, so that each of the former globules looked, as it were, like an Egg with a very tiny yolk.’

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[*] Routledge, 456 pp., £30, January 2009, 978 0 415 96664 1